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The Rushmore Music Festival is only in its first year, but its ambitious mission to give classical music an intimate feel is already brewing excitement.

In the Alternative Fuel coffee shop on Main Street, a couple at an adjacent table couldn't help but excitedly ask in the middle of an interview when the festival would run and what founders Brett Walfish and Katie Smirnova had planned.

"We want this to be an intimate event," Walfish said. "Something where the audience can get to know us along with the music."

The festival kicks off Friday with an appearance at the Artists of the Black Hills 10th Anniversary Exhibition at 5 p.m. and a full concert at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology at 8 p.m. Both events are free, with a suggested donation of $10.

The latter event, dubbed "An Evening of Quartet Favorites," will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Black Hills State University's Meier Recital Hall.

Founders Smirnova, 25, and Walfish, 27, are both doctoral candidates in Musical Arts at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. The two dreamed up the idea after Smirnova's mother, a professor of chemistry at Mines, asked if they had any events coming up.

"We kept getting asked if we had any planned concerts," Smirnova said. "So we took a test run in November as a duo, and we used that as a way to get the festival running in December."

The festival will feature a quintet of musicians, including Smirnova on violin and Walfish on viola. The other featured musicians will be violinist Patrick Yim of Hawaii, cellist Kumhee Lee of South Korea and cellist William Kass of Missouri. Each musician has an impressive resume working with groups like the Emerson String Quartet, Moscow Ballet and Seoul Arts Center.

The quintet's Friday and Saturday concerts will feature pieces primarily by Romantic-era composers like Beethoven and Dvorak. The group hopes that their will be a certain fluidity in their program, like a story or a multicourse meal. The opening piece, or appetizer: Mendelssohn's "String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44 No. 1."

"It's a great way to open," Smirnova said. "It's joyful, it's bubbly, it has a lot of energy. It's a very inviting piece."

Each piece will be preceded by an introduction by one of the musicians, with background on the composer and a personal anecdote about their own connection to the composition.

"Chamber music was originally intended for living rooms," Smirnova said. "So we want to take people in and give them an idea of who we are."

Walfish and Smirnova got this idea from their time at the Heifetz International Music Institute, where they met their fellow Rushmore Music Festival performers and where they were encouraged to develop themselves as storytellers as well as musicians.

"They'd ask us to act, to sing, to dance, to take some time for public speaking," Smirnova said.

"There's an emphasis on communication," Walfish said. "The program was six weeks, and in that time this small town rallies behind you as you try to bring composers to life and share a bit of yourself."

"We want to do the same thing for Rapid City," Smirnova said. "We all have connections to the music we love, and we so much room for growth in the arts community here."

The quintet will continue the festival with a second program, "A Walk Through Europe," at 8 p.m. June 12 at SDSMT and 7:30 p.m. June 13 at BHSU, with a final concert, "A Baroque Afternoon," scheduled at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at 12:30 p.m. June 14. Later concerts will feature works by Ravel, Schubert and Handel.

In addition, Walfish and Smirnova will teach a pair of immersive workshops to students of various ages, using techniques they picked up at Heifetz.

"It gave us so much, so we want our students to learn how to engage with their work on a personal level," Smirnova said.

The festival is now a sponsored project of the Black Hills Area Community Foundation. Walfish and Smirnova hope to build off their success by inviting a composer to be part of the festival next year. Either way, they hope the festival becomes a regular attraction to Rapid City's summer season.

"Great art inspires people, so if we can build off of this and connect with the community, that would be inspiring to us," Smirnova said. 

"My love of this music comes from collaborating with people," Walfish said. "It's a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years, and I love giving it new life."

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