In the last three decades, the once anomalous summer chamber music festival has become the most common venue for chamber music performances in the U.S. While fiscal exigency has forced regular season series in major cities to scale back or in some cases discontinue their programs, summer music festivals have sprung up and flourished in many seasonal, bucolic vacation spots, and in nearly every western ski town of note.
For the sponsors of such festivals the inducement to organize concerts is a bit different from that of a big city venue. A ski village, nearly empty in the summer is a study in underutilization that leaves housing and rehearsal space for musicians readily available. Organizers of such festivals probably view the endeavors both as relatively inexpensive attractions for off-season tourists looking for a presumably sophisticated summer retreat and as projects that create employment, community focus, and promote higher cultural values for year round locals.
However, a serious problem lies in the extent to which programming choices at summer music festivals are driven by what actually seems to attract concertgoers in those places. In nearly all cases, programming under the “summer festival paradigm” must be narrowly conscribed around what musicians call “the Dead White Guys.” In other words, only the works of European composers from Bach through Ravel are acceptable to summer festival audiences with almost no exceptions. While they are wonderful staples of the repertoire, the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak by no means break any musical ground these days. Programming with an over-reliance on these composers propagates a myopic view of the range of possibilities of serious music. While a major city venue might present a Schoenberg retrospective program, the mere presence of the name Schoenberg on a program at a summer festival is likely to repel prospective audience members creating a box office disaster, even for so romantic a piece as Verklaerte Nacht. The presumed sophistication at summer festivals is, in reality, often blatantly pandering.
Consequently, the ubiquitous summer festival has become a double-edged sword for serious musicians: On the one hand employment for musicians in the summer is abundant and in some cases relatively lucrative as a result of the presence of summer festivals. Orchestral musicians bound to artistic servitude during the season can find a much-needed range of artistic expression when they are freed from the autocracy of a conductor during summer stints at chamber music festivals. But the entire summer festival system often seems driven by a “lowest common denominator” default in programming, hopelessly frustrating broad growth in serious artists. The summer festival program can, at times, seem as commercially driven as a winter season, symphony orchestra pops series.
The root of the problem lies in how we are educated and live today. In contemporary life, music represents something radically different than it once did: 150 years ago, before the advent of competing activities like TV and video games, audience members were themselves practitioners of the art of chamber music as a form of around-the-house entertainment. Concert attendees’ hands-on involvement in the repertoire gave them a deeper appreciation for both the repertoire itself and for the skill of the performers who played the repertoire in concert. Amateur musicians eagerly awaited the publication of new works by contemporary composers as they awaited the return of favored artists who would unveil the latest creations of master composers on their concert tours.
Today, audiences are predominantly musically illiterate and shun new music, if only because they lack fluency in the languages, and consequently cannot understand the music. A current relative lack of encouragement to those composers who might push the envelope of what is possible in music is a direct by-product of this musical illiteracy. While not confined to summer venues, the general dumbing-down of programs is in evidence most acutely at summer festivals. That those who would push the boundaries of serious music find themselves increasingly on an artistic island is deplorable. The possible solutions require that those of us who lack musical literacy make a commitment to becoming curious, and that those of us who are musically literate make a commitment to drawing audience to the innovative in music, even at summer festivals, where this is most challenging. Several ways in which meaningful change might be effected are:
- Education: Musicians need to take seriously the mission of educating young people about the languages of great old, and innovative new music. Most young peoples concerts are designed to help organizations attract funding dollars that support their parent programs. This practice is profligate and should stop. Young People’s programs should be designed with the audience in mind, not the funding institutions! Bernstein’s programs with the NY Philharmonic in the 1960’s did some of this to great effect. These days, conductor David Alan Miller stages some highly effective programs as well. But these are the exceptions in a world where the audience is increasingly distanced from music by digital distractions.
- Tenacity and Accessibility: Performers need to stay the course and push diverse programming both at summer festivals and at regular season venues. We must generate curiosity in our audience members about what a musically literate experience by giving the audience the tools with which to comprehend the music. Lecture demonstration featuring repetition of key elements in a piece is a useful tool in drawing audience into a piece. Both by giving the audience “sound bites” to listen for and by speaking with the audience (in a language that they are fluent in) we have the chance to show the uninitiated what is exciting to us in music.
- Risk Taking: Presenters and performers need to embrace the risk involved with educating the audience even at summer festivals, by programming a balanced diet of old and new, and by pushing performers to connect with audience through lectures and pre and post concert dialogue.
- Selective Innovative Marketing: Pandering should be confined to style and marketing. Programming should be aesthetically as opposed to market driven. The Kronos Quartet is an excellent example of a group that promotes an image that allows them to “sell” new music.
- Audience Challenge: Concertgoers need to embrace the value of becoming educated and gaining aural fluency in a range of musical languages. Audiences should become proactive self educators.
If, as artists, we fail to address ourselves to these issues we will find ourselves increasingly marooned, speaking a language unknown to most. Our musical diet will be generally limited to a hopelessly narrow tract of repertoire. If as listeners we remain complacent, steer away from the challenge inherent in learning new languages, and fail to promote artistic evolution, innovation will stagnate and society will lose a valuable cultural asset.