Five decades later, the Contemporary Music Festival has kept students at the heart of its purpose while thrilling attendees with state-of-art music. The always shifting and evolving list of performers brings something new that changes the personality of the festival.
The best way to listen to classical music is with your eyes closed, says Christa Flores. In this way, you can not only hear, but also see the music and the story it tells.
Her hand bounced in the air as she followed the rhythm of “Pastorale,” a contemporary piece written by Eric Ewazen — one of her favorite composers.
It was the song she performed as a junior at Indiana State University’s Contemporary Music Festival. And it was one of the most technical compositions she had ever performed.
“I was suffering from really bad performance anxiety before I stepped on stage,” said Flores, a senior from Merrillville, Ind. “I was afraid I would not be able to align my flute passages with my French horn and piano accompaniment. But once we started playing, we didn’t miss a beat. It was one of the most rewarding highlights of my college experience.”
For the past 50 years, the Indiana State Contemporary Music Festival has been focused on inspiring students to have an appreciation for modern classical music — or classical works created post-1945. The four-day event includes evening concerts, student and faculty recitals, educational sessions and community outreach, which are all free and open to the public. However, it is the only one of its kind to emphasize symphonic music and to feature a major professional orchestra.
“Since its inception, the Contemporary Music Festival has essentially always been an orchestra festival,” said Kurt Fowler, professor of music and artistic director of the festival. “It began as a kind of consortium between the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and a group of universities in Indiana that held contemporary classical music sessions across the state. It just so happened that the festival’s first year was the only one that would take place at multiple universities. You will not see another festival like this anywhere, where you can see a professional orchestra for free on a college campus.”
In order to keep art music relevant, the festival exposes the Indiana State and campus community to the everyday work of professional musicians. Each year, it has featured one nationally acclaimed composer. However, this year, the Contemporary Music Festival will celebrate its semi-centennial by featuring two guest composers — Indianapolis Symphony principal trombonist James Beckel and Grammy-Award-winning musician Libby Larsen.
“We wanted to bring in the past with Larsen, someone who has performed at the festival before, as well as Beckel, someone who could symbolize the festival’s future,” Fowler said.
Larsen was first featured as the guest composer at the festival in 1996. She is known as one of the most prolific modern American composers, having accumulated a catalogue of more than 500 works from nearly every genre — from intimate vocal and chamber music to massive orchestral works and more than a dozen operas. One of her more recent compositions is a fanfare commissioned by Indiana State in honor of the university’s sesquicentennial celebration.
While it is Beckel’s first time being featured as the guest composer, he is not a newbie, as he used to play trombone at festival with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
This year’s guest orchestra will be the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, as it has been since 2007.
“I think it’s important for the students to see actual musicians work and understand why they do what they do and how they do what they do,” said Paul Bro, director of the Indiana State School of Music. “Our students are trying to find a place in the music field, and I think this gives them a different perspective aside from their classes and basic curriculum.”
The festival not only highlights the everyday work of professional musicians for the aspirant, but also offers a space for those interested in learning about different styles of music.
“I think it’s a really rewarding experience to be able to submerge yourself in music that most people don’t listen to,” Flores said.
Having found her appreciation for music in middle school, Flores was led on a path to become a music teacher by her eighth grade band director. However, her path was diverted when she discovered her passion for teaching music had disappeared.
“I changed my major from music education to elementary education because learning about teaching music took a lot of the love out of it,” Flores said. “That is why getting the chance to play at the Contemporary Music Festival was such a big deal for me. I was not only a junior, younger than everyone else performing, but a non-music major at that. It was my last bang going out of the School of Music.”
For Flores, her experience at the Contemporary Music Festival reaffirmed her passion for music. Even as an elementary education major, Flores incorporates her flute and music in her lesson plans. Her overall goal is the same as before she switched her specialty — “to make a difference in the life of at least one my students as my band director did with me,” Flores said.
“Music is not going anywhere,” Flores said. “I could not imagine a day going by without it.”
In many ways the Contemporary Music Festival has stayed the same as it keeps students at the center. In other ways it has evolved with the state-of-art music. Each year the different performers and composers — even the students and the community — bring something new that changes the personality of the festival. So as it enters its 50th year, the Contemporary Music Festival is an experience for the ages.
“It is an art that never really grows old,” Fowler said.
The Contemporary Music Festival is Tuesday, Oct. 25-Friday, Oct. 28. For more information, go to indstate.edu/cas/cmf.