Jean Berkenstock’s Legacy

When Jean Berkenstock was 4 years old in Northbrook, Illinois, she began playing music on the recorder. As far back as she could remember, music was an all-consuming obsession. 

She and her sister would make their way to Ravinia, a concert venue in the north Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and sneak into a clump of bushes to listen to the orchestra’s practice sessions. By then, she had taken up the flute, earning a spot in the Chicago Youth Orchestra. Jean was on her way through a musical journey that would lead her to become the principal flutist of the Chicago Lyric Opera for 43 years. 

“Liquid crystal is as close as I can come to describing that unforgettable sound, whether floating above the Lyric pit, Pick-Staiger stage, Rock Island Boathouse or some lucky Door County residents’ living room,” said David Perry, the first violinist for Midsummer’s Music who played alongside her for many years.  

She didn’t just grow to become a world-renowned flutist – she also brought those skills to Door County with her husband Jim. The two were an elite musical pairing, Jean as a transcendent flutist and Jim as the principal bassoonist at the Lyric Opera, a position he held for 48 years. And as a summer side project, they created Midsummer’s Music Festival.  

“When we built a home up here in 1987, we loved the arts and the music here, but what we thought was missing was a chamber ensemble, a smaller, more focused group of musicians,” Jim said. 

They started batting around the idea of creating a chamber-music series and found that others were interested. In 1991, they held their first concert at the Hardy Gallery in Ephraim during Fyr Bal weekend. The dates were chosen not so much because of the festival, but because there was a gap in their performing schedule at the Lyric Opera and the Grant Park Orchestra. The weekend performances proved they had something to build on.

“One of the people instrumental for us early on was Bob Hastings,” Jim Berkenstock said. “Hastings was the head of the Door County Chamber of Commerce at the time, and he was really interested in music. He was interested in any way to find offerings to give people something to do if they came in June or late August or fall.”

Attracting musicians to come play for them wasn’t difficult. 

“Everything else was hard, but attracting musicians was easy,” Jim said. “It’s not too hard to entice people to come to Door County for a good reason. Musicians that play in orchestras like the idea of playing in chamber. It gives them more exposure, especially if you’re a string player. In an orchestra, you’re one of 10 to 12 people playing the same part. In chamber, you’re playing your own part, and there’s no conductor. It’s a different experience in a beautiful place.”

And having Jean involved gave it instant legitimacy.

“She’s one of the finest flute players in the country,” Jim said. “Her playing sort of set an example for the group that was really important in saying who we were and what our quality was to the audience, but also to the other players. When you’re going to play in a group like that, the first thing you want to know is, ‘Who else am I going to be playing with?’ Good players attract other good players.”

Jean Berkenstock plays the flute at the Hardy Gallery. When she wasn’t playing at Midsummer’s Music Festival, she was the principal flutist of the Chicago Lyric Opera for 43 years. Submitted.

Allyson Fleck, now the director of Midsummer’s Music, said that standard reverberated through the organization and the music community.  

“People are blown away by the quality of music and the quality of musicians,” she said. “So many friends and connections of theirs would come because they are the highest level artists. Players of that quality will sacrifice their own schedule to play with other people of that caliber.”

But Jean didn’t just play; she did the dirty work too. Bringing great musicians to the peninsula also meant finding them housing. Jean would do so, calling on supporters with spare rooms or apartments. She found volunteers to help at performances and would distribute music for players to practice.

“It was a lot of tedious work,” said Jim, who as the artistic director would choose the music and create the schedule of concerts. “I would order the music, turn it over to her and she would break it out and send it to the different players.”

When Jean died in October at age 89, Jim learned just how much she meant to people. 

“One of the things I didn’t fully grasp were the messages of condolences about how much Jean affected them,” he said. “Messages about how she encouraged them professionally and the impact she had on them with her quiet, but strong sense of who she was and who they were working with and an example of who they could be. I wish I could share them with her. She would be amazed to see the impact she had on so many people.”

Leslie Grimm, a clarinetist who performed with Jean at the Lyric Opera, said she was dear to her.

“I looked up to her as a model to emulate as a professional musician and as a teacher,” Grimm said. 

Together, the Berkenstocks built a legacy larger than they imagined possible. Midsummer’s Music is much more than a few summer sessions today; it extends throughout the year with the Griffon String Quartet bringing free chamber music throughout the county through community events, Christmas concerts and work with schools. 

“It’s a testament to her legacy, because I couldn’t have done it without her,” Jim said. “She was a great supporter of mine and I was a great supporter of hers.”

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