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Beethoven Festival 2011 | Concert preview

Beethoven Festival takes the composer to new audiences and new heights.
Photograph: Albert J. Kim
By Mia Clarke |

George Lepauw kicks back in a chartreuse armchair in the lounge of downtown’s Union League Club. It’s hard to imagine that the relaxed 31-year-old is a mere two weeks away from spearheading a classical festival of epic proportion.

“I always dream big!” Lepauw says with a chortle. “I like to take things into my own hands. Of course, it’s hard work, too. No one in their right mind would plan a festival in four months.”

What began as a pipe dream for the French-born concert pianist rapidly snowballed into a jam-packed five-day shindig featuring more than 100 musicians, 17 contemporary artists and filmmakers, five renowned scholars, two actors (who will recite Beethoven’s letters) and a poet. The talented cabal takes over Chicago Urban Art Society in east Pilsen, a creative arts hub that offers cheap workshops and galleries. High-end antique outlet Architectural Anarchy, which has a shop in the building, is working with a designer to re-create a classic 18th-century salon atmosphere. The original artwork on display and ornamenting the room will be available for auction on the final evening of the festival.

Although Lepauw is keen to point out that the fest showcases a wide range of music, including jazz and contemporary works by more than 20 living composers, Beethoven is assuredly top dog. The wigged master’s music has been a huge part of Lepauw’s life since he began music studies in Paris as a child; the precocious young pianist had read through all of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas by the time he was ten. “I got excited by the rebel in him, especially as I entered my teenage years,” Lepauw says. “There is just so much power and soul in his music. It feeds my spirit.”

In 2009, Lepauw, an Evanston resident, founded the International Beethoven Project with cellist Wendy Warner and violinist Sang Mee Lee, and gave a much anticipated world premiere under the now defunct moniker Beethoven Project Trio of the composer’s Piano Trio in E-flat major, Hess 47, in March of that year. IBP will not perform at the festival, but Lepauw makes multiple appearances as solo artist, as well as in performances with hotshot Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio and fellow local pianist Winston Choi, among others.

The Pilsen neighborhood’s musical rep is more closely associated with art punk. Lepauw is eager to persuade classical enthusiasts to stray off the beaten path and let their hair down. Guests can sip cocktails and party past the very un-classical-music-scene time of midnight as pianist Lara Downes offers “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” or as Reed Mathis rips through rock arrangements of the Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies.

Lepauw’s Beethoven bash may well be Chicago’s hippest and most inclusive classical festival to date, but what really makes it special is its community vibe. Given the pianist’s warmth, experience and contagious enthusiasm, it’s not surprising that many of Chicago’s hottest acts—Ensemble Dal Niente, Fulcrum Point, Spektral Quartet, Anaphora and composer Mischa Zupko—jumped on board with their pal’s adventure. Lepauw praises his invaluable presenting partners High Concept Laboratories for helping to put together the fest, which is almost solely funded by private donors. “I’m humbled to see how much this project has grown since the beginning,” he says, gazing at the bird of prey paintings covering the walls. “This isn’t just a concert, but a life experience.”

Beethoven Festival 2011 runs through Sunday 18 at Chicago Urban Art Society.