Q&A: Blair Milton, founder of Winter Chamber Music Festival

Amanda Svachula, A&E Editor


The Bienen School of Music’s Winter Chamber Music Festival chimes in with its 20th season this month. The festival, which takes place in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, features distinguished musicians from groups such as the Dover Quartet and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Bienen Prof. Blair Milton founded the festival in 1997. He talked with The Daily about how it has evolved in the past two decades.

The Daily: Why did you decide to bring this festival to Northwestern in the first place?

Milton: There were no concerts at Pick-Staiger at all in January. It was completely dark. 1997 was the 100th anniversary of the death of (Johannes) Brahms, a very famous composer in Germany. The original series featured six concerts of the music of Brahms. It was called the Brahms Festival. It was changed to the Winter Chamber Music Festival in the second year. That really got the ball rolling.

The Daily: Why is it important for college students to be exposed to classical music?

Milton: For the music students, it’s the best instruction they could possibly get — to go see what their colleagues and peers are doing in the course of their careers. For non-music students, it’s a possibility to experience this aspect of our culture which is often overlooked in today’s busy society. Music is the backbone of what makes society a society and not just a random group of individuals. Culture is what binds us together.

The Daily: How are you celebrating the 20th anniversary of the festival?

Milton: To celebrate our 20th season, I brought back the most popular and high profile of all the groups over the last several seasons. This doesn’t represent everyone over the 20 years, but the peak of whose appeared in the last six or seven years. I brought them all together in one series. There’s an air of celebration this year.

The Daily: Is there anything especially different this year?

Milton: We’ve added a seventh concert. Normally we have six concerts. But we did this in order to do the 20th anniversary justice.

The Daily: How has the festival evolved?

Milton: In the earliest years, we had the good fortune to have soloists from the Chicago Symphony (Orchestra), like Yo-Yo Ma who would come to play on a regular basis. Those individuals aren’t as available to us as much now. The festival is made up of more younger and up and coming musicians.

The Daily: Why should people see the festival?

Milton: It’s a really important niche for Northwestern and Evanston audiences. Pick-Staiger is very welcoming. It has a beautiful sound and even the furthest seat away from the stage feels like you’re apart of the event taking place. In this day and age, when everyone’s listening to beats on their iPhone, to listen to brilliant music created before your eyes is a brilliant experience.

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Twitter: @amandasvachula