Baroque on Beaver
Beaver Island's annual celebration of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi
By Ross Boissoneau | July 15, 2017
The last Baroque composer died over 230 years ago. Yet the rich music, considered highly dramatic and exaggerated in its 1600s-era heyday, is still a mainstay in concert halls across the world — and on Beaver Island. This year’s Baroque on Beaver, which runs July 29 through Aug. 6, is the 16th year for what has grown from a single concert in the small log chapel of the St. James Episcopal Church to a ten-day music festival at locations across the island.
“It started in 2002 and was strictly amateur (musicians) doing some Bach. When I got there, some professionals had started to filter in,” said Matthew Thomas, the festival manager and a musician who plays trumpet with the Festival Orchestra. “It is now fully professional. That coincided with Robert’s arrival.”
Thomas was referring to Music Director and Principal Conductor Robert Nordling. Nordling, who also serves as the music director of the Bandung Philharmonic of Indonesia and the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra in Chicago, has appeared with orchestras across the country, from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles, even England. This will be Nordling’s eighth year with Baroque on Beaver. “I’ve been doing it since 2009,” he said. “It started as Bach on Beaver, and Bach continues to be in its DNA. We do Bach every year, one-third to one-half Bach.”
Beyond Bach, the festival champions other baroque composers, such as Handel, Mozart, and Telemann. It occasionally goes beyond baroque to include other classical composers, even non-classical music such as jazz standards or Broadway favorites, depending on the guest artists and configurations and inclinations of the other performing groups. This year’s guests include the period music group Bach and Beethoven Ensemble of Chicago; pianist May Phang; and the Choral Scholars, a 12 piece a capella group from West Michigan.
Nordling said the festival continues to grow in popularity and stature, attracting high caliber musicians. “Our concert master is from the Grand Rapids Symphony. [Other musicians] are from Ann Arbor, Detroit, Midland, Traverse City, San Diego, Mexico City — one from Europe. It’s known in the classical world,” he said.
That’s a stretch from where the festival started. “I was approached by a member of the orchestra I was playing with,” said Thomas. “He said there’s a little thing on Beaver Island, was kind of apologetic about it.” Thomas has played with the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and is now a member of the Midland Symphony. And he stands by the quality of the music at Baroque on Beaver. “It’s now a regional summer festival. It’s gaining notoriety with other professional ensembles — the Bach and Beethoven Ensemble reached out to us.”
With increased recognition comes increased attention from the public, but part of the challenge for the festival is, what makes it unique is also what limits it. Attendees can’t drive to the island, of course; they have to make special arrangements for transportation by boat or plane. Then they have to find lodging; Beaver has a modest number of options. And then the venues themeselves limit the size of the audience. “We turn the school gym into a concert hall with acoustic panels and orchestra risers, (but) the venues are small,” said Nordling.
Nordling said one thing he’s considered is holding a concert outdoors. “The location [Beaver Island] is a given, but if we could do one outside, we could do 2,000,” he said.
Another option Nordling and Thomas are considering is to offer performances on the mainland. They see Charlevoix as a natural jumping-off point, and adding a kickoff or concluding concert to the season there seems to be a natural fit. They also mention Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor as other locales where they could reach out to members of both the BOB performing groups and audiences. “I think it makes sense,” said Thomas.
Yet he’s also aware part of the appeal of the festival for the performers is that it takes place on an island. “One of the great things is it is remote. That’s part of its allure and charm. But it poses logistical hurdles, including audience development. We’re playing to the same crowd every summer.”
Another is to reach out to the boating community. “We’re looking at advertising with the Chicago Yacht Club, reaching out to Bay Harbor, Traverse City, get a buzz going. There’s a dearth of housing, but they can stay on their boat,” said Thomas.
Thomas also will be part of the brass group appearing on Interlochen Public Radio. “We’ll be on Studio A the week of the festival, performing live and doing interviews. They’re also recording the orchestra for broadcast,” he said.
Nordland said working on funding and commissioning new works are important steps to increasing the festival’s visibility and credibility in the music community. “Step by step we’re increasing the quality. This is a first-rate chamber orchestra, and they always desire to sound better.”
If You Go
When Baroque on Beaver debuted 17 years ago as Bach on Beaver, it was an event by islanders, for islanders. Today it’s become so popular it’s a challenge for everyone attending to find a place to stay. Sometimes that even includes the musicians.
For the past two years, the music festival has attracted 2,500+ people over the course of 10 days. “Booking a place has become a problem,” admitted Frank D’Andraia, the chair of the Baroque on Beaver board, though he’s quick to point out that it’s a good problem to have. One option the board is working on: promoting single-day jaunts to the island, no overnight needed. “We’ve been working on day-tripping, and it’s worked out really well,” he said.
If you do intend to stay overnight for part or all of the 10-day festival, the local chamber of commerce provides a list of hotels, motels, resorts and cottages. Go to beaverisland.org/hotels-motels-lodges-bbs/.
Of course, as it is an island, getting there is harder than driving the family car. Two airlines offer daily flights: Fresh Air Aviation (freshairaviation.net/beaver-island-flights) and Island Airways (islandairways.com). The flights take 12 minutes each way and typically cost a little over $100 for an adult round-trip ticket.
Those who would prefer a more leisurely pace (and a cheaper ride — $65 for an adult round-trip ticket) should consider the ferry. The Beaver Island Boat Company runs multiple trips to and from the island. It takes two hours to complete the 32-mile route.
And if you’ve got your own boat, you can opt to get there on your own. Beaver Island Municipal Marina (beaverisland.org/transportation/beaver-island-municipal-marina/) is in the heart of the St. James Township community right next to the ferry dock.
For more information on the festival, go to BaroqueOnBeaver.org. For more about the island itself, go to BeaverIsland.org.