Over 3 years ago Friends of Chamber Music in Portland Oregon was presented with an opportunity. Before going any further, full disclosure: I am a member of the Friends of Chamber Music board of directors so treat everything I say as biased in favor of the organization. Anyway… we had an opportunity.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln………. Um….HALL
An Israeli ensemble that had rarely come to the US, and never to Portland, had a mission. You see, Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler, Ori Kam, and Kyril Zlotnikov and formulated a plan to come to the US with a 4-day cycle of every one of Demitri Shostakovitch’s 15 string quartets. These 4 guys, together, since 1993, known as the Jerusalem String Quartet agreed to bring their cycle to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. They scheduled their epic performance for 2013.
So why should Portland care? Well, after the Lincoln Center performances were locked and loaded, The Quartet thought it might be a good idea to have one more American “run through” of the complete cycle. Voila! Our opportunity appeared! Friends of Chamber Music was offered the chance to bring the whole event to Oregon.
The Blessing that is Pat and Lori
This opportunity could have simply slipped on by were it not for our visionary executive director, Pat Zagelow and her FOCM partner Lori Fitch. They might have simple taken a pass on it; they might have deemed it to expensive or too risky; they might have made an executive decision that Portland was too small a city for a concert series of this magnitude; they might have looked at our audience demographics and just not believed that the data supported getting people to come to hear 15 20th century chamber works with identical instrumentation; they might have made innumerable decisions that would have stopped the idea before it was ever presented to our artistic committee. But they didn’t. Instead Pat and Lori came to the Artistic Committee with the idea, the estimated financial impact, a clear understanding of the risk, and the preparedness to jump on the offer quickly, should we choose to take it to the full board.
The Three Pillars of Artistic Decision
It’s important to notice that I have twice now used the words “Artistic Committee”. This is a relatively unique concept. Unlike organizations with larger budgets and/or less active boards, we don’t have an Artistic Director. We have an astonishingly well versed ED but artistic decisions are made my a committee of volunteers. There are 3 things that are necessary to make this work. First, you need board members who so deeply love the music that they stay educated and mindful of what makes great performance. Second, you have to have a board that wants to WORK HARD. Third, you need a staff that trusts these volunteers to make practical decisions. Those are the 3 pillars of success if you are going to choose not to have a paid Artistic Director. I’m the first person to admit I’m biased. But to my mind those are also the 3 pillars that fundamentally support our whole organization: Staff/Board teamwork, willingness to engage actively, and TRUST. I think we are unique in having all of those; and, I think that’s why we are going stronger than ever as we enter our SEVENTY-FIFTH YEAR.
Deciding to Say “Yes”
Now, if you have never been part of a performing arts organization, you may not know just how expensive it is to bring a chamber ensemble to town. You may also not know how utterly unpredictable the process of ticket sales can be. It is possible, for example, to pay several tens of thousands of dollars to bring a famous vocalist to town while still having difficulty selling seats at 30 to 50 bucks a pop. Why? Well, if I knew the answer I probably would be consulting for the music world instead of building TV stations. Bottom line, nobody really knows. My point is that, even with perfect execution, perfect advertising, and a perfect performance, you don’t always make lots of money. I don’t think that even Nassim Taleb could tell you how to manage the risk of a big black swan stomping on a perfectly planned concert. So, everything artsy is risky.
This means that, saying “yes”, even when you think you are saying yes to a “slam dunk”, is risky. And, when your ticket sales can’t pay all your expenses, and you rely on donors, that risk transfers to your biggest supporters before anything else. Not only do you need to think of the risk relative to your own finances and your own reputation, but you are putting your best friends’ money at risk too. (By the way, it’s only because some of those “best friends” jumped in and committed financial assistance early that we could do this: THANK YOU).
In our particular case, we have an innovative, forward-looking board (note bias!) who decided to take the risk and do something really BIG. Strategically, it was a fit with our mission statement. We hoped the risk would be manageable And, tactically, we thought our bast chance of success was to turn the 4 concerts into a “festival”; not just performances, but lectures, education, and receptions too. The game was on. The clock was ticking. We formed a committee.
