s Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra concluded its 40th anniversary season last June, the organization faced significant challenges. In addition to seeking a new music director, the CCO confronted losses in attendance, funding and visibility.
What a difference a year makes. That, and bold, creative leadership put into action. Kelly Kuo was appointed interim music director in November 2014, and by March, he and CCO administration and musicians created Summermusik, a festival the company hopes will successfully rebrand its image.
Eleven events, from intimate “Chamber Crawls” to full-scale concerts, are scheduled over 20 days, starting in August and featuring outstanding performers and intriguing programs. Vindication for the new format came within weeks of the announcement, when all the Chamber Crawls sold out and more were added.
It’s also a validation for Kuo, who had a month to put the season together, and for the CCO musicians who worked with him.
“I’m very proud of the collaboration factor,” Kuo says. “The repertoire choices may not have been mine but they were certainly shaped by everyone.”
The large concert series kicks off Aug. 15 with The Food of Love, a gala dinner at Music Hall, followed by a concert at the School For Creative and Performing Arts’ Corbett Theater. Shakespeare is the inspiration for the program that includes the CCO premiere of Stephen Storace’s overture to Gli equivoci (based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors), Shostakovich’s “Hamlet: Suite from the Theatre, Op. 32a” and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Eric Lu, 2015 winner of the National Chopin Piano Competition. Members of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will take the stage during the Shostakovich suite.
Luminous soprano Sarah Coburn returns the following Saturday evening to headline From Russia With Love. It’s an almost all-Russian program, with music by Stravinsky,
, Tchaikovsky and Glière. And lest you think the title is a throwaway, there’s a medley from the James Bond classic film arranged by Scott Woolley.
The Aug. 29 concert features two exciting debuts: Cincinnati’s own gypsy Jazz band, the Faux Frenchmen, and conductor Karina Canellakis. The Frenchmen perform four world premieres, including violinist Paul Patterson’s “Chromatic Drag.”
Canellakis is the Dallas Symphony’s assistant conductor and a rising star in the conducting world. “She is very interested in working with a chamber-size orchestra, and we’re lucky she had an opening in her schedule,” Kuo says. She conducts Mozart’s “Symphony No. 38” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1.”
The festival concludes on Sept. 3 with Storm of Strings, a concert notable for the soloists, the program and the occasion.
Violinist Cho-Liang Lin performs Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 4” and bassist DaXun Zhang joins him for the CCO premiere of Giovanni Bottesini’s “Gran Duo Concertante.”
Kuo and Zhang are colleagues at the University of Texas’s School of Music. “I heard him at a faculty concert and my jaw dropped,” Kuo says. “He played with musicality one wouldn’t expect from a double bass.”
Kuo has performed the Bottesini concerto with both artists in Portland, Ore. “When the opportunity presented itself here, I jumped at it,” he says. “The piece is a tour de force, and they bring down the house. To hear it performed by these two brilliant musicians will be a real treat.”
The occasion is no small matter, either. It’s Kuo’s audition concert for the permanent position of CCO’s music director. Kuo is one of five candidates; the remaining four will be announced in early August.
If smaller is better, “A Little Afternoon Music” offers Chamber music in more intimate settings, beginning with Lu performing an all-Chopin program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music’s Werner Recital Hall on Aug. 16. The Mercantile Library hosts Coburn, Kuo serving as pianist and a string quartet for a program of Russian music.
The Chamber Crawls are virtually sold out, but limited space isn’t the only reason. Venues include York Street Café, Downtown Listening Room, Unwind Wine Bar and Scene Ultra Lounge. Then there are the programs themselves, all but one created by CCO members.
Trumpeter Wes Woolard came up with MicroBrass, where music teams up with beer tasting that goes beyond oom-pah music. Brews from Belgium, the Czech Republic, England and the U.S. will be sampled along with works by Classical and contemporary composers, all performed by a brass quintet plus percussion.
“It’s great that we’ll be reaching a new audience, especially those for whom the CCO is not their entertainment of choice,” says Woolard, who says he’s played in plenty of bars, but not this kind of music.
He’s pleasantly surprised by the response. “We musicians have a huge degree of ownership in this, and it’s a good sign that our instincts are on target.”
CCO’s acting general manager LeAnne Anklan says the musicians’ support has been critical throughout the move to a summer festival, which included scheduling. “When we surveyed our musicians last year [about timing], the overwhelming response was a commitment to the August dates, and the orchestra has continued to be supportive throughout this process,” she says.
The prospects are encouraging, but keeping the CCO on the local radar between seasons remains a challenge. Communications Manager Ann Stewart says that a winter concert series is being scheduled. “Beginning this November,” she says, “we’ll alternate a holiday concert this year with Amahl the following year.”
And a lot comes down to who is chosen as music director. Kuo has his audition this season; next season, four finalists will program their concerts plus a smaller event.
“We’re constantly looking at new ways to bridge the gap between the audience and the stage,” says incoming board chair Wes Needham, who chairs the search committee. “We want our audiences to know our musicians, and we’re looking for someone who’s going to continue to innovate with us.”
“It takes a special person,” says Woolard, who also serves on the search committee. “We want the best musician possible, and someone comfortable making the elevator pitch for the orchestra to a room full of strangers.”
“We’re all holding our breath,” he adds. “But we look at how Summermusik is going, and it’s like that old 8-ball toy: All signs point to yes.”
SUMMERMUSIK officially kicks off Saturday, Aug. 15. More info: ccocincinnati.org.