Washington Island Music Festival

Washington Island may seem an unlikely home for a chamber music festival. However, the island has a rich musical tradition, which the Washington Island Music Festival has enhanced for two decades, bringing world-class artists from the Milwaukee, Chicago, Colorado, and St. Louis symphonies to the island, as well as musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago orchestra, the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music, the Juilliard School, and Chicago’s Music of the Baroque.

The festival began with a visit to the island by Stephen Colburn, the festival’s artistic director, and his wife Marlee Sabo. Their first visit was in 1989, at the invitation of Shirley Gustafson, an islander who was also a voice student of Marlee’s at the Milwaukee Conservatory. Colburn and Sabo thought a visit might be a nice respite from their busy schedules, which included Colburn’s work as principal oboist for the Milwaukee Symphony and, in the summers, for the Santa Fe Opera.

After that visit, Colburn and Sabo came back to the island in the spring of 1990, “just to see if it was still there,” said Colburn, “or if, like Brigadoon, it had evaporated into the mist.”

Over the years since then, the festival’s roster of musicians has remained remarkably stable, with members of the Milwaukee Symphony forming the core. And Colburn’s enthusiasm has been contagious. As bassoonist Beth Giacobassi said, “Our kids have grown up with the island and have many friends there.” It was “magical,” she continued, “we’d found a place that combines our love of music, the great outdoors and good friends.”

This year’s festival will run from August 1 through 18 and include four major concerts featuring familiar chamber works by Mozart, Dvorak, Haydn, and Vivaldi, plus some pieces by lesser-known composers. The festival will also include a free childrens concert, pre-performance talks, an open rehearsal, and other presentations and performances.

The August 12 concert will feature “Island Songs and Dances,” by Eric Ewazen of the Juilliard School, a piece commissioned and performed at the 2006 festival and inspired by Ewazen’s earlier visit to the island. The August 18 event is the traditional “Under the Big Top” show, in which island performers, co-directed by Julian Hagen and Cindra Hokkanen, display their varied talents.

For more information or a complete schedule of events visit or call 920.847.3434.

Related Organizations