Winter Chamber Music Festival Preview-Interviews with Blair Milton and Joseph Kalichstein

Northwestern University’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music will present the 2017 Winter Chamber Music Festival on 7 evenings from January 8th through January 29th. All the events will begin at 7:30 P.M. and take place at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. The festival, made possible by the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, will feature classics and new works by internationally acclaimed musicians.

Blair Milton; photo by Todd Rosenberg


Performances are as follows:

 -Sunday, January 8th: New Orford String Quartet

-Friday, January 13th: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio

-Sunday, January 15th: Dover Quartet (Quartet-in-Residence)

-Friday, January 20th: Calidore String Quartet

-Sunday, January 22nd: Bienen School Faculty and Guest Artists

-Friday, January 27th: St. Lawrence String Quartet

-Sunday, January 29th: Simone Lamsma with Andrew Armstrong and Kenneth Olsen 

This reviewer recently had the opportunity to interview Blair Milton, founder of the Festival and Joseph Kalichstein, principal member of the famous chamber music trio that bears his name, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. They provided valuable insights into the Festival, the Trio, and their lifelong devotion to music.

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio; photo by Christian Steiner

 Blair Milton joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1975 and four years later became a founding member of the Evanston Chamber Ensemble. He is the originator of the Winter Chamber Music Festival, which began in 1997, is a member of Northwestern University’s violin faculty since 1984, and is the director of Northwestern’s Summer Violin Institute. He’s played with many of the world’s finest performers and conductors and given master classes across the U.S. and around the world. A soft-spoken, thoughtful and spontaneously eloquent man, he spoke with joy and candor.

 Understandably, wearing so many hats, Milton must be an inordinately well-organized individual; this is “Not effortless- it’s the result of habit and pays off so richly.” Aside from the calendars prepared by the CSO, he books the Evanston Chamber Ensemble rehearsals for the entire year in advance and “Always keeps a personal calendar of the music to have prepared; for demanding concerts, you give yourself ample time”. As of the date of our interview, he was “Engaging the faculty for the summer, contacting students and planning”.

All of the different aspects of his life’s work are “Just as meaningful and compelling” as they were when he began this journey. Furthermore, “They all complement one another. They fill out the meaning of a musical life in different directions. Leading young people, guiding them through their career” is so rewarding. “What Chamber music can mean to a spiritual life! And the vast additional riches the orchestra opens up!”

The Dover Quartet; photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Fulfilling all of these obligations at the extraordinary level demanded by the work and his deep personal commitment “Makes you self-examine, constantly aware of your own mental and physical status; you must maintain yourself in a heightened state so that you can play.” Indeed, he sees himself as an integral part of the instrument, even down to the very flexibility of his hands.

At this stage in his career, Milton is still very much hands-on in all of his roles. For the upcoming Winter Chamber Music Festival, beginning this Sunday, January 8th, he picked all of the groups and helped them select the repertoire to be performed. “In the last 2 or 3 years, we have moved toward including rising star young quartets”. The “lynchpin or initial thrilling moment was when Daniel Barenboim agreed to play with 4 members of the CSO, performing a Brahms quintet. It was the first time he appeared at Northwestern and he donated his services. It was the most spectacular day! It was also Superbowl Sunday, and 3:00 concert in a heavy blizzard. Still, Pick-Staiger Hall was filled to capacity and we had to set up 200 seats on the perimeter and 75 on the stage itself.”

And his hopes and dreams for this year’s Festival? “Providing the variety of new artists to the audiences; keeping the repertoire fresh and exciting. Every year we bring in new young people. Classical music is very much alive! It’s food for the soul. It’s vital”.


St. Lawrence String Quartet; photo by E. Cheng


The Kalichstein-Laredo Trio will perform  on January 13th at 7:30 PM at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. They debuted in 1977 at the inauguration for President Carter, and have since set the standard for performance of piano-trio performance. They have also recorded most of the classic literature in that genre including the complete trios of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, the complete music for their instruments by Ravel, and many works by new composers.


Joseph Kalichstein began his studies at Julliard at the age of 16 and went on to win numerous awards including the Leventritt Competition at the age of 23, the same year he gained his Master’s degree. He became a member of the Julliard School Piano faculty in 1983. In 1997, he was appointed Artistic Advisor for Chamber Music and Artistic Director of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was appointed in 2003 to Julliard’s newly created established Edwin S. and Nancy A. Marks Chair in Chamber Music Studies.

 Kalichstein is an open and generous interview subject; he warmly and candidly shared his thoughts.

His relationship with the other 2 members of the trio- who have been married to each other since the trio started- can be described as “ Very deep; 40 years of friendship. We liked each other to begin with. There is a lot of instinctive agreement and a lot of discussions and disagreement. But we have the same worldview.”

New Orford String Quartet; photo courtesy of MKI Artists

He teaches both piano and chamber music performance; the trio tours and he tours individually and with orchestras, so it’s a very busy life. “The teaching has enriched my life. It’s true that you do learn a great deal from your students. In order to help someone, you have to be very analytical, to understand why something doesn’t work. You can’t get into a rut- it’s always a challenge. You learn to listen and react to yourself in an acute way. If you are honest about teaching, you can’t be lazy intellectually, you have to demonstrate.”

I asked Kalichstein about current artistic challenges. He replied, “When you deal with great music, it never rests. It may not be as hard as it once was, but every time you approach a piece it’s different. It’s a live thing, it talks to you, you try to make it more natural, more simple. You keep searching for truth. If you feel you have the answer, or you cannot do it better, which is very rare, you leave the piece alone.”

He described another type of challenge: “To continue to find contemporary works that have deep value and meaning- it’s a fun quest.”

Simone Lamsma; photo by Otto van den Toorn



For more information and tickets to the Winter Chamber Music Festival, go to the [email protected] website, call 8474674000 or visit the Pick-Staiger box office at 50 Arts Circle Drive

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