Strike a Chord – Chamber music festivals in the Finger Lakes

Sold-out crowd at Béla Fleck’s 2019 SkanFest performance at the Robinson Pavilion at Anyela’s VIneyards. Béla will be returning on the first Saturday of the Skaneateles Festival in 2023.
by Nancy E. McCarthy

Here come the sweet sounds of music! Outstanding and long-running chamber music summer festivals in the Finger Lakes Region include the Geneva Music Festival, ChamberFest Canandaigua and the Skaneateles Festival. 

For centuries, chamber music was played in homes (in a room or “chamber”) by small groups performing classical compositions for guests. Today’s chamber music is most commonly heard in concert halls and the term describes any music for small ensembles. Chamber music is typically performed by two to 10 musicians and the repertoire encompasses masterworks, modern works plus jazz, folkloric genres and more.

The festival season starts in May and runs into August. Each festival is an independent performing organization with its own programming. Yet, the festivals co-exist in perfect harmony; none of the concert seasons overlap. That’s great news for music lovers. You don’t have to choose one festival over the other so you can enjoy all three.

Here’s a sneak peek at what’s forthcoming in the 2023 season.

Skaneateles Festival

World Class Music by the Lake

July 27 – August 19 – 44th Season

Co-Artistic Directors: Julia Bruskin and Aaron Wunsch


Its mission is to be one of the nation’s outstanding summer music festivals, set in the beauty of the Finger Lakes Region, Skaneateles community-inspired and recognized for its creative and dynamic concert programming, education, and outreach.

The Skaneateles Festival has brought some of the world’s most talented musicians to the region, with the hope of building community and enduring friendships through music. The goal is to provide an experience that is inspiring, joyful and engaging.


The Skaneateles Festival was the brainchild of cellist Lindsay Groves and Skaneateles residents Beth Boudreau and Louise Robinson in 1980.

The first season was presented in the village’s Library Hall. Through the generosity of David and Louise Robinson, their home, Brook Farm, soon became the festival’s center where the musicians would live, eat, rehearse, relax and perform. That same hospitality was extended to concertgoers who sat under the stars and listened to music for the first 36 years of the festival. The Robinsons and Boudreau have passed away but co-founder Groves still performs in Skaneateles Festival concerts. 

Cellist Julia Bruskin and her husband, pianist Aaron Wunsch, are festival co-artistic directors since 2015. DeWitt resident Susan Mark has been executive director since 1999. During Bruskin and Wunsch’s tenure, the Robinson Pavilion was constructed at Anyela’s Vineyards. The venue accommodates up to 1,200 music lovers to enjoy world-class performances while watching Skaneateles Lake sunsets. 

Several outreach performances are also presented in surrounding communities including Auburn, Marcellus and Syracuse plus indoor concerts at the First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles. 

“While we now attract some of the world’s great musicians, we also maintain the traditions of hospitality and community that distinguished the festival in its early years,” said Bruskin.  

This season will inspire and challenge listeners from Mozart to jazz, from Broadway favorites to the world premiere of Fortitude, Nailah Nombeko’s new work for soprano and string quartet inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman. 

Skaneateles Festival is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) with a board of directors led by President Heather Carroll. The board helps shape the festival’s vision and supports programming with fundraising, community outreach and hosting/housing musicians.


This season features 12 main series concerts, two KidsFest performances and free community outreach performances.

Classical saxophonist Steven Banks, the festival’s first Emerging Artist in Residence, performs in the main series and outreach performances. Other artists making their Skaneateles Festival debut include opera and Broadway star Kelli O’Hara (Aug. 5) and soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (Aug. 3-4). 

Returning musicians include world renowned classical guitarist Eliot Fisk who plays on opening night, July 27; Danish String Quartet on July 28; banjo sensation Béla Fleck and his outstanding ensemble from My Bluegrass Heart (2022 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album) on July 29; East Coast Chamber Orchestra August 10-12, and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman on Aug. 19. 

Loyal music lovers have been attending concerts for decades, but audiences continue to grow as new listeners discover the diverse musical experiences that the Skaneateles Festival offers. “We encourage everyone to experience the festival magic with open ears and open hearts,” said Bruskin. 


Geneva Music Festival

May 21-June 11 – 13th Season

Artistic Director: Geoffrey Herd


The Geneva Music Festival’s mission is to entertain, inspire and nurture a lifelong appreciation of chamber and other musical genres in Finger Lakes communities by presenting world-class artists that engage diverse audiences of all ages, including populations with little exposure to music of this caliber. Purposeful engagement with young people is an integral part of the festival’s programming and children 18 years and younger are admitted free to all public concerts.  Programs in schools and senior living facilities bring live chamber music to audiences that might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it.


The Geneva Music Festival was founded in 2011 by Geneva native and violinist Geoffrey Herd as a weekend of chamber music for his hometown. Along with Herd, fellow Genevan violinist Eliot Heaton and cellist Hannah Collins played that inaugural weekend and still perform every season. Exceptional musical quality, enthusiastic community response and artistic vision provided the impetus for a four-week festival. 

The Geneva Music Festival has become Geneva’s and the Finger Lakes’ premiere summer kick-off event, attracting concert audiences to hear outstanding musicians from the world’s stages.  While rooted in the classical chamber music repertoire, performances now include jazz, contemporary and bluegrass music. Festival musicians represent leading classical soloists, Grammy Award-winning artists, members of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, and faculty from Yale, Juilliard, Colburn School and Cleveland Institute of Music. 

