Festival Season and Moveable Feasts

Each summer, many classical musicians disperse from their urban dwellings to the lovely soft places of the world. In these lush settings where tourists flock for recreation, they are afforded an opportunity to make music with a kind of intensity and artistic engagement they may not have in their day-to-day occupations back home, with colleagues they may only rarely see. After rehearsals and performances they also have a chance to make new friends and maybe even relax over a great meal or get outdoors to reconnect with nature. For many musicians this is an annual tradition, and some return to the same festivals for decades; their kids get to know other festival musicians' kids as family friends only seen in the summertime.

Right now it's the thick of summer festival season for me. I'm in Walla Walla, Washington recording a chamber music festival that punches well above its weight in terms of prominence and stature among the more well-established festivals out there. I won't go into what makes one festival exhilarating and another humdrum in this post, but suffice it to say artistic vision, understanding and building trust with the community, and pitch-perfect programming are key components. It goes without saying that the musicians are world-class, the setting is sublime, and the 'work hard, play hard' mentality prevails. What I would like to tell you is what it's like being a part of a busy summer music festival from the inside. 

First off, for me, the time commitment is considerable. Besides traveling to Denver, Memphis, the west coast, and Michigan for recordings between mid-April and the end of May, I have been in festivals from early June and will be through the second week of August. This disruption in routine has itself become routine.

When I arrive unannounced at the door of my favorite restaurant I’m greeted by name with “welcome home — how was your year?”

But what makes festival season fun is the variety and the intensity. There's no time to get bored; one day I'm recording a Mahler and Strayhorn arrangements in a surprisingly acoustically lovely wine production facility with barrels stacked to the ceiling — the next, it's the Poulenc Sextet in a refurbished power station, with a surprisingly great refurbished Steinway. In my next festival, which begins this weekend in Steamboat Springs, CO, the venue doesn't change but the range of ensembles and repertoire is even broader—we'll go from an evening of solo piano (with Van Cliburn winners, usually) to full orchestra plus soloist(s) in the space of three days, with a pop/country/jazz/rock/whatever act in between (these I am thankfully not tasked with recording). [I've taken to posting each new venue on my facebook page as a continuation of a "today's office" series.] On days when there are no performances to record, there's a lot of yesterday's audio to mix, edit, bounce, upload, and share with artists and music directors for approvals. Keeping all of this straight means being as organized as possible, while keeping a certain openness to inevitable last-minute changes is key to staying sane.  

The icing on the cake for any good festival is the generosity and enthusiasm of the community around it. Here in Walla Walla avid friends of the festival think nothing of opening their homes to the lot of us for lavish dinners, always accompanied by the rich and subtle wines of this region. Local artists bring us into their studios; restaurateurs treat us as priority guests; winemakers walk us through their fields. Conversation often goes deep into the night with friends old and new. In Steamboat Springs, when I arrive unannounced at the door of my favorite restaurant I'm greeted by name with "welcome home — how was your year?"

I'd better get back to work — enjoy the summer, and be sure to go out and listen!

The Surprising Joy of the Sunday Matinee

The weekend before last, I recorded performances of a small but incredible orchestra — an orchestra that I work with a lot. In connection with these concerts I also give a series of pre-concert talks about the music on the program; these talks are something I really enjoy, and I get lots of positive feedback from audience members about them.

The orchestra in question is unique in many ways, but in most essential aspects it is just like every other orchestra. Though it has doubled and redoubled its outreach and educational programs (sometimes there are up to seventeen such services delivered in a single five-day period around concert weekends), concerns about audience development remain high, even though its flagship Saturday-night concerts sell very well.

The next logical step was to add a Sunday matinee.

As the first season with these added matinees comes to a close, it is interesting to note some of the artistic ramifications. What I've found is that in Saturday evening performances, which are typically performed to full or very nearly full houses, there is a lot of energy coming off the stage. Fortes are stronger; tempos are jumpier. More risks are taken.

By contrast, the Sunday matinees, typically performed to a much smaller audience, and therefore a in much quieter and slightly more resonant environment, are more poised. The pulse is more stable, yet breathes more naturally; tone quality is more pliable and nuanced; there's more air around the sound of the whole orchestra. And accuracy is typically much higher. (This latter fact is partly just due to the musicians having that much more time to really smooth out the rough edges in their parts.)

I have no doubt that for many audience members, the near-manic energy of the Saturday night performances is exciting. But I prefer the more centered, graceful, and self-assured Sunday matinees. If you're a concertgoer, you might consider checking out the matinee instead of the Saturday night show sometime; the tickets are often cheaper and the orchestra may well actually give you a better performance than they did for pearls-and-tuxes crowd.

From that weekend of concerts I headed to Denver where I am assisting with the world premiere recording of The Scarlet Letter. There's so much to love about recording opera; the sheer complexity is a technical challenge that keeps the adrenaline pumping, and few pleasures compare to being part of the process of bringing a new work into the world. More than anything though, it's the affective power of the human voice that reminds me why someone might take the fantastic leap of faith to pursue a career in the performing arts. I can't wait to get started.

The Promise of Schoenberg's Scatter

Art Music Recording is looking forward to recording next weekend's premiere of Scatter, a work commissioned by a consortium of orchestras from LA-based composer Adam Schoenberg and featuring Project Trio. IRIS Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Stern, will give the world premiere performance next weekend at the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with the Trio, IRIS, and Adam in the past, and to have all three overlap in one work is an uncommon thrill. 

Schoenberg’s music was brought to my attention a few years ago when IRIS Orchestra premiered another of his works, Finding Rothko.  I found the work to be evocative in a broadly appealing way, and yet crafted with thorough professionalism and with a voice notably confident in a composer so relatively young. Adam was also very engaged in the recording process, and his keen ears and enthusiasm made this component of the creative process meaningful.

The musicians of Project Trio have been acquaintances for some time, and working with them has been something I’ve always looked forward to. Besides their consummate skill as instrumentalists and their total dedication to their own insanely high performance values, these three men are just a blast to be around and work with. And the same has to be said of IRIS Orchestra itself—that band of bright-eyed, impassioned artists united under by their friend and leader, conductor Michael Stern. So these stellar forces - orchestra, trio, and composer - are simpatico in a really special way, and it’s going to be an invigorating thrill to participate in bringing their collaboration to life.

And a link to the project itself: http://www.projecttrio.com/concerto

- Jamey Lamar