New chamber music festival debuts


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His British accent flowed off the stage with words that opened the minds of audience members who came prepared to be inspired. The speaker, a poet, librettist, and lyricist, stood before a crowd of roughly 30 people.

“This is not a stodgy event,” Michael Dennis Browne said as he introduced the “The Language of Music, the Music of Writing” at the Tuesday night performance.

Mostly members of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, gathered at the University Capitol Centre Recital Hall to hear the début performance of a new gathering — “Music IC: Where Literature and Music Meet.” The event kicked off the program, a series of performances inviting people to experience the collaborative world between literature and music.

Judy Hurtig, a festival co-creator and the retired Hancher artistic director, said organizers wanted the audience to find cross-genre connections.

“Literature is about words, which is very concrete; music is very abstract,” Hurtig said. “We want people to ask the question, ‘What is the relationship?’ ”

The festival’s main attraction is a three-day production promising new experiences every night.
The concerts will take place Friday through June 26 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 320 E. College St.

Hurtig said organizers use the church as their concert hall because they “wanted the festival to take place right at the heart of the literary walk of Iowa Avenue.”

“The concerts are high impact and intense with no intermission,” she said. “They’re not really long — just about 75 minutes — and each concert has a major work anchoring it.”

The first year, the organizers wanted to use masterpieces.

“They have everything from the Bible to the *Windup Bird Chronicle*,” said local actor Martin Andrews. “I think I connect with the little piece at the beginning [‘Wind-Up Bird Preludes’] because it’s short, playful, and childlike.”

In addition to the concert series, the festival participants will play “A Very Open Rehearsal” at 10 a.m. Saturday. Hurtig said the event provides an interactive opportunity to ask questions about why the musicians performed the piece a certain way.

“Whenever you have numerous musicians together, there are going to be conflicts on how it’s interpreted,” she said. “It’s designed to break open the rehearsal process for people.”

Those who listen to even a little bit of classical music will have the opportunity to hear the music in new ways, she said, and people with a literary background will be intrigued by the literary sources.

For the past year, violinist Tricia Park of the Maia Quartet, and Hurtig have been recruiting talented entertainers for the festival. Over many nights and glasses of wine, the pair planned.

“We wanted it to be distinguishable from other music festivals, especially in the summer,” Park said.

The classical performers taking part in the chamber music festival are a combination of artists from across the country. The first group to be onboard was the Maia Quartet, the nationally recognized quartet-in-residence at the University of Iowa. In addition to Park, the other string performers are violinist Elizabeth Oakes and cellist Hannah Holman.

Violinist Katie Wolfe will join the ensemble as a guest performer. Wolfe, a University of Iowa associate professor of music who has played with the quartet previously, said there is “nothing better” than playing music with good company.

“The programming [for ‘Music IC’] is wonderful, and the selections that we’re playing are very powerful,” Wolfe said. “You could listen to the pieces without knowing anything about the literary connections and still enjoy it. But if you know it, it’s like knowing an actor’s subtext.”

One mission of the festival is to recognize performers who played their first scale here and have since significantly excelled in their music careers. At this year’s festival, Iowa City natives Nathalie Cruden, violist, and Conor Hanick, pianist, will be featured. 

“[Hanick] is regularly reviewed in the *New York Times* and is clearly on his way,” Hurtig said. “We are bringing him back to Iowa City so people here can hear him.”

Hanick will make the trip from New York back to his hometown. He attended Northwestern and plans on finishing his doctorate in two years at Julliard. He said that both music and literature are a rich part of Iowa City.

“My parents still live [here],” he said. “It’s such a warm and arts-loving community.”

With him, Hanick is bringing two friends and musicians from Julliard, cellist Jay Campbell and clarinetist Sean Rice — both will also perform.

But before the strings sing and the black and whites sound, members of the audience will get a hint at what music meant to the composer and how it resonates with the audience.

Andrews is scheduled to first narrate the prose or poetry, then the musicians will perform the related piece.

Andrews and Park worked together while he attended the UI, studying for an M.F.A.

“I got the call, and it sounded like a really interesting idea,” he said. “I wanted to be part of it. It’s a really exciting cross-disciplinary experience.”

Staying faithful to the people of Iowa City, choosing Andrews was no coincidence. He is involved in a nonprofit theater company in Iowa City that performs its own material.

“I think it will be very satisfying to hear the words and then hear the response,” he said. “I feel like the minute someone speaks words, you automatically engage on an intellectual level. The vibrations of the music around you are different — I’m not trying to comprehend it.”

And Tuesday night, a response was heard.

As the cello slowed and the piano faded, an exhale from the audience filled the silence. Then, the breathtaking combination of emotion and talent was concluded with the first round of applause of the festival’s first successful night.

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