If you were to poke your head into a couple of practice studios in Ravinia's John D. Harza Building on a recent July morning, you would have witnessed a veritable United Nations of young musicians, all of them hard at work.
In one of the second-floor studios of Ravinia's Steans Music Institute, Austrian violist Thomas Riebl was coaching two American violinists, a Chinese violist, an American pianist and a cellist from Belarus on the Brahms Piano Quintet.
Next door, American violinist Pamela Frank was rehearsing Leos Janacek's Violin Sonata with a South Korean violinist.
Down the hall, Miriam Fried, the Romanian-born Israeli-American violinist who has led the Steans' piano and strings program for the last 20 years, was going through the slow movement of the Schubert E flat Piano Trio with institute fellows from Spain, Brazil and the U.S.
This is what the institute is all about: Making, talking and thinking music with dedicated peers, guided by a committed team of artist-faculty. And, in so doing, acquiring insights to last a lifetime.
In this oak-shaded corner of the Ravinia grounds in Highland Park, the Steans institute is celebrating its 25th anniversary as one of the most unique professional music conservatories in the nation.
Select groups of young musicians from around the world, typically 17 to 30 in age, converge during the festival season to hone and refine their performance skills. It's what sets the Steans institute apart from bigger, training-oriented summer music schools like Tanglewood and Aspen.
Ravinia's conservatory is actually three applied music courses running back to back – a five-week program for strings and piano directed by Fried; a three-week program for singers directed by pianist-conductor Kevin Murphy; and a 10-day jazz program directed by composer-pedagogue David Baker. Participating musicians are chosen by taped audition and are fully funded by Ravinia patrons.
What began as a dream of Edward Gordon, Ravinia's late former executive director, to fill in the chinks in the artistic armor of young, career-bound performers has grown from being the festival's best-kept secret to a nationally and internationally respected institution, one that each year attracts some of the world's finest young classical instrumentalists, singers and jazz performers.
Fried sifts through anywhere from 250 to 300 applications each year, sometimes reviewing a submitted audio tape five or six times before making her determination whom she admits into the piano and strings program, originally the institute's sole component. Steans added a vocal program in 1992, jazz in 2000.
"There are so many good applicants that it's really painful to narrow them down to 30," the violinist explains, adding that half of this year's violinists, violists, cellists and pianists were returning for their second summer in the program. "The returnees help out the newcomers," she says.
Enrollment is purposely kept small, of necessity by limited physical space but also so each fellow gets maximum attention and performance time. "We want the place to have a definite atmosphere," says Fried. "We look for musicians who exude passion and dedication when they perform. People come here to work seriously and know they can have fun doing it."
The performance level has consistently risen during her watch and has never been higher, she reports. The nearest comparison, in terms of the caliber of the participating musicians, would, she says, be the Marlboro Music Festival, the famed summer chamber music mecca in Vermont.
Every spring, select institute alums form chamber ensembles that carry the Ravinia Steans Music Institute banner to venues across the country: Thus an artistic entity doubles as a PR and marketing tool.
Since the institute's inception in 1988 (it is named after longtime Ravinia benefactors Lois and Harrison Steans), the directors and faculty have imparted musical wisdom to nearly 1,200 musicians from 65 different countries, many of whom have gone on to prominent careers as soloists, orchestral or chamber music players, or teachers.
Alumni include Chicago Symphony Orchestra members Cornelius Chiu, Qing Hou, Lei Hou and Kenneth Olsen, pianists Alon Goldstein and Jeremy Denk, violinist Joseph Lin (first violin of the Juilliard Quartet), and singers Michelle DeYoung and Joseph Kaiser. Both Goldstein and Denk returned to Steans for the silver anniversary season, this time as artist-faculty.
Welz Kauffman, Ravinia's executive director and CEO, points out that no other summer vocal program in the nation is devoted entirely to art song, just as no other summer music conservatory includes jazz studies.
When asked why woodwinds and brass remain absent from the institute's curriculum, he says the problem relates to limitations of festival scheduling and studio space in the Harza Building. "Having winds and brass as part of the mix would make a lot of sense," he concedes.
Kauffman also says he's "constantly looking for a way to involve Chicago Symphony musicians" in the institute – something that has never been the case at Steans. "I haven't given up on that, either."
It's no exaggeration to say that the experiences participants take away from their time at the Steans institute can be life-changing.