Beethoven and Banjos

Musicians perform as part of the Beethoven and Banjos festival at the Crystal Theater in Crystal Falls. The festival, now in its third year, takes place over a week in September and October. (Photo courtesy of Bette Premo)

The Third Annual Beethoven and Banjos Music Festival will return to the U.P. this year during the last week of September. The event is all about mixing seemingly different things in an inspiring way—mixing genres, cultures and people.

Beethoven and Banjos is a one-week musician’s residency retreat, ending in a series of public concerts and student workshops. Folk artists and classical musicians spend the week together, rehearsing collaborative pieces and experiencing the U.P.

Evan Premo, the festival’s artistic director, started the event as a way to show his professional music friends out east what the U.P. is like, and as a way to bring the music he loves to the people in the U.P.

“It’s such a special place for me,” Evan said.

For three years now, Evan has been bringing musicians back to his home—literally. During the festival week, everyone stays in the homes of his family and their neighbors on Fire Lake in Amasa, Michigan, about 20 miles from Crystal Falls.

“We have a bunch of very generous neighbors,” said Evan’s mom, Bette Premo, who helps organize the event.

The musicians arrive on Sunday, spend the first half of the week at the lake practicing the program pieces, and then tour around to the various workshop and concert locations at the end of the week.

“It’s a lot to put together, but it’s always a blast,” Evan said.

In order to get the full U.P. experience, though, the group does take breaks to experience the outdoors around the lake.

“We take sauna and swim and walk around in the woods,” Bette said.

While touring around to the concerts, they also stop to check out local landmarks and scenic spots, including, Lake Superior, Presque Isle, and a number of area waterfalls—places that most first-time festival participants have never seen before. The participants also have the opportunity to form new connections with the other musicians, and meet and interact with many U.P. residents.

“It’s bringing people together that otherwise would never get together. They’re all such good people, and it’s such a thrill to introduce people, and create an environment where friendships can be forged,” Evan said.

The event is a family affair. Besides lodging guests, Evan’s family works with him to make the event happen. His parents, Dean and Bette Premo, handle many of the event’s logistics and promotion, and his dad has also become the event’s chef when they’re at the lake. Evan’s sister, folk musician Laurel Premo, helps with the musical side of things. Evan’s wife, soprano Mary Bonhag, is also a part of the event.

“It’s such a pleasure to work with my sister again, as she’s the other main musical force,” Evan said. “We collaborate a lot on the arrangements that we do and the music that’s chosen.”

The mix of music in the family is where the mix of music in the festival came from. The blend makes the festival unique, and allows the siblings to each utilize their individual musical talents.

“It’s such a great way to work with her. She went more strictly into the folk music world, while I went into the classical music world, and now we’re bringing those together,” Evan said.

The mix is a little different each year. The festival rotates in different musicians, as well as different styles of folk music.

“In year one, we focused on Appalachian style music; in year two, last year, it was Finnish music, and then this year, in year three, it’s the music of May Erlewine, who is an Earthwork musician,” Bette said.

The classical musicians come from a group called Decoda, which is a Carnegie Hall affiliate ensemble. Evan is a part of the group, and selects a few other members to come to the festival each year. The musicians he selects are not the same every time, although this year there are some returning participants.

There are a total of eight musical participants in the festival this year—Evan Premo, who plays double bass, Laurel Premo, who plays banjo and fiddle, soprano Mary Bonhag, violinist Anna Elashvili, cellist Hamilton Barry, pianist Jeremy Jordan, folk singer and guitarist May Erlewine, and composer Evan Chambers, who also plays violin. Evan Premo, Anna Elashvili, and Hamilton Barry are members of Decoda, and have been a part of Beethoven and Banjos at least once in the past. Jeremy Jordan, May Erlewine, and Evan Chambers are all newcomers to the festival, and the Premos are excited to see what new things they bring to the festival blend.

“It’s always an interesting mix, but it’s really fun to see what they come up with, and what they ultimately present,” Bette said.

Evan is especially excited about the addition of folk singer May Erlewine to this year’s lineup.

“I’m looking forward to putting the classical musicians together with her because I think it’s going to be a really beautiful combination,” Evan said.

This is the first year that the festival will have a composer in residence. In the past, composing the pieces has been more of a group effort, with multiple participants contributing pieces. This year, University of Michigan Composition Professor Evan Chambers will take on that task.

“He takes a lot of inspiration from folk music himself, in all of his music, so he’s a perfect fit for us,” Evan said.

Chambers will be composing some pieces specifically for this event. The program will also feature new arrangements of existing pieces, tailored to fit the festival’s setting and musicians. The musicians are sent the music a few weeks in advance to practice on their own, but the group only works on the pieces together the week of the festival.

When choosing and composing pieces for the program, the group tries to stick to some kind of theme.

“We’re working loosely around the theme of ‘Sacred Places’ this year. A lot of the music has to do with place and places that are particularly meaningful to certain peoples,” Evan said.

Both May Erlewine and Evan Chambers have a lot of existing music that fit that theme. One piece by Chambers that will be included in the program is about Isle Royale. Another piece, which is being written for the festival, is about a special spot in the Munising area.

“There’s going to be a lot of music about the U.P. and its surroundings as well,” Evan said.

In order to share the music with more people, and to show the visitors a larger scope of the U.P., the festival spreads  events out geographically in different cities and counties. The concerts are scheduled for Friday, September 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Reynolds Recital Hall in Marquette, Saturday, September 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Ontonagon Theater in Ontonagon, and Sunday, October 1, at 2 p.m. at the Crystal Theater in Crystal Falls.

Reynolds Recital Hall in Marquette has agreed to offer free admission to the concert again this year, with an opportunity for the audience to give a donation during the intermission.

“We really want it to be an experience for all ages, and we don’t want people to feel like they can’t come to a concert like that because they can’t afford it,” Bette said.

Ticket policies at the other venues will be decided soon, and those interested can contact the Ontonagon and Crystal theaters directly for more information.

Before performing at the concerts, though, the Beethoven and Banjos crew will present educational workshops to high school music students. The workshops allow students to interact with and learn from the Beethoven and Banjos musicians. The musicians lead discussions about the types of music and instruments they play, and students get to ask questions about being a musician, and how the professionals got to where they are today.

“It’s a great opportunity for the students,” Bette said.

As with the concerts, there will be three workshops in different counties. One will be in Marquette County, with invitations to Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming schools, one in Iron County with invitations to West Iron, Forest Park and North Dickinson schools, and one in Dickinson County with invitations to Iron Mountain, Kingsford and Norway schools. For all workshops, homeschooled students are welcome to attend, and can make arrangements by contacting Bette at 367-1255.

For Evan and his family, Beethoven and Banjos has been a rewarding and fun festival to put together, and one that they look forward to each year.

“For me, it’s just such a great coming together of worlds—the world that I grew up in and the world that I live in now, and the world of my sister,” Evan said.

Visit beethovenandbanjos.com for more information on the Beethoven and Banjos festival lineup.

MM

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