After two years out of the spotlight, the Bowdoin International Music Festival will cap its successful summer Friday evening with a final concert that will bring some of the finest classical musicians in the world to a Brunswick audience.
“Last summer, I would say the word was gratitude,” said David Ying, who serves as the festival’s artistic director along with his brother Phillip. “We were just happy to be able to make some music together. But this year, I think the overwhelming feeling for me is the sense of community that we have once again, and that includes not just making music but sitting in a room and listening to music with other people.”
Founded in 1964, the six-week festival brings about 250 elite music students from around the world to Brunswick to study under some of the nation’s top teachers, according to Director of Development Emily Manzo. The program, now independent from Bowdoin College, promises aspiring professional musicians plenty of opportunities to hone their skills in the practice room and on the stage.
“These are students who have been training their whole lives,” said Manzo, who estimated that most attendees practice their instruments an average of four to six hours each day. “The level of playing is really high and the focus is really high.”
While most other elite classical music festivals emphasize orchestral music, the Bowdoin International Music Festival mostly specializes in chamber music, Manzo said. The format’s smaller groups play without a conductor, which requires performers to work closely in sync with one another.
“It’s about reading body language. It’s about breathing together. It’s about finding a collaborative output,” said Luke Rinderknecht, a longtime member of the festival’s percussion faculty. “Everyone is here, students included, to sit in a room with other musicians and work together. The whole attraction is to come and collaborate.”
The result an open and supportive atmosphere, even as challenges like “Guinea Pigs in Bowties” push students to their artistic limits,” said composition faculty member Derek Bermel. The concert, named after a meme, randomly pairs composition students with instrumentalists and gives them a daunting task: write, learn and perform an original piece of music in just 48 hours.
“That pushes a lot of interesting buttons,” said Bermel, who spent a summer at Bowdoin as a student before joining the faculty nearly 10 years ago. “It starts to activate a lot of neural pathways that you might need in various situations writing music. “I feel that it’s very empowering for both the composers and the performers because it allows them to, to recognize that they can do anything.”
“Guinea Pigs in Bowties” is just one of dozens of concerts throughout the summer available to festival attendees. The program’s Subscription Series brings faculty and world-renowned guest performers to Bowdoin’s College’s Studzinski Recital Hall and Brunswick High School’s Crooker Theater, while the free Young Artist and Community Concerts series give students an opportunity to practice performing in a low-stakes environment.
After the festival was forced behind closed doors in 2021, audiences and musicians alike have enjoyed the return of live performances around the Midcoast this summer, according to Community Concert Coordinator Jenna Montes.
“The venues have been really, really excited,” she said. “I think they’ve been extra grateful and just in awe of the performances because they’ve missed it so much.”
Ticket sales for paid concerts remain below pre-pandemic levels, Manzo said.
Yet according to violinist Russell Iceberg, one of two dozen festival fellows early in their professional careers, the return of crowds has helped bring a signature energy back to Bowdoin.
“Being able to play with people and feel that what we’re doing is actually giving people joy, that people are experiencing the music with us – that’s the most important element of being a performing musician,” Iceberg said. “That’s what I’m always chasing after. It happens here, and I think that’s really special.”
Classical music fans can celebrate the season’s close by attending free student concerts at Studzinski Recital Hall Thursday at 3 pm and Friday at 1 pm The program’s final concert Friday evening at 7:30 at Crooker Theater will pair the festival orchestra with guest artist Zlatomir Fung, a 22-year-old cello prodigy who in 2019 became the youngest ever winner of the Tchaikovsky International Cello Competition.
Tickets for the event will cost $45 and are available on the festival’s website.
While the music will stop for a time following Friday’s show, Ying said he’s optimistic for the future of the program.
“The kids are playing with even more passion, and obviously the skill level is unbelievably high,” Ying said. “It makes me so excited to wake up the next day and hear what the kids are going to do.”
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