Thirsty Ears, Chicago’s only classical music street fest, returns to Ravenswood for third year

By Keegan Morris |

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Musicians perform a free classical concert during the 2017 Thirsty Ears Festival (Photo: Elliot Mandel)

Food, fun, neighborhood charm: these are things that you’d expect at any Chicago street fair. But only one also features free, live classical music.

The third annual Thirsty Ears Festival, Chicago’s only classical music street fair, takes place August 11-12 in Ravenswood on Wilson Street between Hermitage and Ravenswood. The festival is organized by Access Contemporary Music (ACM), and spearheaded by its executive director, Seth Boustead, who also hosts Relevant Tones, the only nationally syndicated radio program devoted to contemporary classical music.

“As a Chicagoan in the summer, you go to street festivals. Most of them are being run by the same company… I felt like a lot of the street festivals had lost their uniqueness,” Boustead said. While attending a street fair with friends, he realized that he wanted to start a festival that features classical music.

“It does bother me that so many people outside of the classical music field have this idea that it is kind of stuffy, or that it’s always expensive, or that you have to wear a tuxedo,” Boustead lamented. “That notion is really annoying to me, and not true. If you just listen to the music itself, it’s fantastic. I want to share what I love with people in a way that’s fun and approachable and not stuffy.”

The first two editions of Thirsty Ears were a hit with audiences, made up of devoted classical music fans and curious neighbors alike. Boustead says that “the goal is not just to create something for those who already know the music. We’re really excited when people say things like, ‘I stayed four hours and I didn’t mean to,’ ‘It was so fun!’, or ‘I didn’t know that classical music could be so diverse.’”

“If you think classical music is just dead white guys, then you’re going to be really surprised. We want you to throw out those old ideas you have and have a great time! It’s the best way I can think of to spend an afternoon!”

Not everyone in attendance always realizes what a rare opportunity it is to see these particular performers play on the street, but “they see other people who are amazed by who is here. It’s like a ripple effect, you see people realize that something special is happening.”

But there have been some challenges to presenting this type of music in this particular setting. Most classical music was written to be heard indoors, in buildings that have been painstakingly designed to have (hopefully) incredible acoustic qualities.

Young music lovers enjoy storytime with The Lucky Trikes during the 2017 Thirsty Ears Festival

Obviously, performing outside on a city street is a very different story, even if stages are built to accommodate musicians. “That’s a place where WFMT really helped us. Mary Mazurek is an incredible engineer who is out here both days making sure everyone sounds great. We have a sponsorship from Shure, they provide the microphones. WFMT and Loyola University are giving us some, too. Now we have a sponsorship from PianoForte. It’s going to sound better than ever this year.”

The itineraries for Saturday and Sunday are packed with fifteen ensembles and individual artists. Artists to perform on the mainstage include Ursa Ensemble, Zafa Collective, Gaudete Brass, and Amazonland Chamber Players. On Saturday, All Saints Episcopal Church opens its doors to the Chicago Composers Orchestra, which presents open rehearsals and conversation before it performing a concert. On Sunday, you can experience a performance of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking work In C, also in All Saints.

At Thirsty Ears, in keeping with the spirit of street fests, you can also feed your hungry belly. Vendors like Black Dog Gelato, Fat Shallot Food Truck, Korean Bop Food Truck, and Empirical Brewing will give you something to snack and sip while you hang out with friends and family.

For younger music lovers, there will be a Kidzone with activities, games, and performances. Boustead believes that high quality children’s programming is critical, especially as arts funding is being slashed at schools. This year, families can enjoy “a mix of kid’s game, storytelling, and then a violin performance.” Plus, the WTTW Big Ideas Van and the Dinder Brothers Family Circus will be stopping by. The Lucky Trikes, a “storytime chamber band for all ages,” will lead storytelling and an instrument petting zoo to allow little ones to get closer to the instruments that spark their curiosity.

“I want hearing music on the street to be normal for these kids, whether they play music or not. We are making the environment more musical. We want to encourage kids to be expressive, to be creative, and to appreciate the creativity of others. That’s what leads us to tolerance, that’s what leads us to better understand each other.”

Find a full schedule of events on ACM’s website.