Celebrating Schubert's birthday

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

You could hop a plane and make your way to Hohenems or Schwarzenberg, Austria, to take in world-class performances of music by a 19th-century master of lieder (song) and chamber music at the Schubertiade. Or you could treat yourself to the same right in Oak Park at a national Historic Landmark.

Shubert Festival Oak Park, at Unity Temple on Jan. 27, brings together vocal artists and instrumentalists from top Chicago venues, such as Chicago Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

Among those are Lyric Opera Orchestra clarinetist Susan Warner and CSO French horn player David Griffin, both of whom live in Oak Park. In fact, they live together. They will perform Franz Schubert's Octet in F Major, something they haven't done in more than 20 years, when they were first married and living in Montreal.

Warner is thrilled to be playing this again and Griffin is reflecting on it from a personal historical perspective.

"The Schubert Octet doesn't come up often due to its (60 minute) length and the number of people in it," Griffin said. "When we all come together, it is like an 8-person dinner party, where ideas are put forth. We honor Schubert's intention, then bring our own ideas to the interpretation."

To create the Octet, Griffin recruited some fellow CSO musicians, including bassoonist Dennis Michel, also of Oak Park, and string musicians.

Schubert, a contemporary of Beethoven, was born near Vienna, Austria, on Jan. 31, 1797. Considered the last of the great Classical eracomposers, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, he primarily composed lieder and chamber music, but also wrote symphonies, operas and piano works.

During his life, Schubert's songs and chamber music were well-liked and in Vienna, wealthy merchants and civil servants threw parties, called Schubertiaden, devoted to his music. From this concept grew the present day Schubertiade or Schubert Festivals, such as the one taking place here.

At the Unity Temple Schubert Fest, besides the Octet, Schubert's lieder and piano compositions will also be highlighted.

"We didn't want just one singer or pianist," said Burton Andersen, producer of the event and retired infectious-disease physician. "We wanted to make this a significant event."

There are four pianists in the program, including Ralph Votapek, who won international recognition as a gold medalist in the Van Cliburn competition and has performed with the CSO and Boston Pops. He will be doing a solo piece, as well as a piano duet with his wife, Albertine.

For vocal performances, Christine Steyer, of Oak Park, and Jeffrey Ray are part of the program. Both have performed at Lyric Opera. They will sing lieder, and Steyer will also join Warner for "Shepherd on the Rock," in which the clarinet provides "another voice," according to Warner.

Having a performance in Frank Lloyd Wright's 110-year-old building, which was recently restored and unveiled in 2017, provides an ideal setting for a concert, both acoustically and visually.

"To experience Schubert's music, played by highest level musicians in an intimate space was our goal," said Martha Swisher, festival director and music director of the Unity Temple Unitarian/Universalist Congregation, which is sponsoring this event. "Even in the top balcony, the audience is no more than 43 feet away from the main floor."  

Another intimate detail available to concert-goers is the option of a Viennese meal served during the dinner intermission, catered by Eastgate Café. The festival starts at 3 p.m. and ends at 9:30 p.m. (with a break for dinner). It is billed as "four concerts in one" and the audience can come and go as they choose during intermissions (when drinks and Viennese pastries will be sold, wine is available for a donation), including the option to dine out during the dinner break.

Although Schubert only lived to be 31, the 221st anniversary of his birth can be celebrated at the festival, which was one and a half years in the making — what Warner, who was in on the event since its inception, calls a "dream of a program."

Griffin, who finds performing with his wife the musical equivalent of a couple finishing each other's sentences, agrees.

"This is world-class repertoire and world-class musicians right here in Oak Park," he said. "It's going to be a stunning event for the community."

Schubert Festival Oak Park is Saturday, Jan. 27, at Unity Temple, 975 Lake St. $55 for the concert; $100, with dinner. Tickets/more: schubertfestivaloakpark.org.

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