Scan the list of past performers of Wheaton College’s Artist Series, and you’ll find a roster of the most acclaimed classical musicians.
That tradition continues Saturday, Nov. 17, with Grammy-nominated violinist Caroline Goulding joining the Camerata Chicago chamber orchestra at Edman Chapel.
But ask Tony Payne about his approach to the series and the longtime general manager doesn’t focus on the big names.
“It’s not just the name recognition of an artist anymore, but it’s the totality of the experience,” Payne said.
Now in its 63rd year, the program is building a more visual and intimate experience. Balcony seats are closed at the Edman venue this season. And a large screen, first introduced for a series performance by British violinist Charlie Siem, will join artists on stage for most events.
The screen captures expressions and technical skills — right down to fingers flying across a piano or the neck of a violin.
“A couple of people said, ‘I was all set not to like this, and then I enjoyed the concert so much more because it was all there for me,’” Payne said. “‘I experienced things in the concert that I’ve never experienced before.’”
Already backed by loyal subscribers, the series is wooing young audiences with performances starting a half-hour earlier at 7:30 p.m. And ticket prices for students of all ages are still $5. Even the face of promotional brochures is 20-year-old Caroline Goulding.
“We have to invest in the next generation,” Payne said.
Meanwhile, the program is expanding into nontraditional, informal venues. Listeners can sample music at preconcert talks, question-and-answer sessions, and dinners off-campus at local businesses offering discounts.
For artists, the series has developed into a “community residency,” says Drostan Hall, the Wheaton founder and music director of Camerata Chicago. The chamber orchestra, launched in 2003, returns after a lunchtime concert last year.
“What used to happen 20 years ago, you’d have a famous artist fly in and stay the night and do one rehearsal, one concert and then fly off again,” Hall said. “Now, it’s much more community-based, and you get to know the artist. There’s a sense of camaraderie.”
Hall, who began playing the violin at 4, approached Payne about a Camerata Chicago performance featuring Goulding after listening to her 2009 self-titled album.
“Isn’t everybody kind of taken with the idea of youthful genius?” Payne asked.
The heart of the artist series is classical music, but Payne is eyeing more visual artists for the program’s future.
A concert Feb. 9 will pair Hubbard Street 2 dancers with the Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra. The inaugural collaboration will include dancers improvising to symphonic pieces, Payne says.
The series continues with the China National Symphony Orchestra Feb. 21, and the Harlem String Quartet March 22.
The quartet boasts a repertoire spanning jazz and classical genres and credentials from some of the top music schools.
“They do bring some of the ethnic diversity,” Payne said. “They speak out of their own ethnic traditions.”
The season wraps up May 4 with the “Old Town School of Folk Music on the Road,” a sort of one-night music festival featuring Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, banjo picker Michael Miles and trio Sons of the Never Wrong.
The series has highlighted folk music before, but Siegel is “a wonder of the arts,” Payne said. The harmonica virtuoso brings together blues and classical styles.
“We are trying to create again another texture to appeal to wider audiences,” Payne said. “Now, that goes both ways because we want the traditional audience to see this as an opportunity and to embrace it.”
Ultimately, the series contributes to what Payne calls the cultural treasury in the area.
“It’s always reaching for something compelling, for something brilliant,” Payne said. “For me, personally, it’s the joy of music.”
For ticket information, call (630) 752-5010 or visit ArtistSeries.org.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.