Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Notes, Eastman’s alumni magazine.
When cellist and pianist Scott Lykins ’09E, ’11E (MM) completed his undergraduate degree at Eastman in 2009, he realized he needed to earn money over the summer instead of attending the usual summer music training festivals. He planned a return to his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, a major Midwest summer vacation destination where the land is carved up by enticing lakes, to wait tables at an upscale lakeside restaurant. With guaranteed summer employment as a draw, he convinced four Eastman friends to join: vocalists Meghan Attridge ’09E and Maria Bellanca ’09E, violist Alexander Peña ’10E, ’13E (MM), and baritone John Taylor Ward ’10E.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, other than the fact that I was promised amazing food and it was at the time more money than I had ever made in my life in this restaurant,” says Ward.
Together, the friends performed low key concerts for the Brainerd summer community in exchange for room and board in cramped cabins, all while dining like royalty at the restaurant where they waited tables. Lykins’ mother organized a volunteer staff to provide lunches and organize the program pamphlets for their concerts. They performed six concerts in total. “I’m still not sure to this day whether we enjoyed that more or the patrons. It was a nice way to sort of sing for our supper,” says Ward.
For the final concert, they brought in professionals from the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to join for chamber music and attracted an audience of about 300 people. The concert was, as Ward puts it, “completely electric.”
The friends weren’t expecting to start an organization. But community members approached them at the summer’s end about continuing the summer residency. “At the end of that season,” says Lykins, “we were like, we could do this again.”
Those summer plans of Eastman friends grew into one of the country’s major summer music festivals, the Lakes Area Music Festival. The LAMF is now a fully professional organization, presenting around 200 artists from around the country. The festival produces about 60 concerts and activities each year, which includes chamber music concerts, orchestral performances, opera, and several education and outreach programs ranging from a week-long day camp for children to performances at women’s shelters. And Eastman connections continue to underline the festival, from longtime festival participants from Lykins’ Eastman days to more recent alumni.
The festival celebrated 15 years this past summer, running from July 28 to August 20. Several of the original founders remain in leadership positions: Lykins, the festival’s co-artistic director, is now also its executive director. Ward is also a co-artistic director, primarily managing the festival’s vocal programming. Peña directs the festival’s weeklong day camp for elementary school kids. Vocalist Paul Hopper ’09E is an artistic advisor for the festival who joined the crew as a guest artist in 2009 and helped produce the festival’s first opera production in 2012. Violist Samantha Rodriguez ’08E, ’10E (MM)—a frequent chamber music partner of Lykins’ at Eastman—also joined in 2009 as a guest artist and is one of the festival’s mainstay performers. Violinist Chloe Fedor ’11E joined the festival in 2010, its second year, and is now an artistic advisor and assists with the festival’s Baroque programming.
All balance major careers: Lykins is a cellist with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and the South Dakota Symphony; Ward is a Baroque vocal specialist who performs internationally; Peña is the director of orchestras at the ‘Iolani School Hawai’i; Hopper is currently the senior director of artistic planning at the LA Opera after serving as the associate artistic administrator at the Metropolitan Opera; Fedor is co-concertmaster of the Lyra Baroque Orchestra in Saint Paul and a member of the Grammy Award-winning ensemble Apollo’s Fire; and Rodriguez is the assistant principal third chair of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and recently won the principal position with the Des Moines Metro Opera.
Their development as professionals follows the festival’s growth: as they advanced from student to professionals, the festival transitioned from a student summer gathering to a distinguished summer festival.
Ward says that they were a group of friends driven to pursue creative impulses, even while at Eastman. “We were people who were always making a little bit of trouble, putting together our own recitals, making our own performances,” he says. “I remember being up in the 804 black box theater [in the annex] and we would just rent it out sometimes and do a whole musical or a whole little performance just for our friends. Even then, we had this quorum of people who really enjoyed the nitty gritty of producing as well as performing and found a lot of interest and enjoyment in having more creative control than performers often get.”
The festival’s success, however, is found in the connections the musicians fostered within the community, which got a jumpstart with Lykins, who is an area native with family involved in the area’s summer tourism industry. As the musicians returned each summer and the festival grew, so did the relationships between the community members and musicians. Community members became key partners: housing musicians, offering rehearsal spaces, helping pull together props and costumes for vocal productions, and funding the festival.
Community members were even behind a new concert hall that was built to accommodate the festival, an effort that illustrates how entrenched LAMF is within the summer community.
