Last weekend something very special happened at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse. Built in 1878, the old building down by the tracks was never meant to host the sort of event it was home to throughout Saturday and Sunday, but times change and fortunately for us someone had the foresight to change the structure’s uses with it.
I’m talking, of course, about Threads All Arts Festival, which, if you haven’t already heard, is perhaps one of the most exciting cultural events to happen in the greater Ann Arbor area in recent memory. The brainchild of a motley crew of 20-somethings mostly out of the University, the festival first appeared in 2016 as a collection of performances and various other arts presentations in Ann Arbor’s Yellow Barn. Now, Threads is back, bigger and better than ever.
When I talked to one of the festival’s founders, Nicole Patrick, before the first iteration of the event in 2016, I initially had no idea what a wonderful thing was about to happen. But through what appears to be sheer force of will, a fair bit of funding through various sources like the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s EXCEL program and a great deal of talent on the part of the artists involved in the festival, the Threads team has been able to pull together an event that places the focus on one of the most important elements of creative culture today: local art.
All artists start local. That’s just how it works. And the ones who end up going beyond that, those who reach larger and larger audiences, usually have some sort of backing from their community, whether it’s a dedicated fan base, some form of funding or a combination of both. This sort of relationship is helpful to more than just the artists — it takes on a symbiotic nature fairly quickly, strengthening both the individual artists and the larger public.
“We really believe that the community will feel stronger connections to the place that they live if they are also aware of the artists who live here,” Patrick told me in 2016, and I certainly agree. But the value of Threads extends beyond more than just fortifying the bonds between artists and their community. To me, the festival’s most exciting aspect is perhaps the integration of art from all manner of backgrounds. This column is supposed to be about classical music — and it is, obliquely — but Threads incorporates things from everywhere. The walls of the Freighthouse were host to a variety of visual art, including multimedia presentations, and in various parts of the building people could stop by performers reciting poetry or playing music. Throughout the festival’s two days, there were rockers, jazz players, dancers, rappers, funk players and (here’s the justification for this column) classical musicians.
And here’s the thing: The same audience was there for it all. And sure, the sorts of people who buy a ticket to something billing itself as an “all arts festival” are probably going to be fairly open minded when it comes to their artistic tastes, but nevertheless I feel it’s important to talk about how if classical music wants to reach a broader audience this isn’t a bad way to do it. The same group of people who danced to a compelling performance by Louis Picasso and the Gallery on one night listened intently to Grey Grant and the Front Porch ensemble perform original compositions out of the classical style the very next day.
While I enjoyed everything I heard at Threads (though I sadly didn’t hear as much as I would have liked, due to my prohibitively busy schedule), the latter performance deserves singling out. An emotional journey inspired by the ecology of Mich. in bygone years, Grey Grant managed to craft a work that is moving, evocative and, by the end, exhausting (in the best sense). Their feeling for drama and flow led the listener along without ever seeming to, and the members of Front Porch executed the at-times demanding music with precision and nuance. (Full disclosure: Grey is a dear friend of mine, as are the members of Front Porch, two of whom I live with and all of whom have played my own music — which is to say that I am in no way unbiased in this matter).
But the point isn’t that I felt these things. It’s that, judging from the reaction of the audience (a standing ovation), everyone else felt them too. And that’s how you expand the genre. You give people something concrete and meaningful to grab onto. You give them a reason to want to listen. You don’t ask them to drag themselves out to the concert hall for another rendition of Beethoven, or to a glamourous night at the opera. Let them see the composer and let them wear blue-jeans. Let them eat food from the venue’s vendors while they enjoy the performance. And if you do nothing else, please — please — help break down the walls separating classical from the rest of the music world.