Inside Duluth's chamber music boom (yes, that's a thing)

As UMD's Weber Music Hall turns 20, the Duluth Chamber Music Festival is planning a return. Plus, a new chamber group has formed — and the DSSO is planning small-ensemble programming at the Depot.

A violinist, pianist, cellist, and violist complete a piece with a flourish: bows held high, the pianist's hands aloft. They are seen from above on a stage with blonde wood flooring.
Violinist Yun-Ting Lee, pianist Sayaka Tanikawa, cellist Dane Johansen and violist Jonathan Vinocour perform at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Weber Music Hall on Aug. 18 as part of the Duluth Chamber Music Festival.
Contributed / Derek Montgomery

DULUTH — When you hear the words "classical music," you may picture a full symphony orchestra thundering into Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5." It doesn't take a hundred musicians to move an audience to tears, though. Some of the repertoire's most moving masterpieces have been written for smaller ensembles.

Chamber music is a term referring to music played by a group smaller than a full symphony orchestra: anything from a solo performance up to a duo, trio, quartet, quintet, octet or even a chamber orchestra of three or four dozen. The word "chamber" describes a performance space smaller — sometimes much smaller — than a hall or auditorium.

A string trio sit on a chapel altar, playing together. Wooden pews are visible in the foreground, and a wall of multicolored bricks is in background.
A string trio performs in the chapel at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth on Aug. 16, 2022, as part of the Duluth Chamber Music Festival, in a performance transmitted to patients' rooms for listening.
Contributed / Matthew Young

"Chamber music builds community," said Matthew Young. "It can be performed in a church, in a living room, on a sidewalk, at a bookstore. Also, some of the composer's deepest, most personal thoughts are conveyed through chamber music. That's where Beethoven really turned after he went deaf: to his string quartets."

Young is one of two artistic directors of the Duluth Chamber Music Festival, which launched last year and will return in August. The festival's other artistic director, Sayaka Tanikawa, seconded Young's sentiments regarding chamber music.

"What draws (me) to it is the collaborative nature (of) working with other musicians on a very intimate level and exchanging ideas," said Tanikawa. "The joy of that process and the collaborative nature of chamber music is something that I hope the audience can enjoy."


This summer's festival program is still coming together, but the artists know they'll again be presenting a concert at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Weber Music Hall. That space, designed by the renowned architect Cesar Pelli (1926-2019), marked its 20th anniversary last fall.

"I have probably no less than 10 international artists who've played here, who said, 'This is the best place we've ever played,'" said Don Schraufnagel. As facility manager and technical director, Schraufnagel was hired in 2002 and has been with the hall for its entire two decades.

A light-skinned woman stands in an orange basket being lifted by crane alongside a building that's under construction. Basket bears a U.S. flag.
UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin is hoisted 80 feet up to the top of the steel dome of Weber Music Hall to place a U.S. flag there and sign the topmost beam as the hall is under construction in February 2002.
Ingrid Young / File / Duluth News Tribune

Locals might know the hall for its vertical, rounded shape (described by the News Tribune in 2002 as "like one end of a copper football rising out of the ground"), or the 124-foot-long skylight that arcs through the hall's curved roof. What might be most distinctive about the venue, though, is how extremely quiet it is.

"The noise floor in Weber is about 20 decibels," said Schraufnagel, referencing the baseline noise level of the hall. By comparison, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis has a noise floor of 28 decibels, according to that venue's head engineer. Duluth Entertainment Convention Center staff don't know the exact noise floor at Symphony Hall, but it's likely even higher.

"It enables you to play softer and have it heard," explained Schraufnagel. "It increases the dynamic range of the (music) group, not up — it increases it down."

The hall is commonly used not just by out-of-town artists like those who came last year for the Duluth Chamber Music Festival, but local musicians and students. "It's a huge thing for the community, particularly the kids in high school around here," said Schraufnagel. "They can go to St. Olaf, or wherever they end up, and say, 'I played my high school choir concert in Weber Hall.'"

There's lots of support for classical music, baroque music and chamber music in town, and I think there's lots of room to grow our audience as well.
Richard Carrick, co-founder of Borealis Chamber Artists

Meanwhile, a group of professional musicians in Duluth have just committed to making more chamber music together. Richard Carrick, Patrick Colvin and Brian Kapp are co-founders of Borealis Chamber Artists, a group making its debut Sunday with a program of baroque music at Pilgrim Congregational Church.

"There's lots of support for classical music, baroque music and chamber music in town," said Carrick, "and I think there's lots of room to grow our audience as well. I think more people will like classical music that haven't realized it yet."


Amid all this activity, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra is moving to take up residence at the St. Louis County Depot, where they will have regular use of the Depot Theatre.

While the DSSO will continue to play large-scale shows at Symphony Hall (capacity: 2,221), the 280-seat Depot Theatre "opens up an opportunity" for the organization, Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe told the News Tribune in December.

 Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe
Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe stands in the Depot Theatre in Duluth on Dec. 28.
Dan Williamson / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

"There are certain things that we want to program that we can't fit on the Symphony Hall stage," explained VanWaeyenberghe. "A piece that requires 8-15 people would look small, dwarfed, on that stage, but a space like the Depot Theatre can be intimate and (listeners can) really be able to connect with the music and the musicians."

Tanikawa and Young, who are based on the East and West coasts respectively, said they're currently in talks with the DSSO about a potential collaboration during this summer's festival. The two met while studying music at Yale, and discovered Duluth through a friend who lives here.

I felt the warmth, this warm embrace from the audience, which was very moving.
Sayaka Tanikawa, Duluth Chamber Music Festival artistic director

"Sayaka and I go there at least once a year," said violist Young, a current member of the San Francisco Symphony and former member of the Minnesota Orchestra, about Duluth. "It's sort of our second home. We make music there, and have for years, but not in any sort of public way."

The Duluth Chamber Music Festival grew out of their local friend's suggestion that the artists take their performances public. "It was very exciting for us. This is really our passion project," said Tanikawa, a pianist who teaches at Juilliard. "I felt the warmth, this warm embrace from the audience, which was very moving."

Exterior of Weber Music Hall in snowy landscape, with two people in winter garb walking in foreground. Hall has tall, rounded burnished golden dome.
UMD's Weber Music Hall, as seen at the time of its opening in October 2002.
Justin Hayworth / File / Duluth News Tribune

Local audiences are curious, said Carrick, who has seen community members turn out with enthusiasm for even challenging musical programs.

"The fact that you can perform the (Michael) Tippett (composition) 'Child of Our Time,' which is a very complex work, and have a great turnout for that at the symphony scale is wonderful," said Carrick, who is director of choral activities at the College of St. Scholastica.


Schraufnagel saw evidence of Duluth "townies'" dedication, he said, after a student performance was canceled due to a snowstorm. An older couple arrived at the hall, and Schraufnagel broke the news that the show was off. "You must be the grandparents of the sax player," said the venue manager.

"No," they responded. "We just like saxophone music."

While attendees at Duluth's expanding chamber music offerings will often hear pieces written by late greats like Antonio Vivaldi and J.S. Bach — both of whom will feature in Sunday's Borealis Chamber Artists concert — the format also creates more opportunities to elevate underrepresented composers.

The DSSO is engaged in a multi-year effort to "celebrate music that is heard all too seldom," music director Dirk Meyer wrote in this season's program notes. The Duluth Chamber Music Festival is similarly dedicated to expanding the canon.

"Last year we had a commission from a living composer, and this year we'll have a performance of a BIPOC female composer who is from the Bay Area, Gabriela Lena Frank," said Young. "We're definitely looking at ways we can broaden and diversify chamber music's impact in the Twin Ports area."

The $9.2 million Weber Music Hall was built mostly with funds appropriated by the state Legislature. Until it opened, UMD was the only campus in the University of Minnesota system without a performance space dedicated to music.

Pelli, the architect behind the Minneapolis Central Library and the Wells Fargo Center (also in Minneapolis), declared his Duluth design "the finest small concert hall in America."

The hall's skylight is well-insulated from the weather, with four layers of glass engineered to hold a layer of heat so they don't fog up. It admits light during all daylight hours, though, which has surprised some artists.


Interior of music hall set up for chamber orchestra performance. Walls are blonde finished wood, with acoustic panels and long vertical skylight visible on domed ceiling.
The interior of Weber Music Hall, with the venue's distinctive skylight visible at top.
Contributed / Peter J. Sieger

"I had a theatrical thing in here once," remembered Schraufnagel, "and the producer says, 'OK, blackout! Turn off all the lights.' I'm like, 'There are no lights on.'"

Young and Tanikawa say they're excited to return — to Weber Music Hall, and to Duluth. "I love the lake, from swimming in it to sailing," said Tanikawa, but added: "The people, the community, that's really the draw for me."

The new chamber music events are additions to a scene that was already rich, said Schraufnagel. "Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra is kind of a profound thing," he said about the Duluth project that has made Weber Music Hall its home. "It gets all those great players and then goes year after year."

"I believe a rising tide lifts all ships," said Carrick, "and the more that we can collaborate and create a culture of classical music and chamber music, the better."

A string trio is seen in a health center atrium with high windows overlooking Lake Superior. Players are seen backlit in silhouette against view of the lake.
A string trio performs in the atrium at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center atrium in Duluth on Aug. 16 as part of the Duluth Chamber Music Festival.
Contributed / Matthew Young

Learn more

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Two theaters formerly used by the Duluth Playhouse will host a wide range of performances and events, including dance and chamber music.

This article was updated at 8:48 a.m. March 8 to correct the name of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. It was originally posted at 6 a.m. March 8. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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