Winter Chamber Music Festival Preview- 24th annual series focuses on Beethoven’s 250th birthday

American String Quartet
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 Northwestern University’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music will host the 24th annual Winter Chamber Music Festival Jan. 10- 26, 2020.

All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, located at 50 Arts Circle Drive on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

 Bienen Faculty Member since 1984, and Associate Adjunct Professor, Violin Studies, Blair Milton joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1975 and four years later became a founding member of the Evanston Chamber Ensemble. As the originator of the Winter Chamber Music Festival, which began in 1997, he has performed with numerous world-renowned conductors and performing artists. 

He has appeared on the Ravinia Festival Chamber Music Series and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Artist Series, as soloist with the Chicago String Ensemble and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Milton is the director of Northwestern’s Summer Violin Institute. He has given master classes across the United States as well as in South America, Germany, and Japan

Blair Milton, violin, Winter Chamber Music Festival founder

I had the opportunity to interview Blair Milton about the lineup and program choices for this year’s Festival. He spoke with glowing enthusiasm of the return of James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong, “For Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Ehnes and Armstrong are giving us the gift of concluding the complete violin sonata cycle begun with their appearance at the Winter Chamber Music Festival last year”. He noted that “These ten beloved works are cornerstones of the violin chamber-music repertoire; they clearly demonstrate Beethoven’s unique artistic evolution.” 

Next, he mentioned that “One of the groups is playing 2 pieces from the distant past. The young, all-female, multiple award winning Aizuri Quartet, rightly called ‘a meld of intellect, technique and emotions,’  will present a piece by 12th century mystic nun Hildegard von Bingen and one by Carlo Gesualdo from the 16thcentury.  Along with the other pieces they are playing, this will give us a wonderfully balanced program.”

Milton went on to note that “The Dudok Quartet Amsterdam are back again this year with some unusual choices, works by Rameau and Ravel. They have a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative and versatile young quartets of their generation, known for their commitment to crafting unique and eclectic programs.”

He continued, “The Faculty and Guests performance is always excellent, and their choices will round out the entire program. They will be presenting a septet of Beethoven’s, rarely heard and wonderful, one of my personal favorites.  The violinist playing in the septet, Alexander Kerr, is concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, an artist who balances many roles.  Beethoven’s horn sonata is not heard very often, either.” 

Finally, he waxed enthusiastic about The American String Quartet, “They are one of the world’s foremost virtuoso ensembles and they will be joined by a superb mezzo-soprano, Metropolitan Opera star Stephanie Blythe, giving us a fine taste of German lieder”. 

James Ehnes, violin; and Andrew Armstrong, piano

The festival schedule is as follows:

  1. Friday, Jan. 10, 2020 James Ehnes, violin and Andrew Armstrong, piano

Music of Ludwig van Beethoven:

Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12, No. 1
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 3
Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”) 

     2. Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020 James Ehnes, violin and Andrew Armstrong, piano

Music of Ludwig van Beethoven:

Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1
Violin Sonata No. 8 in G Major, Op. 30, No. 3
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”)

Aizuri Quartet; Photo: Shervin Lainez

    3. Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 Aizuri Quartet

Hildegard von Bingen (arr. Alex Fortes), Columba aspexit
Carlo Gesualdo (arr. Alex Fortes), “O tenebroso giorno” and “‘Io parto’ e non più dissi”
Conlon Nancarrow, String Quartet No. 3
Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 64, No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

    4. Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020 Dudok Quartet Amsterdam

Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2
Olivier Messiaen (arr. David Faber), “Oraison,” No. 6 of Fête des belles eaux
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Suite from Castor et Pollux
Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F Major

Dudok Quartet Amsterdam; Photo: Marco Borggreve

    5. Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 Bienen Faculty and Guests

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata for Horn and Piano in F Major, Op. 17
Johannes Brahms, Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114
Ludwig van Beethoven, Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20

Bienen Faculty and Guests

    6. Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020  American String Quartet with Stephanie Blythe

Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”)
Ottorino Respighi, Il tramonto
A selection of Franz Schubert Lieder, including “Der Tod und das Mädchen”
Franz Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)

Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano

All photos courtesy of Northwestern University and the artists, unless otherwise noted.

 Single tickets for any Winter Chamber Music Festival concert are $30 for the general public and $10 for full-time students with a valid ID. Tickets are available at, by phone at 847-467-4000, or by visiting the ticket office located in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, at 50 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.

Winter Chamber Music Festival subscriptions also are available and include a variety of benefits, including savings of up to 30 percent off the single-ticket price.

For tickets and more information, call the Bienen School ticket office at 847-467-4000 or visit


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