This year is a special year for Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, as it marks the center’s 50th anniversary. KCPA has provided the C-U community with a variety of performances too vast to list here, but an especially unique event generated by KCPA is ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival. ELLNORA will kick off KCPA's 2019-2020 performance season this September , marking the biennial festival's eighth iteration. Long-time fans of this ELLNORA might remember that in its early years (it began in 2005), it was known as the Wall to Wall Guitar Festival — the name was changed in honor of Ellnora Krannert, a philanthropist and the wife of Herman Krannert; together they established KCPA.

A visit to KCPA’s website gives this insight: “Ellnora Krannert was an open-hearted woman with a vision: an inviting space where everyone was welcome and could naturally meet and merge in a celebration of the arts.” Sitting down with Mike Ross (KCPA Director) and Bridget Lee-Calfas (KCPA Advertising and Publicity Director), it was immediately apparent that Ellnora’s vision is at the core of how the organization, and especially the Guitar Festival, is run.

Ellnora (2)

At the Festival

Throughout our meeting, both Ross and Lee-Calfas bubbled with enthusiasm about the 2019 ELLNORA festival plans. So far this year, there are confirmed artists from nine countries outside of the US, and guitarists from across the states as well. In past years, festival-goers have come from 18+ different states to attend performances by the varied selection of artists. The diversity featured at ELLNORA belies the size: a festival with such a wide range of performers usually has a much bigger footprint. However, ELLNORA is hosted entirely within the KCPA grounds. There are seven indoor stage areas, and the outdoor amphitheater will boast performances as well. Lee-Calfas pointed out the truly staggering talent ELLNORA showcases on the festival's stages: performers include grammy-winners, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, and Billboard top 100 artists. With so many high-profile performers, it’s important to note KCPA’s commitment to local artistry doesn’t get lost in the shuffle: for example, the final performance at ELLNORA this year will be Brandon Washington, continuing the long-standing tradition of having a local artist close out the festival.

Tradition and innovation

Even the curators of the festival include big names: David Spelman (the man behind the New York Guitar Festival) is back again this year helping to curate and coordinate artists. The relatively compact performance space means that the coordinators pay close attention to the staging of each event. Underpinning all of this is the invaluable fact that the organizers of the festival are creative and curious and bold, and always searching for ways to incorporate new types of performances. This was exemplified by the wildly successful experiment at the 2017 ELLNORA Festival dubbed “Spontaneous Combustion,” which grouped festival artists who have never before played music with each other into on-the-spot ensembles, and let the collaborative magic happen. It was so well-received in 2017 that it became a highly anticipated feature of the 2019 festival. It’s scheduled to take place after the opening party on the first evening of the festival (it’s one of the ticketed events, and space is limited, so snag your tickets for this one early).

This year is no exception to the experimentation. When I asked about innovations in performances we’ll see at ELLNORA this year, both Ross and Lee-Calfas mentioned a project by renowned guitarist Kaki King called Data Not Found. Data Not Found is a collaborative multimedia project that explores the way data and music intersect and impact our lives. (See more about the project here). The performance will include King on guitar, and projections of data-driven images throughout. It is an excellent example of how ELLNORA provides the space for guitarists to push the boundaries of traditional performance, and incorporate innovative styles and techniques. Ross often reiterates that KCPA intends to act as an intersection of classroom, laboratory, and public square, and ELLNORA has elements that represent each of those components

In addition to Kaki King, this year’s lineup features the array of quality, renowned guitarists we’ve come to expect from this internationally acclaimed festival. Some events are guitar-centered but not performance-based: for example, luthier (guitar-maker) Rachel Rosenkrantz joins the festival lineup as a presenter this year. Rosenkrantz is a French luthier based in Rhode Island, and was featured on this episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Raw Craft. Ross was careful to point out that in addition to presenting highly visible and familiar artists and names in the guitar world, KCPA takes “very seriously our responsibility, especially as being part of a land-grant university, to introduce our campus and communities to the unfamiliar sub-genres of music, unfamiliar artists themselves who are either emerging or artists who have been overlooked, perhaps.” He noted that the festival is a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and can be thought of as sort of a “discovery-zone” of experience.

