The Lux String Quartet perform at the 2017 Oskaloosa Music Festival

Joy of Strings: the 2017 Osklaloosa Music Festival Masterworks Recital

Musicians from Minneapolis-St. Paul and around the US converged in the central Iowa town of Oskaloosa (pop. 11,500) to take part in the annual two-week Music Festival which pairs a string chamber music camp for middle and high schoolers with a series of concerts at venues throughout the city. I attended the Masterworks Recital Program on Saturday evening, June 3, 2017, at the First Presbyterian Church and was treated to a performance of some of the best music written for strings, including selections by Bach, Beethoven, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Hindemith, Janácek, and the Danish String Quartet.

The Oskaloosa Music Festival (OMF), now in its 8th year, is the brainchild of Oskaloosa native and viola player Benjamin Davis. In 2010 he gathered a few of his college friends and brought them to his hometown to share his newfound love of chamber music with local students and the community. This year the week-long music camp was interspersed with 11 concerts, ranging from picnic lunchtime concerts on the city square, children’s concerts, jam sessions, and two formal recitals (the Masterworks Recital that I attended and a student recital at the end of the music camp). All events were free to the public as the OMF relies on donations and business sponsorship for operating expenses.

Ben Davis, Artistic Director of the Oskaloosa (Iowa) Music Festival
Ben Davis, Artistic Director of the Oskaloosa (Iowa) Music Festival (photo from OMF website)

The Festival’s Mission, as announced on its website, sets forth the following goals:

To provide entertainment and education to the local students and public by means of exposure to some of the greatest, yet widely unknown, art music from the 18th to the 21st centuries. By exposing students to this repertoire, the Oskaloosa Music Festival hopes to inspire a life in the pursuit of music, not necessarily as a career path, but as a means to develop necessary skills such as work ethic, goal setting, group collaboration, and self-expression. And the most important part of the entire festival…having fun making music together!

The musicians I watched at the recital certainly seemed to be living the mission statement of “having fun making music together!”

The program opened with Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70, Movement I (Allegro con spirito) by Tchaikovsky, performed by a sextet consisting of Eric Graf and Jesse Nummelin on cello, Kirsti Petraborg and Ernesto Estigarribia on viola, and LaTannia Ellerbe and Erika Blanco on violin. This was a fantastic opening and garnered a standing ovation from at least one audience member.

Next up was Woodworks by the Danish String Quartet. A quartet consisting of LaTannia Ellerbe and Lindsey Bordner on violin, Kelsey Farr on viola, and Yoo-Jung Chang on cello, performed this 4-movement piece embodying traditional Danish folk tunes. Below is a youtube video featuring the Danish String Quartet playing this composition.

The next piece, Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme, by Johann Sebastian Bach, arranged by Brett Lewis, was performed by a trio consisting of Sam Rudy on violin, Jess Nummelin on cello, and Brett Lewis on double bass. The excellent program notes, written by the performers, explain that the piece was originally written for strings and tenor choir, and Mr. Lewis’s arrangement seeks to present a reduced instrumental version of the original music. This version was beautifully performed by the musicians.

The video below is of the same piece also arranged for a trio, although in this video the highest melody is carried by mandolin rather than violin.

The first half concluded with Movements III (Molto vivace) and IV (Finale: vivace ma non troppo) of Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96. These spirited movements were performed by the Lux String Quartet, made up of Erika Blanco (violin), Sam Ruby (violin), festival founder Ben Davis (viola), and Eric Graf (cello).  This Quartet performs professionally in the Twin Cities and the members serve as faculty for the music camp.

Following intermission a different quartet consisting of Ian Synder and Lindsey Bordner on violin, Kelsey Farr on viola, and Yoo-Jung Chang on cello, performed Movement I (Maestoso – Allegro) of the String Quartet No. 12 in Eb Major, Op. 127 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Next Ian Snyder on violin and Ben Davis on viola performed Movement I (Poco allegro) of the Madrigals for Violin and Viola by Bohuslav Martinu.

Here is another duo performing this movement:

The entire group of Festival Chamber Players, with Ernesto Estigarribia as conductor, performed Trauermusik written by Paul Hindemith. The soloist was Kirsti Petraborg, who holds a doctorate in Viola Performance and is an active performer and teacher in Minneapolis-St. Paul and southwest Minnesota and founding member of the Meadowlark String Quartet.

Kirsti Petraborg, viola soloist

For the last piece, about 10 community string players joined the Chamber Players to perform Movements I (Moderato), V (Adagio), and VI (Andante) of Leoš Janácek’s Suite for String Orchestra.  Ernesto Estigarribia again conducted the large ensemble, which filled the small sanctuary with the deep, sonorous tones of the many strings. I especially enjoyed hearing the double bass which provided a strong foundation for the higher notes of the other stringed instruments.  Mr. Estigarribia was very animated as he conducted these last two pieces of the program.

Community side-by-side performance conducted by Ernesto Estigarribia
Community and Festival Chamber Players side-by-side performance conducted by Ernesto Estigarribia

This was an amazing concert showcasing professional musicians, and it was extra special to me as it was only about 25 minutes from my home. If you are interested in attending next year’s festival or in donating to this worthwhile nonprofit organization, visit the website at (click on the “support” tab to donate online). Donations may also be made by making out checks to “Oskaloosa Symphony Association” and designated to OMF on the memo line then mailed to PO Box 301, Oskaloosa, IA 52577.

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