Composing a community 

click to enlarge The view of Skaneateles Festival from above at Anyela's Vineyards. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The view of Skaneateles Festival from above at Anyela's Vineyards.
Fewer than 90 minutes down the road from Rochester is Skaneateles, with its quaint village-meets-posh lakeside vibes — an idyllic location for outdoor summer concerts. Perhaps that was part of the calculus for residents David and Louise Robinson, whose dedication to music and community inspired them to make their home the early epicenter for a new festival in 1980.

Fast-forward to 2024, the 45th anniversary season of Skaneateles Festival, which runs July 31 through August 24. The Robinson Pavilion at Anyela’s Vineyards will host classically trained Grammy Award-winners Wynton Marsalis, Rhiannon Giddens and Chris Thile, whose musical careers also encompass blues, folk, jazz and bluegrass.

And though the festival’s roots were firmly planted in classical chamber music, its reputation for making additional stylistic connections is not new.

“Some of the fun of programming during our years was seeing how that trunk of the tree could reach out the branches into other areas of music,” said cellist David Ying, an Eastman School of Music professor and former co-artistic director of Skaneateles Festival.

In 2005, Ying and his wife, pianist Elinor Freer — who spent their honeymoon in Skaneateles before becoming familiar with its music scene — took the helm of the festival. They were tasked by the festival’s board with building on the existing audience at Skaneateles by broadening the scope of its programming. The result was concerts by such artists as the genre-busting string trio Time for Three, jazz pianist Marcus Roberts and the late folk musician Mike Seeger.

“We didn't want to alienate the audience that was already there,” Freer said. “We had to walk sort of a tightrope — keep a lot of the tradition alive, but at the same time bring in little pieces here and there of something fresh.”

Ying and Freer went on to lead the festival for a decade. “Those 10 years were some of the happiest musical memories of my life so far; just the connections we made with the community and the people there,” Freer said.
click to enlarge Skaneateles Festival concertgoers take in a performance at Robinson Pavilion at Anyela's Vineyards. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Skaneateles Festival concertgoers take in a performance at Robinson Pavilion at Anyela's Vineyards.
That spirit of togetherness came through during a 2006 concert for which several community members had composed music using Hyperscore, a computer software program that uses algorithms to build musical elements like harmonization. The newly minted amateur composers wrote two-minute works that were played alongside traditional string quartet repertoire.

“People were listening to Beethoven, (but) in the next breath they were listening to their neighbor’s piece,” Ying said, “and cheering for a 12-year-old’s piece like they were Josh Allen of the Bills and they just made a great play.”

Embedded in the classical music-making tradition if only for an evening, the community members could see the connection between what they had written and what the canonic composers wrote.

“The music becomes elevated that much more when it takes on this personal and connective quality,” Ying explained. “It’s a very, very special place to have a music festival.”
click to enlarge Skaneateles Festival Co-artistic Directors Aaron Wunsch and Julia Bruskin. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Skaneateles Festival Co-artistic Directors Aaron Wunsch and Julia Bruskin.
In 2015, Ying and Freer passed the baton to another cellist-and-pianist couple, New York City-based Julia Bruskin and Aaron Wunsch. That first year as co-artistic directors, the pair performed Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata, which Wunsch said set the tone for their time at the festival.

“I wasn't quite sure how the audience would respond, and I just remember they were up on their feet right away,” he said. “That spirit of embracing the performers and the eagerness that you feel from the audiences in Skaneateles is somewhat unique. We don't always get that here in New York City.”

While Bruskin knew she would enjoy the music-making at Skaneateles, the building of friendships has also been particularly worthwhile. “Those relationships over 10 years have grown and been a community that we really value as part of our musical life,” she said.

Bruskin and Wunsch’s approach to programming was apparent from the outset, with exciting collaborations such as those between jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman and string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Wunsch said that he and Bruskin have found Skaneateles audiences to be open to a wide variety of musical styles.
click to enlarge Saxophonist Joshua Redman is among the elite jazz musicians to have played at the festival. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Saxophonist Joshua Redman is among the elite jazz musicians to have played at the festival.
“We do enjoy dreaming up the programs, and then seeing those come alive,” Wunsch said. “The thing we didn't know when we started was ‘Who is this community of people?’ and ‘What are their likes and dislikes and curiosities?’ And that took a while for us to meet the people and realize who this music is really for.”

The current artistic directors also have a mind for community. Bruskin and Wunsch hope to shine a light on Central New York’s refugee communities in tandem with the world premiere of a work by Afghan composer and refugee Arson Fahim, as well as two performances by Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh.

The Skaneateles Festival is about more than just classical music, but it’s also not just about stretching the boundaries of genre. skanfest.org

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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