No distractions: Lyra Music Festival comes to Northampton




For the Gazette
Published: 7/6/2016 3:26:59 PM


It’s a rare and happy opportunity when one gets to learn from the very best. Organizers of a music festival held this month in Northampton say their students will have that chance.

The Lyra Music Festival & Workshop will commence its seventh summer season July 7 at its new home at Smith College in Northampton.

The three-week classical music festival for pianists and string players will host 15 students of all ages as well as three world-class musical guests who have performed on some of the most prestigious stages around the globe, and they will all be performing at the Sweeney Concert Hall.

The Lyra Festival was founded in 2010 by New York City musicians Akiko Sasaki and Mary Prescott, with an aim, they say, to build a program where students could learn in a place void of distractions.

The festival will include public concerts performed by the visiting musicians as well as master classes, which will also be open to the public for observation.

“A few of our students are going to be selected to perform for the guest artists,” said Sasaki, Lyra’s executive director. “The guest artists will work with them for about half an hour as a public lesson.”

High-caliber performers

Organizers say the Lyra Festival provides a window for students to look into the world of high-caliber musicians in a personal setting, including, for example, Matthew Zalkind (master class July 7, concert July 8), an American cellist who has been praised for “impressive refinement, eloquent phrasing, and singing tone,” by The New York Times.

Another is Korean violinist Danbi Um (master class July 8, concert July 7), who was admitted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of 10.

Finally, Frederic Chiu (master class and concert July 9) is a pianist of Asian, European and American background, who will present a program he calls “Classical Smackdown.”

Henry Kramer, the current Iva Dee Hiatt visiting artist in piano and a lecturer in music at Smith College, will also perform, with Um and Zalkind, both of whom he knows well; he performs throughout the year with Um and knows Zalkind from their days together as students at the Juilliard School in New York City.

Kramer says Lyra’s move to Northampton is a good one.

“I think it’s a great place because there are so many music festivals,” he said. “The people here really appreciate music and want to see live concerts. I’m a big fan of the Pioneer Valley.”

Kramer says audiences can expect virtuosic performances from Um and Zalkind. 

Um, he says, “will bring a lot of really wonderful showpiece music. She’s very much into the late 19th century golden age of violin. She’s ... interested in Jewish music so that will be really interesting.”

Chiu, the last guest artist is innovative in his approach to engaging audiences.

On his website (, Chiu poses the question: “When was the last time you argued over which dead white European male composer was better than another?”

On Saturday, he will survey the audience at his “Smackdown” program, asking them which of two 20th century composers they enjoy more: French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) or Russian and Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).

According to Chiu’s program guide, Debussy strove for a sensual experience by painting pictures through his compositions, while Prokofiev was interested in repetitive notes and the necessity for the effect of speedy, virtuosic playing.

The master classes

Some students attending the festival will be chosen to take one-on-one master classes with the musical pros, which will be open to the public for observation. The purpose, Lyra executive director Sasaki says, is to give audiences and students an opportunity to gain insight on methods and techniques that the classical maestros have developed. 

“Our program is really to help our students understand classical music and we try to make it fun in our workshop,” she said. “You get to hear the process of how the artist actually analyzes and interprets the music. ... It gives students ideas on how to practice the piece.”

About Lyra

Before making the move to Northampton, The Lyra Music Festival was held on the campus of the Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, Vermont.

“Smith College has a beautiful music program building which is exactly the facility that we need,” Sasaki said.

Rachel Odo of New York, a counselor with the program, says organizers chose to move the festival to Smith because they were looking for “somewhere they could grow, with more musical facilities and a larger outreach with the community.”

“We feel like there is an audience that will enjoy and appreciate these guest artists coming. ... Smith and the whole Pioneer Valley are a perfect fit.”

Here’s the schedule (all events are at Sage Hall at Smith College):

Thursday: 1:30 p.m. masterclass with Matthew Zalkind; 7:30 p.m. concert with Danbi Um & Henry Kramer

Friday: 1:30 p.m. masterclass with Danbi Um; 7:30 p.m. concert with Matthew Zalkind & Henry Kramer

Saturday: 1:30 p.m. masterclass with Frederic Chiu; 7:30 p.m. concert with Frederic Chiu

July 15: 7:30 p.m. concert with Lyra Faculty All Stars

July 23: 1 p.m. Lyra student concert

Suggested donations: masterclasses: $15 general/$10 students and seniors; concerts: $20 general/$15 students and seniors.

Lyra Music Festival Passes are also available.

Tickets and information can be found at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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