The best chamber festivals, like those in Marlboro, Vermont, or at Lincoln Center, allow top-notch musicians to have a good time playing together while revisiting cherished works. By that measure alone Northwestern’s monthlong Winter Chamber Music Festival has been a rousing success. Started in 1997 by Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist (and Northwestern teacher) Blair Milton, this gathering of more than 40 instrumentalists, drawn mostly from the CSO and the Northwestern faculty, is so well respected and well attended it has no trouble attracting headliners. Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim have participated, accepting a fee far below their norm for the chance to perform pieces outside the bread-and-butter repertoire–mindful of a star’s draw, the festival’s organizers give visiting artists a free hand in choosing what they play. This year the main attractions are violinist Gil Shaham (January 12), violist-violinist Pinchas Zukerman (January 19), and cellist Lynn Harrell (January 26), all virtuosos who shine in chamber settings. The Illinois-born Shaham, one of the most expressive and eloquent young soloists around, has slated two standards–Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 5 (aka “Spring”) and Brahms’s First String Quintet–plus a rarity, Prokofiev’s Violin Duo Sonata (in which he’ll be partnered with his wife, Adele Anthony). That last pick has inspired horn player Gail Williams and pianist Alan Chow to revive another obscure Prokofiev work, Five Melodies for Horn and Piano (on January 24). But the festival’s centerpiece is the January 17 performance of Facade, William Walton’s wickedly sophisticated “entertainment” set to Edith Sitwell poems. The narrators will be baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves; they’ll be accompanied by a small ensemble, which will also perform Mozart’s Serenade no. 10. The kickoff concert this Friday features members of the Vermeer Quartet and pianist Andrea Swan (in Mozart’s Second Piano Quartet and Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no.1) as well as Williams, pianist Ursula Oppens, and CSO clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom (in Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano, Woodwinds, and Horn). Friday and Sunday, January 10 and 12, 7:30 PM, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston; 847-467-4000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Christian Steiner, Boyd Hagen.