The Recorder – Finding the blues in classical music: Heirloom Music Festival in Greenfield and Goshen this weekend
We have been lucky enough to enjoy many great music festivals this summer. Last weekend saw the successful return of the Charlemont Reggae Festival, and even more music is on the way before the leaves change color and the cool weather arrives.
This weekend there is a new, different type of festival – the Heirloom Music Festival II, a classical-blues music festival that will take place at two separate locations. On Friday, August 26 at 8 p.m., it will be held at Hawks and Reed in Greenfield. The festival will continue on Sunday, August 28 at 5 p.m. at Three Sisters Shrine in Goshen. The theme is “Beethoven’s Blues – Finding the Blues in Classical Music”. Music performed will include Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and a premiere by local composer Kenny Butler with blues guitar and string quartet.
The performers are guitarist Chris Devine, violinists Marcia Lehninger and Allyson Michal, and cellist Ignacy Gaydamovich. Viola players Geoffrey Baker and MikaylaReine, whose organization Conway Fine Arts presents the festival, will also perform.
Finding the blues in classical music sounds intriguing, but let’s face it, some of us have a preconceived idea of classical music. We view it as stuffy or boring or requiring some level of education to enjoy. Even listeners who consider themselves open-minded about music may find themselves walking away from “classical music” concerts.
Musicians Geoffrey Banker, the artistic director of Conway Fine Arts, and his fiancée MikaylaReine, the organization’s executive director, hope to break down those reservations. According to them, classical music is for everyone.
The couple moved from Oakland, Calif., to Northampton in January 2021, and eventually settled in Conway, where they established Conway Fine Arts. The organization’s goal is to create opportunities for professional artists, reach new audiences, and build community through art.
They were unfamiliar with the area before moving here, but say they chose it because they were inspired after reading Tracy Kidder’s “Hometown.” Once they arrived here, they had the pleasure of discovering a vibrant artistic community. “It was a wonderful learning experience learning about the art scene here,” Reine said in a recent interview via Zoom. “It’s a wonderful place to land and try to start something like we do.”
After meeting various local musicians and exploring some of the venues in the area, they held their first gig, a holiday event in December at Holy Family Church in South Deerfield, which proved successful. This is followed by a benefit concert for the victims of the war in Ukraine in Holyoke in March, the Heirloom Festival in Ashfield and Plainfield in June, and a cello recital earlier this month in Ashfield.
The idea of a crossover between Beethoven and the blues originated when Baker met local violinist and guitarist Kenny Butler at the Conway Inn. Butler is a musician who, like Baker, has experience in several different musical genres.
“He was at my house and he’s playing me this piece of blues,” said Baker, who has extensive musical experience playing in orchestras, chamber bands and even pop groups like Earth, Wind and Fire. “And it’s not your typical blues tune. I’m picking up wild chord changes, and it’s a legit Mississippi Delta Blues tune. It made me think that the blues is much more global than we think, and that’s a feeling more than anything.
After hearing the unusual chord changes in the song, which was Reverend Gary Davis’ “Children of Zion”, Baker asked Butler to compose a song based on that tune. According to Baker, the resulting song, “Mercy’s Door”, is no longer a blues tune but rather a classical composition that synthesizes the blues and embodies his belief that the blues is broader than a chord progression or than a style, and that it is rather a feeling in music. It is from this belief that the Heirloom Festival was born.
The idea of fostering the community by playing this music in different venues in different cities led it to become a festival. The first Heirloom Festival took place in June and was supposed to be a weekend of three shows in several venues, but when one of the musicians contracted COVID the third show could not take place. Hence the decision to host Heirloom Festival II.
In the meantime, the couple were introduced to Hawks and Reed and found they loved the venue’s 4th-floor venue, “the Perch”, with its high ceiling and lovely view of downtown Greenfield. They knew it was perfect for the Heirloom Festival.
“The Perch works for what we do in that we combine classical music and blues,” Reine said. “The acoustics are good, but it also has a bluesy touch, which helps to understand this music. Also, not holding the concerts in traditional concert halls helps to break down false beliefs about classical music.
These preconceptions are often a challenge.
“That’s our biggest hurdle, not just for us but for classical music across the country and across the world,” said Reine, who in addition to playing the viola has a dance background. “I think a lot of people just don’t have that familiarity with classical music. It looks scary to them. It’s usually played in these big venues, and you have to dress up and there are rules you have to follow. We want to get rid of all that excess and bring it back to the music, because everyone reacts to it when you remove some of those pitfalls.
And the public reacted to the first Heirloom Festival.
“They were incredibly grateful. They loved every minute and really listened and tried to engage with this new concept on the blues,” Reine said.
Baker agreed and added “I think it really speaks to the audience here – they’re so welcoming and eager to try things that you don’t always get from the audience.”
While Baker described their first year at Conway Fine Arts as a bit of a “cart before the horse situation”, overall it went well and they hope to keep moving forward. The pair are currently working on details for a September performance at Conway which will be a collaboration with storytelling. In 2023, they would like to create a music series that might take place during the winter months when not much is happening in the area. They are also interested in organizing more festivals.
Right now, the couple are looking forward to the weekend ahead, playing music at these two very different and very special venues. “We really want people to come out and have a warm feeling for what we do,” Baker said.
Reine is also delighted to present music in these special places. “You don’t feel like you’re going to a venue – you just go there to listen to music and good music is good music.”
Tickets for both shows are available at ConwayFineArts.com, and tickets for the Hawks and Reed show can also be purchased at HawksandReed.com. It is suggested that participants carpool to the Shrine of the Three Sisters as parking is limited to 50 cars.
The rain venue for Three Sisters Shrine is Goshen Institute of Musical Arts. For more information, visit GeoffreyBakerMusic.com.
Another music festival on the horizon is Lady & the Amp taking place on Saturday August 27 from 12pm to 7:30pm at the Institute of Musical Arts (IMA) in Goshen. This one-day festival is a very special sight in that it celebrates the 35th anniversary of the IMA!
IMA, which was founded by musicians June Millington (Fanny) and Ann Hackler, started in California before moving to Goshen in 2001. They present educational programs for women in music and music-related businesses . Their summer programs train young women and girls in all aspects of music, including playing their instruments, writing songs, recording, and dealing with the music industry. IMA programs have launched some of our top local artists, musicians such as Sonya Kitchell, Kalliope Jones, Moxie, And the Kids, and many more. These young women from the IMA are an integral part of our local music scene.
You can see some of these alumni performing at the festival including Hannah Mohan (Topsy), Sara Kochanski (EIEIO), Mia Huggins (Prune), Rei Kimura (Moxie), Casey Opal, Luna, Emily Margaret, Zami BK, Anjali Kumar , Jess LaCoy (Jax Hollow), Victoria Zingarelli (Toria), Haley Gray, Lilah Asbornsen and Kim Chin-Gibbons (Sunset Mission) as well as the IMA faculty group (June Millington, Evelyn Harris, Marcia Gomes, Erin McKeown and Janelle Burdell ).
There will be a tribute to former IMA Jana Ivanova Abromowitz who was tragically murdered in Northampton this summer. Members of his band, Tropical Hot Sauce, will play a short set.
Doors open at 11:30 a.m. Tickets and more available at IMA.org.
Sheryl Hunter is a freelance writer who resides in Easthampton. His work has appeared in various regional and national publications. She can be contacted at [email protected]