Michelle Schumann is pretty effusive by nature. Still, when the Austin Chamber Music Center artistic director declares she's giddy about something, it's worth noting. This is someone who doesn't excite without cause. On the recent June afternoon that we met, the reason for Schumann's elation was an upcoming concert in which she'll match her formidable skills as a classical pianist with the man she dubs "the world's greatest clarinet player," Richard Stoltzman. Which makes sense: How many of us ever get an opportunity to meet the world's greatest anything, and Schumann is getting the opportunity not only to meet one of the world's greatest practitioners in her own field, music, but also to share a stage with him, to work with him, to create something together. Some people might be intimidated by such a prospect, but with Schumann that isn't even worth asking about. Her effervescence makes it clear how she feels about this chance of a lifetime.
Of course, it was Artistic Director Schumann who created this chance of a lifetime for pianist Schumann – just one of the perks of programming your own festival. She set the Schumann-Stoltzman pairing to put the exclamation point on the first weekend of the 2012 Austin Chamber Music Festival, which kicks off Friday, June 29, with the return of badass jazz trio the Bad Plus, playing Antone's. (And by the way, how many other chamber music fests do you think would book that band, and in a legendary music club, to boot? That's what makes this the Austin Chamber Music Festival, folks.)
Still, setting yourself up for a one-on-one encounter with one of the top players on the planet could be just setting yourself up for a fall if you don't bring your "A" game, or if your style doesn't mesh with his. Schumann describes the video interview she's recently conducted with Stoltzman for the ACMC website (she chats up all the fest guest artists on Skype and posts the 12- to 25-minute Q&As at www.austinchambermusic.org/festival-focus-interviews) and how they talk about the various works they'll be performing together: Johannes Brahms' Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, George Gershwin's Three Preludes, Robert Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Charles Ives' "Serenity" and "In the Mornin'," Steve Reich's "New York Counterpoint," and Johann Sebastian Bach's Sonata in D Major for Viola da Gamba. With the last, Schumann asks Stoltzman how he approaches Bach, and his response is: "I was going to ask you that." After she explains the importance of rhythm in his music and her feeling that "Bach's music dances at all times," Stoltzman tells her, "That sounds great. We'll probably get along." Ah, another reason for Schumann to feel giddy.
But her enthusiasm isn't restricted to her playtime with this brilliant clarinetist. Schumann insists that she doesn't program her festival with shows just to get butts in seats. Every ensemble she books is a group she wants to hear herself, and this year's festival certainly reflects that: in the historic eloquence of the Fine Arts Quartet, in the dynamic rhythms and experimentation of Third Coast Percussion, in the adventurous invention and interplay of pianist Christopher O'Riley and cellist Matt Haimovitz, in the youthful charge of Chamber Music Center students-turned-hot-band Mother Falcon. But Schumann is just as thrilled to be bringing back some of her favorite artists from prior festivals: the aforementioned Bad Plus, the Jupiter String Quartet, the Brasil Guitar Duo, and the Claremont Piano Trio. It's the first year that programmer Schumann has felt the timing was right to invite some artists back. Yet another reason to feel good, as is the fact that these artists are eager to revisit Austin and the ACMF.
Everything about the 16th annual Austin Chamber Music Festival is coming together for pianist Schumann, programmer Schumann, and Artistic Director Schumann. The only thing that could possibly make her feel even more giddy would be for her to see you there.
The 2012 Austin Chamber Music Festival runs June 29-July 15, with headliner concerts Friday-Sunday, 7:30pm, at various locations. For the full schedule, including free daytime and evening concerts and behind the scenes with the artists sessions, visit www.austinchambermusic.org/festival-2012.
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