Mary Pappert School of Music Returns to Kansas
A chance dinner conversation in 1987 between Russell Patterson (former conductor of the Kansas City Lyric Opera) and Charles Stegeman (Professor of Violin) sparked an idea that quickly became a highly successful summer music festival. Five months after that initial conversation, the Sunflower Music Festival held its first public concerts at Washburn University's White Concert Hall. What was a set of three concerts that year has become an annual festival, this year featuring nearly 60 performers and nine concerts in nine days. Now in its 34th season, Sunflower continues to create work for musicians and bring that music to the community, while providing training and experience to up-and-coming performers.
In the early years, Stegeman and Patterson ran the festival together, with Stegeman assuming most of the artistic director responsibilities and Patterson taking care of the business side and some orchestral programming. Both volunteered their time running the project, and Washburn University continues to donate their space and housing, keeping costs of the festival at a bare minimum. Operating costs are raised entirely through grants and donations (this year, the festival has received two separate grants from the National Endowment for the Arts), allowing all the concerts to be offered free of charge to the public.
Even though Charles Stegeman moved to Pittsburgh a few years after Sunflower's inception, he has continued his role as Artistic Director of the festival every year. Its success has even led him to create three other similar music festivals: one in Crested Butte, CO; one in Marion, MA; and a third in Johnson County, KS.
Over the years, a strong Duquesne community presence has grown at Sunflower. This year, three faculty members and several alumni and current students will be participating. Faculty members involved this year include Dean and Professor, David Allen Wehr (Principal Piano at Sunflower since 2007), Stegeman, and his wife Rachel (member of the Sunflower orchestra since 2002). In addition, Ron Samuels (Woodwind Area Coordinator and PSO clarinetist) has participated in previous years. Both Wehr and Rachel Stegeman are eager to return to Topeka this summer, both for the festival and for personal ties to the community.
"It's pure coincidence that I went to school for five years at the University of Kansas, just 27 miles down the road!" Wehr says.
Similarly, Rachel Stegeman said, "I have come to love the city of Topeka and the wonderful feeling of community there. My kids have grown up there through the years, and every year is like a homecoming to see our favorite Topekans!"
Wehr goes on to say, "The Festival brings together some of the finest musicians around to play in one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. The Topeka audience has taken the festival and the musicians to its collective heart and supports these concerts in a tremendous way, and what artist doesn't really like being appreciated? I always have a blast making music with these cream-of-the-crop colleagues."
Stegeman utilizes the festival as a real-world training ground to further enrich the studies of his Duquesne students, inviting them to apprentice with him and participate as performers in the orchestra. According to him, 100% of his students that go to Sunflower have also gone on to win jobs performing. Alumni and students who will be part of this year's orchestra include:
- Tobias Chisnall, violin (A.D., 2019; M.M., 2017) - Pittsburgh Opera/Ballet orchestras; Associate Concertmaster, Johnstown Symphony
- Gabrielle Faetini, violin (M.M., 2020; B.M., 2018) - Freelance violin teacher
- Sarah Gudbaur, violin (M.M., 2021; B.M., 2019) - Freelance violin teacher
- Jonathan Gunn, clarinet (M.M., 1997) - Former Principal Clarinet, Cincinnati Symphony
- Jennifer Gunn, flute (B.M., 1998) - Principal Piccolo, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- Jesse Thompson, violin (B.M., 2019; A.D., expected graduation May 2022)
The 2021 festival, albeit delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, dedicates itself to celebrating last year's 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution by focusing on the work of female composers, performers, and soloists. Repertoire to be performed includes Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman by Joan Tower, a one-woman production of Woman on a Ledge by Rita Costanzi, a jazz night featuring vocalist Deborah Brown, a panel discussion on women's rights, and much more. In addition, composer Libby Larsen was commissioned to write a piece for the festival that highlights the words and work of four female Supreme Court Justices. The world premiere of that piece, The Supreme Four, will be performed at this year's closing concert on June 26 and will be narrated by Laura Kelly, Governor of Kansas.
All nine concerts will be livestreamed, free of charge. To register for the livestream, visit sunflowermusicfestival.org. Plans are already underway for next year's festival to continue focusing on cultural awareness and diversity in music with a theme centered around Black composers and performers.
"As a musical vision," Charles Stegeman says, "it is important for all of us to be entrepreneurial. We need to create opportunities for others that not only serve our communities, but also serve our students, our colleagues, our university, our art form, and thereby ultimately God."
Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and horizon-expanding education. A campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, Duquesne prepares students by having them work alongside faculty to discover and reach their goals. The University's academic programs, community service, and commitment to equity and opportunity in the Pittsburgh region have earned national acclaim.
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