Ellnora: Strumming the chord of diversity

David Spelman backstage with Daniel Lanois at Ellnora 2013.

By Frances Welch

Stretching back to the 16th century, the guitar has evolved as much as the timeline of human history. Originating from what was once called a long-neck lute, today’s modern counterpart has developed into the backbone of all musical genres. 

Music lovers can continue to celebrate this diversity and evolution of the instrument at the three-day Ellnora Guitar Festival starting Thursday, Sept. 10 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. This is the sixth year of the biennial event.  

Founded in 2005 by Krannert Center Director Mike Ross and musician and music curator David Spelman, the two have put emphasis on making this festival a time for individuals of all walks of life to gather and celebrate music; a philosophy that Ross said was heavily influenced by Ellnora Krannert, a co-donator of the Krannert Center and the inspiration behind the festival’s name.

“(Ellnora Krannert) loved the idea of a communal gathering touchstone, mix-it-all-up kind of space, and that’s very much in the spirit of our guitar festival,” Ross said. “And that is a core value that we hold near and dear throughout our entire season (of performances).”  

The festival has continuously maintained lineups that feature artists of varying genres and backgrounds — guitar legends such as Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, to emerging artists like Colin Davin and Jessica Lea Mayfield. This variety of artists allows the festival to market to an audience of all eras and genres, targeting a multi-generational, multi-genre, multi-aesthetic crowd, Ross explained.

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    “My favorite thing about Ellnora is the way it brings people together. Even though (Ellnora features) big name people like Los Lobos, the whole concert and vibe is really intimate and close knit,” said Callie Miller, a senior at Champaign Central High School. “The intimate concerts from people you’ve never heard of are sometimes the best ones.”

    The sophisticated curiosity of the community has heavily contributed to Ellnora’s target audience, according to Spelman, who currently resides in New York City and is also the founder and artistic director of the New York Guitar Festival. 

    To develop such a diverse lineup, Spelman said the way he selects artists is similar to that of another art curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

    “Obrist describes his process as ‘see art, meet the artists, produce their shows to meet other artists and produce their shows in turn,’ and I think that can describe our process (for Ellnora),” he said. 

    Spelman said he believes that because the community finds the Krannert Center to be a place for discovery, this becomes a privilege that allows himself and Ross to take risks with the festival, building a relationship between the audience and their curatorial approach. 

    And with that risk, Ellnora Festival is able to produce a lineup that features this year’s myriad of artists, such as Drive-By Truckers, Los Lobos, Punch Brothers, Bucky Pizzarelli and many more, exploring into the musical realms of jazz, bluegrass, rock, country and more. 

    “Depending on your perspective, it may seem very odd for a University performing arts center to be producing this kind of event,” Ross said. “But I believe that the spirit of this festival and the core values that (Ellnora) stands for are of real potential value to the students of this University, to the people of this community and across the region.”

    This especially rings true to the effort that the festival has made in performance affordability for the students of the University, who can attend festival performances either for free or for $10, depending on the artist. 

    “The first year that they had (Ellnora), it was more just about the shows,” Miller said, who has attended every Ellnora since its inception in 2005. “Now, it’s about the liveliness and the free concerts and the art.”