GV musicians represent at Festival of the Arts

Courtesy / Jeremy Verwys

Courtesy / Jeremy Verwys

Mary Mattingly

This year marks the 44th annual Festival of the Arts, and Grand Valley State University is represented in a big way. Amidst the many musical acts, several GVSU students, alumni and faculty will perform in one of the longest-running festivals in the state.

“We are always excited to play at GRFOTA because it’s one of the rare opportunities where art can just be art for art’s sake,” Frank Nawrot, recent GVSU alumnus and member of Grand Rapids outfit, Absinthe, said. “We aren’t getting paid (and) no one is paying to see us. It’s very liberating.”

This year’s festival takes place June 7-9 in downtown Grand Rapids, and it celebrates the community and features family-oriented entertainment and activities. Among the many musical acts performing are GVSU’s own Frank Nawrot, Jeremy Verwys, Kyle Thompson and faculty member Robert Byrens.

This is not the first time some of these musicians have played the festival.

“We’ve played there for the past four years,” Nawrot said.

The rock band Absinthe is featured on Saturday afternoon on the City Stage. Nawrot, the band’s singer and lead guitarist, graduated from GVSU this spring. He will be attending Central Michigan University in the fall for his masters in composition.

“My dream would be to make all my living composing music,” Nawrot said.

Absinthe, billed as “Amish, industrial, hardcore folk,” hopes to bring a lot of energy to its performance, and in the process, inspire the audience.

“You can expect us to play music we like to play,” Nawrot said before the performance. “And we are not any special kind of humans, so it’s likely that you’ll like it, too. Hopefully we move some people to dance or to cry or to laugh. Whatever. To be moving in some manner is a main goal I think, though.”

Classical music also has its say at the festival. Robert Byrens, a vocal coach/accompanist at GVSU and affiliate professor of music, accompanies vocalist Don Sikkema, a GVSU alumnus, in a recital that features English, German and French art songs. The recital takes place at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Guitar performance majors Jeremy Verwys and Kyle Thompson also take the stage at the GRAM. Like Nawrot, Verwys has previous experience at the festival, having performed for the past three years.

“I try to play every year whether as a formal performance or maybe as a part of an exhibit,” Verwys said. “This year is the first year I will be playing Friday [through] Sunday.”

While Absinthe entertains with its original, rock-oriented compositions, Verwys sticks to the classical tradition.

“I plan on playing selected pieces from the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer as well as Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos,” Verwys said before the performance. “Possibly some selections from J.S. Bach’s Lute Suite No. 3.”

While Nawrot and Verwys are both used to performing classical compositions as a part of the curriculum at GVSU, both have experience playing and entertaining in the Grand Rapids, alternative music scene. While studying classical guitar, Nawrot has also played with Absinthe, which recently completed recording a four-song E.P. Verwys, meanwhile, has kept busy with his punk band, Cain Marko, which recently released an L.P. this past fall. As well as being performers, both musicians are also educators. Nawrot and Verwys teach private lessons.

“This year is especially exciting because on Saturday some of my students will be performing as well,” Verwys said. “I am always very excited to share music with others in any situation and now I get to watch as some of my students get to experience that as well.”

The musicians have also been able to apply the lessons learned at GVSU and from their own experiences to their playing.

“Everything musical I learn, no matter if it is at school or from a friend, I apply to all the music I write,” Nawrot said.

The Festival of the Arts celebrates the spirit that is Grand Rapids while providing a performance platform for students to showcase their talents.

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