Letter From Michiana: The Michigan City Chamber Music Festival

By David Hoppe

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening in Michigan City, but you probably don’t know what it is.

I am referring to the Michigan City Chamber Music Festival, which just concluded its eighteenth (!) season. This year’s festival, organized around the theme of “Witness, Legacy and Triumph,” took place over the course of a week at Michigan City’s First Presbyterian Church and included works by J.S. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ralph Vaughn-Williams and Benjamin Britten. There were also remarkable performances of relatively unknown gems by composers less familiar, like Johan Halvorsen, Miguel Del Aguila, Lowell Liebermann, Carl Fruhling and Maurice Moszkowski.

The festival was founded by Nic and Sunny Orbovich. Both are accomplished musicians and educators who have made a creative home in Michiana. Rather than simply making it their home base, they decided early on to build an artistic community here, persuading friends and colleagues to join them for an annual musical feast.

This year seventeen musicians came to town, often staying in the homes of festival volunteers, to participate in five evening concerts, as well as three programs designed for kids and their parents. Get this: everything was free of charge.

I find it difficult to overstate how consistently extraordinary these concert experiences have been. You enter the church’s cool, wood-paneled vestibule on a sun-struck, summer evening. The vibe in the hall is down-to-earth, the musicians are often in shirt sleeves. But this informality only serves to unite players and audience members in the shared intimacy of high-test music making. It’s the real deal, taking place in real time.

In this setting, among these performers, you are reminded of how art, at its most essential, reveals human nature, that part of us as original and indispensable as an oak tree, a cloud or a fresh water sea.

It can seem like a kind of miracle that an event of this caliber happens here, in a town of less than 40,000 people. There is little fanfare, zero hype. More to the point, there is barely any press coverage apart from the usual printing of press releases and the cursory feature story in advance of opening night. No one from Chicago or Detroit or Indianapolis comes to write about what’s happening and though this lack of attention helps make the festival a juicy secret for locals, it must also make fund raising more arduous than it should be.

It’s weird that in this era of rampant social media, the kind of arts coverage — reviews, think pieces and assorted features — that were once a part of every metro newspaper are all but gone. This kind of journalism didn’t just provide free advertising for arts groups (as too many publishers contended) it started and sustained public conversations about what the arts meant to their communities.

Folks in Michigan City, whether they go to a chamber festival concert or not, ought to feel a little better about where they live for knowing that every summer they share their town with some amazing artists who, in turn, relish being there. Sunny and Nic Orbovich ought to be given keys to the city. Something’s happening here, all right.

More people should know about it.

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