Sunflower Music Festival developed from an exciting dinner conversation in early 1987 between Russell Patterson (then Conductor of the Kansas City Lyric Opera) and Charles Stegeman (then associate concertmaster of the Opera), and their spouses. Charles supplied the vision, musicians and format, and Russ applied his experience and skill at fundraising, administration and putting artistic ideas into action. Russ secured funding with the help of Hallmark Cards and their Topeka banker Dean Hodges. To Russ, the opportunity to perform at White Concert Hall at Washburn University was one of the strong attractions for choosing Topeka as the location host for the event.
Washburn University President John Greene was delighted to be the host of this new international cultural event and saw to it that the music department, under the direction of Chairman Floyd Hedberg, rolled out the needed enthusiasm and support for the new Sunflower Music Festival. A mere five months later Charles and Russ and a group of hand-picked musicians took the stage at Washburn’s White Concert Hall for the first chamber orchestra concert of the Sunflower Music Festival. The rest is history! Twenty-nine years later the Festival continues to fulfill its original purpose as “a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the presentation of an annual series of free concerts of the highest artistic caliber during a two-week period in June.”
The Festival’s mission expanded significantly in 1993, when the orchestra’s principal players asked then Music Department Chairman, Kirt Saville, to help organize and administer a program of instruction for promising young classical musicians. That year the first Sunflower Music Festival Summer Institute brought together twenty-one students, selected by audition, from around the country. They were taught by Sunflower artists, including current musicians Charles Stegeman (violin) and Bryan Kennedy (brass).
The next year the Blanche Bryden Foundation added its generous support to the Institute. In recognition of that commitment, the program was renamed The Blanche Bryden Sunflower Music Festival Summer Institute. To date, over 398 talented young artists have been coached by Sunflower musicians and have had the opportunity to perform on the Festival stage. Many are now successful musical professionals.
In 2008, Charles Stegeman spearheaded a new international String Quartet Academy as part of the Blanche Bryden Institute. Designed to provide intensive coaching to university-level pre-formed quartets, this program is now under the direction of the Atrium Quartet from St. Petersburg, Russia and living in Berlin, Germany. At the same time, the Festival also extended the high school Institute to include strings.
In 2009, the Festival “officially” established an “Apprentice” program as an important vehicle for the development of young professional musicians still in the early years of their careers. Many such talented young artists who have passed through the ranks of the Festival have gone on to very successful careers as orchestral players or university professors. Former apprentices include Brian Lewis, Movsef Pogossian, Varty Manoelian, Christine Wu and Zsolt Eder—to name but a few!
The Festival sponsors outreach activities and performances. “Talk Back” sessions follow all three of the chamber music concerts and allow interested listeners to engage musicians in a dialogue to learn more about the evening’s repertoire and music making in general. Social gatherings help produce the rare camaraderie that exists between musicians and audience members who make up the Sunflower family.
Sunflower Music Festival is available free of charge to all music lovers—through the generosity of corporate and foundation sponsors, individual donors and our host, Washburn University. In spite of severe cutbacks in funding for the arts at both national and state levels, the Festival thrives and continues to delight and surprise all who attend.
Below are the programs for each year of the festival: