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Classical Music Festival In Hartford Never Materialized

By FRANK RIZZO

May 23, 2010

It sounded like a classical music lover's dream come true: a 10-day festival presented all around Hartford featuring a visiting orchestra, outdoor and indoor shows and music presented in innovative ways. The shows would appeal to the classical fan but also would attract families and younger audiences.

Concerned at how to best support classical music in a changing arts scene, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts began exploring such a festival in 2007.

"There needs to be something in this market that brings more people into classical music than just doing symphony concerts and the occasional solo artist," says David Fay, president and CEO of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts since 2001.

Meetings were held in 2007 and 2008 with prominent classical music consultants such as Ken Fischer, president of the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan; Wu Han, co-artistic director of Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center; and Marna Seltzer, a New Haven-based national arts consultant. Also included in the gatherings were composer and professor Neely Bruce of Wesleyan University and Hartford Symphony Orchestra music director Edward Cumming.

Representatives from the Bushnell traveled the world checking out other festivals and innovative ways to present classical music. A Power Point presentation was created.

The early buzz was exciting, say several of the attendees.

"It all sounded like a great deal of fun," Bruce says. "There was this great and elaborate scenario for a festival, and then nothing happened."

A 2010 festival was originally considered but plans were deferred because of the advance time it takes for programming classical music acts. A spring 2011 festival was discussed, which could be linked to Cumming's exit from the HSO. After a while, the festival morphed into one that would include many types of music, not just classical.

The project is now on indefinite hold.

The economy is the reason for the delay, says Fay, but not everyone sees that as the sole reason.

"I wouldn't say it was just the economy that stopped things," Cumming says. "We just didn't come together as a group often enough to see this through. You've got to keep something like this going and eventually you have to come up with something."

Says Han, who is also founding artistic director of chamber music festivals in Silicon Valley and in Kentucky, "It takes a village to get festival going, but most of all it takes a focus and clear vision to inspire. There also has to be a long-term commitment and not just a one-year experiment."

Economic Realities

Kristen M. Phillips, executive director of the HSO, says she understands the economic realities of such an endeavor.

"Putting on our own music festival at Talcott Mountain, I can attest to the fact that [festivals] are very expensive undertakings and require significant corporate contributions to make it work," she says. "I wonder whether a classical musical festival in this marketplace at this time makes sense." Phillips reports that corporate contributions are down by half from three years ago: from $600,000 to $300,000.

Phillips says the relationship between the HSO and the Bushnell is strong. She cites more coordinated programming between the two organizations. (They collaborate on Martin Luther King concerts now, instead of both organizations presenting separate shows.) They discussed ways to present programming to fill the void left by the loss of Connecticut Opera, which ceased operations in 2009. The HSO is seeking ways to afford to rehearse in the Bushnell's smaller Belding Theater, where it now presents most of its concerts.

Phillips says talks are ongoing about the possibility of the Bushnell assisting the HSO with "back office" jobs such as marketing and sales. She says similar conversations are being held with others, including Hartford Stage. She shot down rumors that any "merger" was about to take place with the Bushnell.

Fay and Phillips say they hope the new music director who will succeed Cumming expected to be named in January after all seven candidates have led HSO concerts would take the artistic lead in planning any future festival. Fay says he sees the festival eventually being paired with the I-Quilt, the Bushnell-supported effort to re-invigorate and reunite areas of downtown Hartford so it becomes a more pedestrian-friendly city.

Sensitive Leadership

The leadership at the not-for-profit Bushnell is sensitive to its relationship to arts groups in the city and its image of reducing fine-arts programming in favor of more lucrative bottom-line programming. (There is no dance, classical music or opera in its current season, save for a production of "Porgy and Bess" in the Broadway series and a two-matinee engagement of Connecticut Ballet's "The Nutcracker.")

Fay says developing the festival was a way of addressing the loss of classical music programming beyond the HSO shows. In 2006, the Bushnell canceled its visiting orchestra series, citing waning attendance and rising costs. For decades, the Bushnell was the home of Hartford Ballet, Connecticut Opera and HSO. The HSO is the sole remaining resident arts company. It struggles to persevere during declining financial support in major giving.

An encouraging sign is that HSO audience numbers have grown after it switched from the 2,800-seat Mortensen Hall to the 900-seat Belding for multiple performances. Several years ago, it attracted 2,100 people to a typical Masterworks program. It now attracts 2,800 over four nights. (Today at 3 p.m. is the conclusion of its Masterworks concerts featuring Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and violin soloist Karina Canellakis.)

The numbers echo what Han, who graduated from Hartt in the early '80s, says is a strong classical market in the Hartford. "Hartford has a very rich soil for culture," says pianist Han, who frequently performs with cellist David Finckel, a member of the Emerson String Quartet, which ended a 21-year residency at the Hartt School in 2001. "But that needs to be nurtured and developed or else it could be lost."

Fischer, who consulted the Bushnell in the late '90s as well as earlier this decade, agrees.

"There is money to be made in the presentation of classical music and we've shown that in Ann Arbor," he says. "It's our bread and butter. It's amazing what you can do when you believe in it."

Michael Yaffe, HSO board member and associate dean of the Yale School of Music, says touring orchestras have become too expensive for many presenters but "there are other interesting new models out there that the Bushnell could support. The question is: Does the Bushnell have the intestinal fortitude to make classical music work?"

Fay says for the time being, arts groups have to tend to their own houses for a while.

"There are so many shifting priorities that we are trying to respond to but we can't do them all." Fay says. "We also got involved with the I-Quilt, which turned into a much bigger vision than we originally set out to do. I'd like the HSO to take on the artistic leadership of any classical music festival. The HSO is much better at understanding classical music and programming than we are. But we still remain committed to the festival. We're hopeful that perhaps in 2012 or 2013 we could begin to do a prototype of the festival."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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