Rachel Rosenkrantz, photo by Andrew Westhoff

Inclusivity at Ellnora

As Ross described it, in some respects ELLNORA serves as a microcosm of KCPA’s overall mission. At the forefront of the effort is the desire to create a gathering place where everyone in the community feels welcome to participate. Special consideration is given to each component of the festival to make it as inclusive as possible. “Realizing the breadth of the instrument [guitar] and what it means in so many different cultures to me is one of the most exciting elements of the festival,” Lee-Calfas said at one point. After a brief thoughtful pause, she immediately added that one of the hallmarks of ELLNORA is the number of free performances. Of around 30 performances currently scheduled, nearly half will be free and open to the public.

These free performances are intended to remove the financial barriers that prestigious music and arts festivals often present, so as to make sure that no one is excluded from enjoying the festival because of cost. To this end, there is also free parking in the garage and around KCPA throughout the weekend. (You can find a link to busses that drop off near KCPA here). Festival planners chose the free performances mindfully, with an eye toward inclusivity: for the first time in ELLNORA history, the opening party will be free and open to the public. To encourage multi-generational participation, the public is also invited to a free family-friendly show featuring Danny Weinkauf, guitarist for the acclaimed They Might be Giants.

ELLNORA, KCPA, and (our) community

ELLNORA epitomizes the benefit of living in micro-urban Champaign-Urbana: the festival is an internationally-recognized event packed with the highest calibre artists, and it’s right here in our town of less than 250,000 residents. Careful attention is paid by festival organizers to ensure that everyone can curate their own ELLNORA experience: with free shows, performances of varying size and intimacy, and quality guitar players from here at home and around the globe, everyone is welcomed and encouraged to gather in a spirit of discovery and enthusiasm.

It’s clear that Ross is dedicated not only to showcasing incredible guitarists throughout ELLNORA, but also actively utilizing the performing arts as a tool to build community. He remarked that he’s always aware of  “the special capacity that the arts have, especially the performing arts, to give people reason to gather despite their differences, despite all the different kinds of difference that exist. [We are] in the midst of a very highly charged climate domestically and globally, and so we take very seriously our responsibility when we’re designing experiences to do our best to give people reason to come together.” Ross emphasized that he hopes that ELLNORA (and also the rest of KCPA’s programming more broadly) will remind us that not only can we peacefully coexist in the same physical space and in real time, but also that we can share meaningful experiences with each other. Lee-Calfas added that her hope is that festival attendees will bring a spirit of curiosity to ELLNORA, as well as to the entire season of performances at KCPA. “We expect it to be an exploration,” she said, “and we’re doing it together.”

Buddy Guy at ELLNORA 2013, photo by Sean O'Connor

ELLNORA: The Guitar Festival takes place September 5-7, 2019 at Krannert Center. Visit their website for all ticketing and performance information. Check out the full lineup and schedule below via KCPA's press release.

THURSDAY, September 5th

6pm Opening Night Party

6pm & 7:30pm Toko Telo 

6:30pm Bombino 

8pm Samantha Fish with Luther Dickinson

9:30pm Spontaneous Combustion with Luther Dickinson, Steve Dawson, Rob Ickes, Trey Hensley, and Molly Tuttle

FRIDAY, September 6th

11am The 21st Live with Niala Boodhoo

12pm Across the Sea: Jeff Peterson, Greg Sardinha, Tsun-Hui Hung

1:30pm Panel Discussion with Fabi Reyna

2:45pm Live Podcast—Music Makers and Soul Shakers with Steve Dawson

4pm Panel Discussion with Rachel Rosenkrantz, luthier: Innovation in Playing, Innovation in Building

5pm Sona Jobarteh

6pm Molly Tuttle and Steve Dawson

7:30pm Kaki King: DATA NOT FOUND

8pm & 10pm Stephane Wrembel Band

9pm Pat Metheny Side Eye

10:30pm The Messthetics

SATURDAY, September 7th

9am Yoga with GLOW by Lola

10am Danny Weinkauf and the Red Pants Band

10:15am Stephane Wrembel Solo

11am Bokyung Byun and Jason Vieaux

11am Workshop with Rachel Rosenkrantz, luthier: Anatomy of Sound

12:30pm Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley

1:30pm Sávila

2:30pm Anat Cohen and Marcello Gonçalves; Aritmia: Merima Ključo and Miroslav Tadić

2:30pm & 4pm Danilo Brito Quartet

5pm The Bluebonnets

5pm & 8pm Sonic Meditation

6pm Tony McManus and Julia Toaspern

7:15pm & 9pm Rafiq Bhatia

8:30pm Buddy Guy

10pm Brandon T. Washington and Friends

Top photo provided by Krannert Center; Graphic by Nicole Lanphier