Cofounders aim to make the chamber music fest accessible to all

When you have audience members at your concert because they heard about the performance on Yelp, as a chamber music festival, I think you can claim victory on the “finding new audiences” front.

The aforementioned concert was part of last year's VIVO Music Festival, a weekend of chamber music concerts held at multiple locations around Columbus. Specifically, it was a Beer and Beethoven concert hosted by Hot Chicken Takeover in the North Market. Both the festival and Beer and Beethoven return for a third go-round this weekend.

The festival was conceived several years ago as co-founders Siwoo Kim and John Stulz were crossing paths while attending Carnegie Hall's Ensemble Connect fellowship program in New York — Kim on his way in and Stulz just completing his residency. The two Central Ohio natives had crossed paths numerous times as young musicians in Columbus-area ensembles and training programs, and they quickly decided their hoped-for collaboration should bring them back home.

“We said, ‘We're both from Columbus, both raised there, and Columbus already has these fantastic musical organizations,'” Kim said in a phone interview. “We thought to add to [existing] audiences, to target young professionals [and] millennials, and to bring the entire community together.”

“One of the first things we said was, we want to do events and concerts that our friends would come to,” said Stulz, who wanted the programming to be accessible for all ages and specifically geared toward those who don't typically attend classical music concerts.

Toward that end, the pair made a few fundamental decisions. First, the festival would highlight emerging professional musicians in the same age demographic. Second, the concerts would be held, at least in part, in nontraditional venues. And third, the repertoire would be programmed with no boundaries.

“The repertoire that we do [is] based on both of our artistic sensibilities,” Kim said, explaining that, despite their semi-shared musical upbringings, Kim leans more to traditional classical repertoire while Stulz skews contemporary and experimental. “We also don't pick the repertoire with the idea of what our audience is going to like, but based on what pieces we think are necessary and important today. We're confident that if we pick what we believe is great music, the audience will be with us.”

“These days, with most audiences, every piece is new music,” Stulz said. “We take the approach that, specifically with our target audience, every piece that we play [will] be the first time they hear it.”

This approach was rewarded during the inaugural VIVO Festival, when audiences responded favorably to Georg Friedrich Haas' difficult “String Quartet No. 3,” an hour-long piece played in total darkness with the musicians placed far apart from each other and throughout the concert space, and with much of the score left open to the in-the-moment interpretation of the performers. It continued during last year's Beer and Beethoven concert at which a Mozart oboe concerto was met with rousing applause and cheering following a particularly virtuosic passage by one of the players.

A Mozart piece will lead off Friday's Beer and Beethoven concert at Hot Chicken Takeover, and the string quartet performance illuminates another aspect of chamber music as it relates to the festival. The piece, like much chamber music, was not written for the concert hall, but to be performed at parties and other less-formal gatherings.

“What we consider the traditional way of presenting concerts, especially with chamber music, is not really that traditional. It dates [back] only about 100 to 120 years,” Stulz said. “As musicians, there's a reason why we play concerts that way, but for us this is a living music that is still growing and changing, and so we ask ourselves what we can do to make it relevant for today [and] for Columbus in particular.”

This year's VIVO Festival includes two programs at the Columbus Museum of Art, one outdoors (Thursday) and one in the auditorium (Sunday). On Saturday, the galleries of the Short North Arts District will feature musicians from various local ensembles performing chamber music during Gallery Hop.

“Every event is programmed specifically for that venue, and each event is going to have a different kind of feeling for the audience and the space and the overall experience,” Stulz said.

“We're very blessed to be able to bring a wide variety of instrumentation, which enables us to present in such a way that there is something for everyone to enjoy. It also makes it more difficult to choose pieces, because there are so many out there. That's why we have to go on for many more seasons,” Kim said with a laugh.