Herd remains artistic director and chief operating officer. Geneva Music Festival is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) with a board of directors led by President Sharon Arthur. The board oversees operations and festival program, sets strategy and objectives, fundraises and manages budgets.


Geneva Music Festival is presenting 10 ticketed concerts and seven free community outreach programs with the overarching theme of “Gods, Myths and the Divine” – exploring connections between music and experiences of uplifting our spirit, seeking something larger in the universe or contemplating our place here on earth. The concerts feature composers throughout history inspired by their religious beliefs or by the universal themes embedded in cultural myths to create music of rich meaning and beauty. 

“Spirituality has been an inspiration to artists across all disciplines. Admiring the Duomo di Milano during my visit to Milan, Italy last August, I recognized that some of humanity’s greatest masterpieces were born in homage to artists’ spiritual practices,” said Herd. “It’s been a rewarding and fruitful process to comb through the chamber music literature in search of spiritually-inspired works. I believe our audience will enjoy hearing this vast and diverse repertoire.”

The Iris Trio (clarinetist Christine Carter, violist Zoë Martin-Doike and pianist Anna Petrova) makes their festival debut in the season opener concert at 5 p.m. May 21 at the Gearan Center for the Performing Arts in Geneva. Others new to the festival include the Grammy-winning Time for Three ensemble (Nicholas Kendall, Zachary DePue, violin and Ranaan Meyer, bass) sharing their unique classical/bluegrass crossover style at 7: 30 p.m. June 2, at the Smith Opera House in Geneva; and acclaimed soul singer-songwriter Jason Clayborn and his eight-piece band at 7:30 p.m. June 8 at The Cracker Factory in Geneva.

It’s exciting for concertgoers to hear new artists, but Herd stated what contributes to the uniqueness of the Geneva Music Festival is the returning “family of musicians” who come back to play every year. 

“These artists have built special relationships and connections with our audiences,” Herd said.


ChamberFest Canandaigua 

July 15-23 -19th Season

Co-Artistic Directors: Amy Sue Barston and Kevin Kumar


The mission of ChamberFest Canandaigua is to bring world-class chamber music to the Finger Lakes region through exceptionally creative, intimate and vibrant presentations.

This includes attracting, engaging and inspiring a broad spectrum of the community; encouraging warm and informative interactions between audiences and musicians; presenting a dynamic and varied repertoire, including music by living composers alongside beloved masterworks; and cultivating music appreciation and participation. ​


ChamberFest Canandaigua was founded in 2004 by two Juilliard-trained musicians: Brighton native violist Ed Klorman and cellist Amy Sue Barston. In 2014, after Klorman accepted a music theory professorship in Montreal, violinist Kevin Kumar came on board as Barston’s co-artistic director. Aimee Ward of Canandaigua has been the festival’s executive director since 2007.

ChamberFest Canandaigua developed an impressive reputation for innovative programming, a welcoming atmosphere and musical excellence. “Amy Sue and Kevin are the main draw.  They are in constant demand and have performed all over,” Ward said. These charismatic and approachable artists linger after concerts to chat with attendees. 

The festival has previously showcased world-class guest artists such as pianist Jon Nakamatsu and clarinetist Charles Neidich as well as topnotch chamber ensembles including the Borromeo, Corigliano, Orion and Ying Quartets.

ChamberFest Canandaigua is a nonprofit 501(c)(3). Its board of directors, led by President Jodi Kaufman, donates time and treasure to support the organizational objective to bring outstanding music, appealing and accessible community outreach and a casual classical atmosphere to greater Canandaigua. Funding sources include individual and corporate donations, grants and ticket sales.


This year’s festival theme is “Symphony in a Teacup” and offers four ticketed events and three free community outreach programs.

“We are featuring works of music that have a notable majestic breadth,” Barston said. “They conjure the symphonic colors and qualities of a whole orchestra, but are chamber works: they use fewer instruments in a more intimate setting.”

For instance, the Beethoven Septet sounds symphonic but utilizes only seven instruments. “It’s like an ‘up close and personal’ philharmonic!” she said.  “Similarly, the Brahms Clarinet Sonata is beloved for its large-scale amorous sweep, but uses only two instruments: clarinet and piano.” Both works will be performed in concert at 7:15 p.m. July 21 at Cobblestone Arts Center in Farmington.

Mainstay programming includes a free children’s concert and Classical Blue Jeans – both have been part of the festival since its inception. The children’s concert, this year titled “Don’t Let the Pigeon Play the Violin!!!” is a lively 30-minute musical show led by Barston and other CFC musicians at 11 a.m. July 20 at Wood Library in Canandaigua. 

Classical Blue Jeans, an interactive musical show with dinner, is a signature ticketed event and always sells out. This year celebrated clarinetist Moran Katz joins other esteemed guest artists including pianist Donna Kwong and violist Johanna Nowik (who makes her ChamberFest debut). As always, Barston and Kumar will play blazing fiddle music and favorite Appalachian tunes at 6 p.m. July 19 at Casa Larga Vineyards in Fairport.

Peeking ahead at ChamberFest Canandaigua’s 2024 season: a brand-new work is being composed to mark the festival’s 20th anniversary. Details will be announced next year.


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