I want to take a second to thank this committee. Under the leadership of board member Alice Hardesty we were able to spend a year-and-a-half planning, fostering a free flow of ideas, selecting participants, building partnerships with other organizations, supporting each other when our grand ideas were not always executable, and generally becoming greater and greater Shostakovitch lovers. Thanks to the Alice we have a pretty fun ride!
T-MINUS 18 Months!
Ideas came and ideas went. Personally, I had a vision of making a big splash in the Jewish community with an Israeli ensemble that had never been to Portland. I don’t want to feel like I failed; let’s just say I couldn’t pull off the reception I’d envisioned. Other ideas had to go too – I REALLY wanted that Vodka tasting party. Ah well… I had to settle for simply doing a couple of shots with my friend Lori. The point is that some things couldn’t happen. But what did happen was still far more wonderful than we could even have anticipated.
“A Shostakovitch Festival” Makes it From Jerusalem to Portland
This event was one of the greatest events in my 24 years watching the Portland classical music scene. This was not one of those things where the ensemble just played a bunch of pieces chronologically. An enormous amount of thought, dare I say emotional-engineering, went into the programming. Here is how it ended up (and, I believe, how New York will also get to experience these quartets):
Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 49 (1938)
Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 92 (1952)
Quartet No. 6 in G Major, Op. 101 (1956)
Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, Op. 133 (1968)
Quartet No. 4 in D Major, Op. 83 (1949)
Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960
Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major, Op. 118 (1964)
Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 (1966)
Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 (1946)
Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960)
Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor, Op. 138 (1970)
Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp Major, Op. 142 (1973)
Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68 (1944)
Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 117 (1964)
Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, Op. 144 (1974)
I can’t explain how all the choices were made. What I can, and will say is that after each of the 4 performances the audience members left both overwhelming excited and emotionally exhausted. My wife tells me that in all her years she’s never hears so much excited chatter in the ladies room after the shows (I’ll take her word for it, thank you very much). Each concert on it’s own, and all the concerts together, were stunning. The Oregonian said it better than I could when they stated: “They’re a resounding triumph, easily among the most memorable musical performances in Portland in recent memory.” And, just to give you a feel for the unprecedented skill of the musicians, here’s another àpropos Oregonian quote: “Individually, they were distinctive and supremely flexible. Few quartets achieve the balance they did, each member rising up and falling back within the ensemble to give a natural sense of fluidity and depth.” Thank you James McQuillen – your Oregonian article NAILED IT!
When a Concert Series Becomes a Festival
I want you to remember what I said earlier about the choice to make this a festival. Not only did the quartet play as well as any I have EVER heard, but the week-long event also included these ancillary events: Lectures by Evgenii V. Bershtein and Peter Kupfer, a round-table discussion with the players, and a really amazing educational outreach event where 4 young musicians were privileged to rehearse sections of the very rarely heard Shostakovitch OCTET. I admit that I had to miss the last 2 events I mentioned because I had an insanely busy work week and simply couldn’t do everything. But rumor has it, they rocked as much as everything else.
To sum it up I need to simply say that the past week was among the most fulfilling weeks in my music-following life. I have to admit I’ve had a few other peak music experiences: Meeting Messiaen, watching Berio and Boulez conduct, having Earle Brown come to my graduation recital and tell me he liked my music, drinking beer at Mel Powell’s piano with Morty Feldman, hanging out at IRCAM, and being at Dawn Upshaw’s first performance after her breast cancer treatments were all peak experiences in my life. But, this week I added a new peak experience to the list because, this week, I was blessed to spend 4 incredible days with 4 amazing young musicians, listening to 15 astonishing pieces of music, and riding the emotional bullet train that is Demitri Shostakovitch.
I am always proud to have been given the chance to serve Friends of Chamber Music. But, this week I am extra proud to have the blessing of being part of an organization which has, arguably I suppose, created the finest music event in the 24 years I’ve been in Portland; and, I’ll be so bold as to propose the possibility that it’s the most significant event in our 74+ year history.