BY KYLE MACMILLAN
For the Sun-Times
Chicago Symphony violinist Blair Milton wanted to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Johannes Brahms in a special way, so he organized a group of concerts in January 1997 showcasing the composer’s beloved chamber music.
The event at Northwestern University in Evanston, where Milton serves as an adjunct associate professor of violin, was so successful that it has become an annual presentation known as the Winter Chamber Music Festival.
This year’s six-concert edition will run Jan. 9-25 and feature such groups as the German-based Dogma Chamber Orchestra and Lincoln String Quartet with Winson Choi, head of the piano program at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.
WINTER CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 9: New Orford String Quartet Jan. 11: Dogma Chamber Orchestra Jan. 16: Lincoln String Quartet and pianist Winston Choi Jan. 18: Violinist Simone Lamsma and CSO musicians Jan. 23: Northwestern University faculty and guests Jan. 25: Dover Quartet Where: Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston Tickets: $22-$26; festival subscription, $125 Info: (847) 467-4000; pickstaiger.org
It will highlight the music of Ludwig van Beethoven — the first time one composer has been the festival’s focus since its debut. Eight of his chamber works are spread across the three weekend programs, ranging from his first published piano trio — Op. 1, No. 1 — to one of his last string quartets, Op. 132.
The festival’s original timing was simple: January was the month that Milton was able to find open dates on the busy concert calendar of Northwestern’s 989-seat Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The event has remained in that slot since.
For that first year, Milton gathered Chicago Symphony players and soloists, Northwestern music faculty and other Chicago-area musicians. “My original hope,” Milton said, “was to get everyone to collaborate on concerts in ways that they don’t generally get to do. We all get locked into our own routines. This would be a way of mixing things together in really great ways and celebrating Brahms at the same time.”
The violinist has continued to mainly rely on that combination of musicians, adding an emphasis on emerging ensembles, such as the Dover Quartet, winner of the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition. It will be back this year for its second appearance at the festival.
Milton managed to convince Daniel Barenboim, then music director of the Chicago Symphony, to serve as the keyboardist for the Piano Quintet No. 1 during the 1997 Brahms concerts. And he has sprinkled in other luminaries since, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Pinchas Zukerman.
Among the biggest names on this year’s lineup is 29-year-old Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, who debuted June 5-8 with the Chicago Symphony. Milton was so impressed with her playing that he immediately invited her to take part in the winter festival. Even though major soloists are typically booked a year or two in advance, she agreed to make a trip back to the United States just for this concert.
Lamsma will join five members of the Chicago Symphony for a program that includes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G major. “The Brahms Sextet,” she said, “has actually been on my wish list to play for a long time. It was a work I listened to a lot when I was living in London during my studies. I fell in love with the beauty, the subtleties and the charm of this work.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.