When Robert Nordling lifts the baton on Friday night, he will kick off the 17th year of Baroque on Beaver, a Northern Michigan festival of classical music.

This year, the celebration of the music of Baroque composers such as Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann will be offset with newer works, including music by George Gershwin and the American premiere of a viola concerto by contemporary composer Stacy Garrop.

Baroque on Beaver is July 27–August 4. For tickets, click here.

The festival started in 2002 with local amateur musicians paying homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. Since then it’s grown to encompass a professional orchestra and a chorale, various other groupings, and guest soloists. Festival manager and principal trumpet Matt Thomas said that its growth in large part coincided with, and was the result of, the hiring of Music Director and Principal Conductor Robert Nordling.

For his part, Nordling champions the players and the soloists, saying he’s excited every year to engage with the orchestra members. This year’s featured performers include acclaimed pianist Kevin Cole and guitarist Matthew Cochran.

Cole’s story is remarkable. The Bay City native has long been known as one of the very best interpreters of the music of George Gershwin, even having been hailed as Gershwin’s reincarnation, which amused Cole. What didn’t amuse him was when he was diagnosed in March of this year with a brain tumor—the same ailment that killed Gershwin at 38.

Fortunately, Cole avoided that fate, but the acoustic neuroma at the base of his brain was wrapped around his right ear mechanism, and the tumor and its removal have diminished his hearing in that ear by 90 percent. Yet two months after his surgery, he was performing again. “I’m doing remarkably well,” says Cole, though he admits to knocking on nearly any wood he sees.

“I’m testing a new hearing device that may help,” he says. Though it’s not like his hearing loss has diminished his playing ability. “I did two big concerts without anything and they went fine.” Response to the shows was much more positive than “just fine”—he received plaudits from reviewers and audiences alike.

Guitar soloist Matthew Cochran is looking forward to his performance as well, especially since he’s not given a solo recital in five years. Instead, he’s found himself engaging other aspects of music, from teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts to picking up and playing an electric guitar.

“I’ve had a varied career. I got into a guitar quartet out of college, for 10 years did classical. Then I started to write stuff, play in pit bands, and (horror of horrors!) I bought a Strat. It turns out it was fun,” he says.

He landed a spot as a guitar instructor at Interlochen two years ago and works with both classical guitarists and in the singer/songwriter program. And now it’s back to his classical side. “Baroque on Beaver will be my first classical recital in five years,” Cochran says.

Baroque on Beaver

A pop-up woodwind performance

But wait, as the commercials say, there’s more. Soprano Martha Guth will be doing a Bach cantata on Thursday night, solo soprano with trumpet with principal trumpet Matt Thomas. “The style is they will be playing off and with each other with a real small orchestra. Every line will be visible,” Nordling says.

That’s also the case with another Bach feature. In this one, the spotlight will be on principal flute Leslie Deppe, performing with strings. “It’s nothing but Bach—almost,” says Nordling with a laugh.

Among the fixtures of the orchestra is oboist Lynn Hansen of Traverse City. The retired music teacher is a member of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra and has been part of the Festival Orchestra at Baroque on Beaver for years. “Almost from the beginning,” she says proudly. “I very much enjoy the memories of the early years. It’s been really cool to see it grow. Robert and the board had a vision of where it could go.”

While the opportunity to play music she loves is one of the elements that draws her back each year, she says the response from the audience and the opportunity to interact with them and the other musicians is special. “It’s the relationships, both with other orchestra members and the audience. It’s my favorite performance opportunity. We work our butts off and really bond with people.”

Nordling says the setting on an island in the summer combined with the prowess of the players and the hospitality of the residents make Baroque on Beaver a special time for everyone involved. “The orchestra just gets better and better. We like to say each year is the best ever.”

Want to know more? Read this Traverse Magazine feature about the festival.

Baroque on Beaver tickets are available at MyNorthTickets.com.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski