In the summer of 2009, Scott Lykins and a few of his colleagues from the Eastman School of Music organized some informal classical music concerts in the Brainerd area. They never anticipated their actions would help launch the premiere classical music festival in the Midwest.
Lykins, a cellist who grew up in Brainerd, had returned for the summer with his friends to wait tables and enjoy the area’s lakes. The concerts were a practical way for them to keep up their performance skills before returning to school in the fall.
“We didn’t know if anyone was going to show up to those concerts,” admits Lykins. But each new event drew a larger crowd than the last. The final event of the summer took place at a church in Nisswa and included talented performers from both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra.
“We packed 300 people into that little church. After seeing that and the excitement about classical music, I committed to continuing to organize events,” Lykins says. That was the start of the Lakes Area Music Festival.
Early on, people questioned whether a classical music festival could succeed in Brainerd. But the people behind the concert series always had faith. The Lakes Area Music Festival transitioned into a nonprofit organization with an ambitious vision of becoming a “thriving worldwide hub for classical music and a force for broad and sustained development in central Minnesota.”
Lykins moved back to the area after he completed graduate school, in large part because of the organization’s success. Initially, he served as artistic director and then he took on the role of executive director as well.
“Having a person dedicated full-time, year-round to both of those areas has been a great asset,” Lykins says. “It’s been wonderful to see the growth of the organization and growth of our programs and artistic product.”
The Lakes Area Music Festival just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. The three-week summer schedule featured everything from small ensembles performing chamber music to opera, ballet and a full symphony orchestra concert. There were 166 all-star musicians from top national and international orchestras and opera companies performing.
The nonprofit now organizes concerts year-round. Lykins says he’s proud of the artistic quality and caliber of musicians they’ve been able to attract as well as the size and diversity of their audience. His goal is for the lakes region to become a classical music destination — that more people will start to plan their vacations around the concerts the organization produces.
While many of the festival’s early supporters were retirees with summer homes in the lakes area with season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra or Metropolitan Opera, a portion of the audience is unfamiliar with classical music and has never attended a live opera.
Strong community financial support enables the Lakes Area Music Festival to offer concerts without set ticket prices to ensure accessibility for everyone. “People are welcome to come experience high quality art and donate what they’re able to do,” explains Lykins. “In our first decade, we’ve been uniquely successful at bringing new audiences to classical music.”
Because the uninitiated may be intimidated by classical music, the organization is committed to educational programming. Its outreach includes workshops and performances at a number of nontraditional venues such as public libraries, elder care facilities, the county jail and a center for victims of domestic violence.
Community members have embraced the organization and are invested in its success. In addition to providing monetary support, many host performers in their homes and donate their time to help with events — 300 people volunteer with the festival each summer.
Lykins notes that the level of commitment and ownership from community members has ensured its sustainability. “The community we are in is is what has made it all possible. I don’t think our organization would have been able to thrive if we were just anywhere,” he says.