While the gorges and parks of Ithaca sit dormant in a deep winter freeze, virtually devoid of visitors, the sixth annual Light in Winter festival aims to highlight other area attractions with events celebrating art and science.
“We realized there was a great opportunity to promote tourism in our area in January when we don’t have as much happening around here,” Light in Winter Executive Director Marie Sirakos said. “It’s not pretty, you can’t go to the waterfalls, it’s a little chilly.”
The festival will begin with a conversation about contemporary classical music tonight at the Lost Dog Lounge and end Sunday with the grand finale event, “Music of the Spheres,” at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall.
“Music of the Spheres” will include performances by Frogwork Consort and the Cornell Orchestra, as well as a lecture by Cornell astronomer Joseph Burns, and will incorporate images of Saturn taken by the Cassini satellite developed at Cornell.
“Tying that all together to make some bigger picture is really the fun part,” said Barbara Mink, founder and artistic director of Light in Winter.
The “bigger picture” Mink aims to paint, with the help of Sirakos and a program committee, is one of active, rather than passive, entertainment.
“The most exciting part of Light in Winter is how many people now feel that they have a right to go and listen to a lecture about some scientific discipline they know nothing about or listen to some new music they would never go to hear ordinarily,” Mink said. “They come away feeling more powerful because of it.”
This year’s festival includes several magic-themed events, including a magical writing workshop and a performance by magician Jeff McBride that will combine pantomime, drumming and Kabuki theater at the State Theatre.
“We didn’t really have a theme this year, but it evolved naturally,” Mink said. “Of course bringing a world-famous illusionist from Las Vegas is going to bring magic into our weekend. Not many people get to see an illusionist, a magician of this caliber.”
Mink said when planning for the first Light in Winter began nearly a decade ago, the creation of an arts festival based on what she calls “educational tourism” seemed like a good way to take advantage of some of the natural resources of the area, which extend past just the gorges and the beautiful scenery.
“Some of our biggest resources are our educational institutions and the very vibrant artistic community that makes up the fabric of Ithaca,” she said.
In its earliest stages, the festival was intended to be a classical music festival held during the summer, but Mink said it became clear a winter festival could best fill the county’s needs and fit an unusual niche.
“There are so many things going on in the summer, it’s hard for people to choose,” Mink said. “Having it in the winter was a bit of a risk, but it turns out that a third of the people who come travel from more than 100 miles away.”
Based on the feedback Mink and Sirakos have received, those travelers from afar don’t leave disappointed. Sirakos said one audience member was especially affected by a dramatic musical representation of the moon by NASA artist-in-residence Laurie Anderson during the 2006 festival.
“They stopped me on the way out and just had this dazed look on their face and said, ‘My entire view of the universe is completely different now,’” Sirakos said. “That truly is our goal. We want our audience to go, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Since the first Light in Winter festival in 2004, Sirakos said audiences have grown to numbers that are now on par with other popular Ithaca festivals, such as the Ithaca Festival, which is held the first weekend in June. She said though tourism growth was more of a secondary goal of the festival, the influx of visitors from outside the area for the event has helped make Ithaca a destination, even in the dead of winter.
“We need something in January,” Sirakos said. “That’s the idea, is to heat the place up and bring some interesting energy.”
The Cayuga Street Pavilion on The Commons will literally heat up tomorrow evening, when Michelle Jeffalone, a fire spinner from PoiStar Productions, will perform as visitors wander through several art galleries with Light in Winter-themed exhibits.
The exhibit at the Tompkins County Library will feature origami pieces from the collection of world-renowned artist and physicist Robert Lang. The exhibit will run throughout the month, and Lang will present his art Saturday at the Statler Auditorium at Cornell University during “From Flapping Birds to Space Telescopes: The Modern Science of Origami.”
Ithaca College professors and percussionists Conrad Alexander and Cayenna Ponchione will be participating in “Trio for EEG Machines,” with composer and neurobiologist David Sulzer. Alexander, Ponchione and Tim Feeney, director of percussion ensembles at Cornell, will perform while wearing electroencephalography headbands to monitor their brain activity, which will then be projected on a screen above them.
“I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen at this performance,” Feeney said. “There’s something really exciting and unpredictable in the nature of something like this.”
Sirakos said those particular combinations — the local and the out-of-town, the arts and science, the big and the small — are what make the Light in Winter festival intriguing and different from other local festivals.
“What’s exciting about this festival is we have local performers and we have nationally known performers together, and you don’t really see the result until the festival happens,” she said. “It sort of instantaneously combines.”
Individual tickets are $5 to $25 and up to $130 for weekend festival packages. They can be purchased at the door of each event and at the Ticket Center
at the Clinton House, 116 S. Cayuga St. For more information, go to