40 years of music and education

Displaying a piece of promotional artwork made by the late Lester Schwartz are, from left, Green Lake Festival of Music Executive Director Laura Deming, historian Sylvia Richards and board member John Roesch. submitted photo

by Joe Schulz

For the past 40 years, the Green Lake Festival of Music has been building friendships and enriching lives through the power of music.

Since 1979, the festival has evolved into a comprehensive program offering free concerts and workshops for developing artists.

To celebrate 40 years, the festival began hosting free concerts in June before wrapping up its concert season Tuesday, Aug. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Thrasher Opera House.

Festival director and cellist Laura Deming will cap the celebratory season, alongside harpist Virginia Rogers Pollock, in a concert sponsored by Green Lake resident Thomas E. Caestecker.

The season honored the festival’s rich history of bringing top-notch musicians to Wisconsin.

The festival was founded in 1979 by a group of community leaders, under the leadership of Ripon College Choral Conductor Douglas Morris.

“They felt there was a vacuum in this area for chamber music,” festival historian Sylvia Richards said.

While Morris served as the first festival director, board member Gerald Grout was the one who had the initial idea of a summer concert series, which would bring chamber music to small communities in southeastern Wisconsin.

“There was always discussion about the name of the festival because we did cover many areas, not just Green Lake,” Richards said. “In the early years, we didn’t have a home as such in Green Lake to have our concerts, but they used that name because it indicated summer.”

She noted early on it wasn’t uncommon for the festival to host 18 concerts a summer.

“They would give a concert in Green Lake; that same program might be performed in Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and another location,” Richards said. “So it wasn’t like all 18 concerts were totally different.”

The first musicians to perform as part of the festival was the Mirecourt Trio, which consisted of a cello, piano and violin.

“In 1982 things really took off when Doug Morris invited Sir David Willcocks; he was a famous choral conductor from England,” Deming said.

According to Richards, Morris met the conductor on a sabbatical to Britain. Willcocks established the festival’s first choral workshop in 1982.

“The one great thing about David was he was joyous about the amateur musician,” Richards said. “Some conductors think, ‘Well the amateur, I don’t want to bother too much with them.’ Even at his level David found joy in working with us and we found joy in working with him.”

Willcocks conducted the workshop from 1982 to 2004; from 1999 to 2004 he co-conducted the workshop alongside his son, Jonathan Willcocks.

“We had father-and-son concerts; they worked together and it was a great pleasure for them,” Richards said.

Deming noted Willcocks helped the festival gain international attention.

“They used to have concerts up at Lawrence University and they would fill Lawrence Memorial Chapel,” Deming said.

From the beginning, there was always a social element to the festival.

Richards recalled in the early days, Chicago physician and former board member Dr. Burton Kilbourn had a summer home in Green Lake, which is where he and wife Bunny would host gatherings for folks involved in the festival, as well as visiting artists.

At the summer parties, Kilbourn often would be seen playing the piano.

“He was not a pianist that we used for concerts, but he loved to play piano,” Richards said. “His wife also played, so they had these two grand pianos.”

Richards noted the renovation of the Thrasher Opera House in 1997 provided the festival with the ideal venue, right in the heart of downtown Green Lake.

In 1999, then festival director Jeannette Kreston’s daughter Anthea Kreston started the festival’s chamber music camp, which serves as a workshop for pre-college and college-aged students of violin, viola, cello and piano.

Conductor Stephen Alltop revived Willcocks’ choral workshop in 2004, establishing a choral institute that helps train 20 to 25 young artists for two weeks each summer.

“They play two concerts of their own and then there are two faculty concerts as well,” Deming said. “Every day there’s intensive rehearsals, and it’s kind of a hybrid of professional and student. It’s a fantastic learning experience.”

That same year, the festival was given the Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts for its quality programing and promotion of the arts.

Jeannette formed a partnership with Caestecker, starting the Caestecker Free Family and Community Concerts.

“[Caestecker] wanted young, new audiences to experience these high-level concerts without having to pay for them,” Deming said. “He gave enough money every year to have two or three performances that were free for families and children.”

Chinese Musician Yang Wei demonstrates the Chinese Instrument pipa to children at Ripon College in the Festival’s Thomas E. Caestecker Free Family Concert Series. submitted photo

In 2017, the festival’s board of directors made the decision to make all of its concerts free of charge.

“The initial reaction was, ‘How can we possibly do that?’” Deming said. “But it’s been interesting because we immediately had more people attend.”

Since making the concerts free, the festival also has gained donors.

“At every concert we ask people to donate sort of like they do on public radio or public television,” Deming said.

While the festival has a history of providing musical mastery, its future will see some major changes.

On Oct. 1, Ripon College Music department chair John Hughes will become the new festival director.

“I’m passing the baton to him; he’s a rising star in his own right,” Deming said.

Deming believes having the festival director at Ripon College, where the festival hosts all of its workshops, will make the festival more efficient.

“I’ve been in Chicago the whole time I’ve been doing this,” she said. “It’s been hard to do things long distance.”

The festival also will see structural changes as it will have a new board president.

In addition, it will implement a new administrative position, which will split time between the festival and teaching piano at Ripon College.

“This person has already been hired,” Deming said, noting its Deb Mackenzie.

Although the festival will change in the coming years, Richards hopes it will continue to enrich lives through music for at least 40 more years.

Board member John Roesch noted the festival has helped mold his life. “I’ve always had a deep love of the arts and [the festival] has allowed that to blossom within me,” Roesch said. “It’s opened me up to a whole world of unbelievably high-quality music.”

Deming recalled one of the first times she was moved by music. She was in grade school and her parents took her to watch singer Marian Anderson perform.

“I remember the reverence in a room,” Deming said. “Even as a little kid it was so powerful.”

Anderson’s performance sticks with Deming to this day, serving as a reminder to just how transformative music can be.