Over many years, the Brainerd public school system attempted and failed several times at passing the building of a performing arts center. But once LAMF was established, community members who didn’t previously have a stake in the arts center suddenly found a reason to support it and agreed to pass the proposal in 2018 if the LAMF would be involved in its planning. LAMF was a partner throughout the design process and even advocated for an orchestra pit to accommodate 70 musicians, among other professional additions. Widening the LAMF’s artistic potentials, the new arts center has allowed the festival to produce large scale operas ever since 2019.
“As it was designed, it was not just a high school performing arts center but designed to host one of the nation’s largest and best summer festivals,” says Lykins.
Such support seems a result of the ways LAMF enriches the community. In addition to a commitment to outreach events, including performing for women’s shelters and correctional facilities, the festival organizers are adamant about making the festival series concerts accessible to all. To reduce the barrier to entry for classical music concerts, all season ticketed concerts are priced in a “pay-what-you-can” model, where patrons can elect to attend for free.
The festival continues to grow in reputation and scope—beyond Eastman connections and influence—but it hasn’t lost the feeling of likeminded Eastman friends reuniting, putting on concerts together in a serene environment and enjoying lake activities following rehearsals. As Ward put it prior to the festival’s start, “This will be the 15th best summer ever.”
Lykins is a Minnesota native whose Eastman aspirations began as a high school cellist. He studied with alumnus Joseph Johnson ’95E, the current Toronto Symphony principal cellist who was then a cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Lykins can’t remember if his interest in managing his Minnesota summer music festival came before or after beginning to pursue an Arts Leadership Program (ALP) certificate through the Institute for Music Leadership. But he believes each interest fed the other. As an ALP certificate student, he interned with the artistic planning department of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. “That was great to get a little experience on the concert production side and planning.”
He says his ALP courses helped him gain important skills for the LAMF. “I took a grant writing class and of course, in my job now, I do a lot of grant writing. … I think the classical music industry now requires musicians to have a little bit more of that entrepreneurial side and building opportunities outside of winning a job in a symphony and just sitting on a stage. The community advocacy and understanding various perspectives is important in general, but especially for someone who is going to go into administration for a summer festival.”
Julia Bullock Headlined 2023 Festival
Superstar soprano and Eastman alumna Julia Bullock ’09E was a featured performer at this year’s LAMF, singing a recital for the festival’s opening gala concerts and as a soloist on the festival’s opening orchestral concert. But her involvement started long before.
A classmate and friend of Lykins and the original founders, she visited Brainerd for the final concert of the festival’s inaugural season in 2009 and was thoroughly impressed with what her friends created. She returned to the festival in 2011 to perform a concert of opera arias and ensemble pieces, alongside tenor Paul Hopper. Then, in 2012, she performed the role of Pamina to Hopper’s Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the festival’s first opera production and the first time she’d ever performed the role. “It’s some of the best we’ve sung because we were just having an easy collaborative experience,” she recalls.
When the festival was in search of a conductor, Bullock put in a plug for her then-boyfriend, now-husband Christian Reif. It was a match for more than just Bullock: the festival named Reif as the LAMF’s first music director in 2021.
“This is one of the festivals that I’m most proud to talk about and sing their praises, and not just because they’re my friends and we hang out together,” she says. “They’re actually living what we all came to Eastman to fully invest ourselves in—the power of music to bring communities together.”
Eastman-Affiliated Musicians in the 2023 Festival:
Adelaide Federici ’94E, violin
Chloe Fedor ’11E, violin
Ji-Yeon Lee ’15E, ’17E (MM), violin
Kelsey Farr ’11E, ’13E (MM), viola
Benjamin Magruder ’13E, ’17E (MM), ’19E (MM), viola
Alexander Peña ’10E, ’13E (MM), viola
Samantha Rodriguez ’08E, ’10E (MM), viola
Grace An ’10E (MM), cello
Mark Bridges ’10E (MM), cello
Austin Fisher ’12E, cello
Scott Lykins ’09E, 11E (MM), cello
Matthew Abramo ’05E, bass
Kevin Pearl ’10E, oboe
Anna Brumbaugh ’11E, clarinet
Daniel Giacobbe ’15E, clarinet
Martin Hodel ’01E (DMA), trumpet
Nicholas Bonaccio ’14E, percussion
Min Kim ’10E, harp
Julia Bullock ’09E, voice
Ori Marcu ’24E, vocal fellow
John Taylor Ward ’10E, voice
Ian Silverman ’20E (MM), opera director
Paul Hopper ’09E, Artistic Advisor