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NINE MUSICAL DAYS IN JUNE

THE CLASSICAL MUSIC WORLD GATHERS IN TOPEKA FOR THE SUNFLOWER MUSIC FESTIVAL

Article by Linda Ditch

Photography by Provided by Sunflower Music Festival

Since 1987, the start of summer has brought classical music to Topeka with the annual Sunflower Music Festival. World-class musicians will once again gather at Washburn University's White Concert Hall to participate in one of the top events of its kind in the United States from Friday, June 17th, through Sunday, June 25th. The musical theme is a collaboration with the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site to highlight past and present African American composers, conductors, and performers. Best of all, every concert is free to attend.

"Musicians love coming," says Paul Post, president of the Festival's Board of Directors and audience member since the event's early days. "We don't have to twist any arms at all. They love coming here, and many of them have come year after year. They look at Topeka as a great place to visit in June and play music."

What makes the Sunflower Festival so popular? Post says the reasons are two-fold. One is the free admission to see the same level of elite musicianship found at other festivals and concert halls worldwide that charge admission. 

The second reason is the venue. Post notes, "We have musicians coming in from all over the U.S. and some international musicians, and they think White Concert Hall is one of the best concert venues anywhere. I don't think people in Topeka realize that. We just take it for granted. But these are musicians who have been all over the country and all over the world that say this is a premier venue."  

This year's guest conductor is André Raphel. He is Conductor Laureate of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in West Virginia, where he was Music Director for 15 years. He has also held assistant conductor positions with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Saint Louis Symphony. A renowned guest conductor, he spent time in the past year leading the Youngstown Symphony and Hudson Valley Philharmonic, among others. In 2023, he will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the opening program of the "Voices of Loss, Reckoning and Hope" Festival. 

Raphel will lead the festival's chamber orchestra on June 17th, 22nd, and 25th at 7:30 p.m. The music highlights past and present African American composers, including William Grant Still, the first African American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United States, and George Walker, the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Composers Jessie Montgomery and Adolphus Hailstork are also featured in the performances.

Chamber Ensembles will perform on June 18th, 21st, 23rd, and 24th at 7:30 p.m., featuring two world premiere compositions. There will be "Talk Back" sessions after each concert so audience members can hear from the performers about their work.

Though Sunflower is primarily a classical music festival, Monday night has featured a jazz music concert for the past ten years. Post explained that festival co-founder and artistic director Charles Stegeman believes jazz music is the American contribution to the chamber music genre. This year, the Liz Stratton Jazz Night is on June 20th at 7:30 p.m. Popular jazz vocalist, and Topeka native Richetta Manager will perform, along with Kansas City-based vocalists Angela Hagenbach and David Basse, along with the City Light Jazz Orchestra. 

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Running concurrently with the festival is the Blanche Bryden Summer Institute for the advanced study of chamber music. High school students from around the country audition to participate in the summer camp at Washburn University. They receive daily coaching from some of music festival’s professional musicians and university faculty. They also learn the behind-the-scenes organization necessary to present a successful concert. The student chamber ensembles then perform in concert on Saturday, June 25th, at 3 p.m.

A National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Grant for Arts Project Award is helping fund this year's festival, along with numerous local sponsors and donors. While in-person attendance is free, there is also a live-steam option available for a fee. 

Post says, "We don't charge admission, but that doesn't mean we don't have costs involved. So, I ask people to please come to our concerts, and if you have the ability to donate, any amount is appreciated. If you like what you see, please give us a donation."

Complete information on this year's Sunflower Music Festival is found at https://sunflowermusicfestival.org/. The site also is where to register for live-stream access. Tickets are not necessary for in-person attendance.