Michelle Schumann has no problem picking a favorite.
Unlike many musicians who demur when asked to name the piece they most like to play, Schumann, a noted Austin pianist and artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, doesn't even have to be prompted. She knows her stranded-on-a-desert-island, one-piece-for-the-rest-of-your-life favorite.
"If there was one piece that I could say is my absolute favorite, it's the Brahms" Piano Quintet in F minor, she says over coffee recently.
The Brahms was one of Schumann's first important performance pieces, something on which she spent countless hours of impassioned rehearsal. "It was the piece that I really learned how to play with other musicians on, really learned to be part of an ensemble where there isn't a leader and everyone contributes," she says.
Schumann will play her beloved Brahms Quintet on Friday night with the Cavani String Quartet as part of the opening concert of this year's Austin Chamber Music Festival. The festival continues through July 31 with nine showcase concerts and 19 free casual concerts.
The intensity of small ensemble playing might have led Schumann to be a chamber music performer. A focused drive, however, prompted her to take the helm at the Austin Chamber Music Center in 2006, where she has since pushed the edges of what chamber music can mean in the 21st century.
Like festivals Schumann has curated in past years, this year's casts its stylistic net widely.
Featured performers include avant-garde jazz trio the Bad Plus, known for reworking pop and rock songs into virtuosic compositional explosions. Master tango bandoneon player Raul Jaurena — the onetime bandoneonist for none other than the late tango great Astor Piazzolla — returns to play an all-Piazzolla concert with Schumann and other musicians on July 23. Last year, Jaurena's concert sold out.
Also, clarinetist Paul Green will join the Carpe Diem String Quartet on July 25 to play Israeli composer Betty Olivero's score to "Der Golem," the 1920 German silent film based on a medieval Jewish folk legend. Olivero's suite, composed in the 1990s, combines klezmer stylings with Jewish folk music and sacred music. A new digital print of the expressionist horror film directed by and starring Paul Wegener will be screened.
To round out the festival, Austin singer-songerwriter Kelly Willis will team up with the Austin Chamber Music student ensemble for a finale concert.
Schumann's edge-pushing approach brings in the audiences. This past season, Austin Chamber Music concerts brought in 50 percent more ticket revenue than the previous season, she said. And last summer's festival saw almost as much of an increase in ticket revenue, too.
Small, it seems, sells well in a recession.
In fact, last week as Schumann chatted about the festival, she was actually on a break from rehearsing "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," a chamber opera by Michael Nyman that Schumann's group co-presented with the Austin Lyric Opera.
And the three-show run of the opera, which ends today? It sold out weeks ago.
Perhaps it's like Schumann said — playing well with others is not something to forget.
Austin Chamber Music Festival
When: Friday through July 31
Tickets:$25 per concert with many free concerts
This weekend's featured concerts are at Bates Recital Hall, UT Music Building, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive.
7:30 p.m. Friday:Cavani String Quartet with Michelle Schumann: Brahms Quintet in F minor, Szymanowski Quartet No. 2, Beethoven Opus 18, No. 2
7:30 p.m. Saturday:The Bad Plus
7:30 p.m. Sunday:Brentano String Quartet: Beethoven Quartet in E flat major, Haydn Quartet in F major and Stephen Hartke's ‘Night Songs for a Desert Flower.'