In rustic Door County, classical music provides its own allure

FISH CREEK, Wisc. – Chicago visitors planning a summer getaway to Door County – the scenic sliver of land separating the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan – have more to indulge their cravings than taking in the galleries and shops, cycling the backroads, kayaking the lakes, hiking the trails and sampling the fish boils.

Every August, musicians from some of the country's major orchestras gather here to perform three weeks of symphonic concerts – nine concerts in all, most of them led by Victor Yampolsky, the Peninsula Music Festival's music director and conductor. The festival, which concluded its 61st season on Saturday, is fast becoming as beloved a tradition in Wisconsin's northeast corner as homemade cherry preserves.

OK, that's an exaggeration. But not by much.

Close to 50 percent of the festival audience is made up of classical music buffs from the Chicago area, according to the Russian-born, Russian-trained Yampolsky, who has served as its artistic chief since 1985.

A former pupil of the great violinist David Oistrakh, he played violin in and conducted the Moscow Philharmonic before immigrating to the U.S. on a violin scholarship to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Music Festival. He served in both fulltime and part-time capacities at the BSO before taking on conducting and teaching positions with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and at the Boston University School of Music. In 1984, he was named director of orchestras at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music, an affiliation he continues to hold.

"You see an equal number of Illinois and Wisconsin license plates up here," Yampolsky proudly told me over lunch here last week.

Indeed, with attendance averaging 87 percent this season for concerts in the 750-seat Door Community Auditorium, the festival draws on "a very high level of cultural sophistication," he said. That owes partly to the fact that Door County in high season attracts a steady stream of arts and crafts tourists, apart from the usual horde of outdoor recreation-seekers.

More than half of the 64 core orchestra members have been participating in the festival for 25 years or more, festival executive director Sharon Grutzmacher reports.

It's not only the peninsula's natural beauty that keeps symphony players coming back year after year, although that's certainly a big perk. What really attracts them is the prospect of performing venturesome programs at a high artistic level during a period when they would ordinarily be resting up between symphony seasons back home.

The player roster for the two concerts I caught here last week included 15 instrumentalists who perform professionally in the greater Chicago area, along with players from Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and cities as far afield as Boston, Nashville and Miami Beach. Some of these musicians return here every winter as well, to present a series of chamber music concerts called February Fest.

Because Door County has no corporate base, the festival derives its nearly $800,000 operating budget almost entirely from private support and ticket revenue, according to Grutzmacher.

"Most of our patrons donate most heavily to arts organizations back home, but since this is their summer home, they give us a little bit," she says. "The growth of the arts in Door County has brought more and more competition. Our biggest competition, besides general tourism, is the preseason games of the Green Bay Packers – it's the green-and-gold thing.

"What has saved us is our $4 million endowment," she continues. "And the mom-and-pop businesses here put ads in our program book and donate housing for the artists. That makes a huge difference. Part of the reason we've done very well is that when the economy imploded and orchestras struggled to replace (the missing) corporate funding with individual funding, we didn't lose anything, because we've always relied on individual funding."

What Yampolsky calls his "dream come true" began as a vision of the festival's founder, American conductor Thor Johnson, who coincidentally preceded him as director of orchestral activities at Northwestern, from 1958 to 1964. Johnson launched the first Peninsula Music Festival in 1953 with eight chamber orchestra concerts given in a high school gymnasium. He led the festival for 22 summers until his death in 1975.

The chamber orchestra soldiered on under a couple of successors until Yampolsky's arrival in 1985. His appointment marked the festival's entry into a new era of development.

The turning point was the opening in 1991 of a new home, Door Community Auditorium. The spartan if comfortable theater, with its bright, clear acoustics, enabled the orchestra not only to attract larger audiences but also to expand its roster to a size that could accommodate the full symphonic repertory Yampolsky wanted to perform.

A supportive board of directors gave him the go-ahead to hire more string players to better balance the winds, brass and percussion. Voila! The Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra was born.

Yampolsky devoted the season's final concerts to works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Gustav Mahler, an apt pairing given Mahler's conception of the symphony as a deeply personal kind of psychological theater. That conception informs both Shostakovich's valedictory symphony, No. 15, and Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

And with his no-nonsense podium manner the conductor brought out the Mahlerian undercurrents in Shostakovich's music, just as he made a direct connection between the mingled jollity and grimness of Mahler, and Shostakovich's sublimation of those qualities amid the enigmatic quotations of himself and other composers that pepper his 15th Symphony.

The orchestra members threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Shostakovich and the composer's two piano concertos that occupied the same program – brilliantly played by the dynamic Canadian piano dervish Stewart Goodyear. Their less tidy though impressive Mahler Five was made all the more remarkable by the fact that they had never before performed this demanding work as a group. And the solo playing spoke well for the talent occupying the orchestra's first chairs: Principal trumpet Terry Everson nailed his contributions to both the Mahler symphony and Shostakovich's cheeky Piano Concerto No. 1.

Yampolsky told me he's planning several "mini-fests" for next year, including all three Rachmaninov symphonies and the composer's Symphonic Dances, along with concertos by Prokofiev, Nielsen, Elgar, Walton and a great deal more.

I, for one, can't wait to return to bucolic Door County and stay for the music. Enticing as are the blazing sunsets over the waters of Green Bay, the sounds of the Peninsula Music Festival make a potent siren call all by themselves.

Muti's Verdi blitz in Salzburg

Riccardo Muti is favoring this summer's Salzburg Festival with a double dose of music by his beloved Giuseppe Verdi, before devoting most of his fall Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs to – you guessed it – more Verdi.

Thursday night he will lead his Rome Opera forces in the first of three concert performances of Verdi's "Nabucco" at the prestigious Austrian festival, through Sunday. Several of his singers – including soprano Tatiana Serjan, tenor Francesco Meli and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy – also will take part in the maestro's CSO concert version of Verdi's "Macbeth," which will have four performances at Orchestra Hall, beginning Sept. 28.

Muti led the Vienna Philharmonic, its chorus and soloists in a performance of Verdi's Requiem in Salzburg on Aug. 18, roughly seven weeks before he is scheduled to conduct the same work with the CSO and Chicago Symphony Chorus at Orchestra Hall, a performance to be broadcast live to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and streamed to millions worldwide via the Internet, at no charge. The performance is Oct. 10, the exact date of Verdi's 200th birthday.

It's enough to turn Richard Wagner, the year's other great bicentenarian composer, green with envy.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

CHICAGO

More