Hillside Vision

by Chester Lane

The New Hampshire Music Festival has big plans for a home to call its own--and for a major expansion of its community mission.

It was a defining moment for Scott Brubaker. As a child growing up in the 1960s he used to vacation with his family in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and when he was ten years old his parents brought him to the New Hampshire Music Festival--to what he calls "a children's concert where they demonstrated all the instruments." Brubaker met the festival orchestra's principal horn player, and "from a very early age I knew that's what I wanted to do." Diligent studies in his chosen instrument would lead to participation in school ensembles and the New Jersey All-State Orchestra, a degree from Oberlin Conservatory, and, in 1973, a coveted post in the Metropolitan Opera's horn section, where he remains today.

But Brubaker's musical and recreational romance with New Hampshire didn't end with those boyhood summers. About six years ago, a friend of his with a home in the Granite State "told me 'there's a wonderful music festival going on up there, and you might enjoy participating in it.'" So Brubaker got in touch with the festival's music director, Paul Polivnick, and was invited to join its orchestra.

Thus in 1998 he began a new phase in his professional life. Soon after his demanding Metropolitan Opera schedule comes to an end each spring, Brubaker heads for New England to join professional colleagues from around the country in an orchestra that anchors the New Hampshire Music Festival's six-week summer season beginning in early July. Six classical programs, each performed either two or three times in a 600-seat hall at Plymouth State College, and enhanced with pre-concert lecture/discussions, are supplemented by an opening pops concert, six evenings of chamber music--and that annual children's concert, today's version of what Brubaker remembers as the galvanizing event of his youth.

Programs for children are a cornerstone of the festival's current $42 million campaign to establish The Center for Music at Center Harbor, which includes an ambitious building plan and defines itself as "a unique, year-round music institution devoted to performance and education." An early, anonymous million-dollar gift provided vital impetus to the project, and President and CEO David H. Graham says development efforts are now in a "quiet phase" as the capital campaign is being carefully balanced with the need to "grow the annual fund." The design team includes architect Christopher P. Williams, acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard, theater consultant Steven Friedlander, and cost consultant Stewart Donnell. A distinguished cross-disciplinary group consisting of conductor Valery Gergiev, composer John Corigliano, violinist Gidon Kremer, pianist Van Cliburn, and and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has been tapped for an Artistic Council that will guide the Center for Music as it develops its ambitious goals.

In late 2001 the festival acquired 60 rolling acres in Center Harbor, near the north end of Lake Winnipesaukee and the affluent southeastern shore of Squam Lake, and last spring it moved its administrative offices from Gilford to one of several farm buildings on the Center Harbor property. The master plan calls for construction of a 900-seat concert hall nestled in the woods beside the main house (the former Red Hill Inn, now known as Festival House) and a 200-seat chamber music "salon," as well as musician housing and teaching facilities in both new and existing buildings.

The past year has brought important visibility to the Center Harbor properties. Last summer and fall, working with local sponsors and Yankee Publishing, volunteers from Friends of the New Hampshire Music Festival transformed Festival House into the 2002 Yankee Designer Showhouse. In addition to attracting more than 4,500 visitors and netting $42,361 for the festival, the project brought the physical charms of Festival House to the half-million readers of Yankee this winter through a spread in the March issue of that regional lifestyle magazine.

In striving to make The Center for Music an educational resource for both seasonal and year-round residents of the Lakes Region, NHMF leaders are mindful of the special power of music in enriching lives. Robert F. Daniell, chairman of the festival and the former chairman of United Technologies Corporation, believes that musical study enhances competencies in other areas of human endeavor. "I think it's key," he says.

The Center will build on NHMF's existing winter activities, which include Fleet Music in the Schools--a statewide program that brings ensembles to elementary schools for performances and "hands-on" instrument demonstrations--and Mostly Music, a series of six one-week school residencies by talented young soloists, each culminating in a free community concert. (Some of the Mostly Music artists appear in the summer as well; this year, for example, pianist Andrius Zlabys and violinist Ju-Young Baek will follow up their winter residencies with concerto engagements in July.) The Center for Music plan calls for expanding such activities through a "school for a select few gifted young artists devoted to developing young musicians as humanists, not only musical technicians"; a Musician and Teacher as Mentor Institute; and an In-School Music Education Program in twelve rural communities, designed to "dramatically enhance student achievement by integrating music into standard classroom activities in math and language arts."

Summer Camp for Adults

Begun in 1952 as a chamber-music getaway, the NHMF owes its identity as an orchestral community largely to conductor Thomas Nee, who invested 31 years in the festival and became music director emeritus with Polivnick's appointment in 1993. Although the Center for Music master plan envisions a "musicians' hamlet" on the Center Harbor property, the task of assembling a seasonal orchestra in the Lakes Region from such far-flung points as Seattle, Roanoke, New York, and San Francisco as well as New England has long meant that communal accommodations would be necessary. (Most musicians currently stay at Plymouth State College, in a residence hall close to the concert venue.) "I've tried to capitalize on the things that were healthy and wonderful about this festival," says Polivnick. "I like the atmosphere, the connections among the players. There's been a long history of living together for six weeks, and [we've seen] more than one marriage and divorce." With relatively low annual turnover (about 15 percent), Polivnick has been able to build a cohesive orchestra whose artistic standard, he believes, is steadily rising: Preparing for rehearsals of Dvor‡k's "New World" Symphony last summer, for example, he played back the tape of a concert from six years earlier that included the work. "Our first reading sounded better than the performance did back then."

Though much revered by the NHMF musicians, Nee had nevertheless pushed the repertoire envelope in ways that may not have helped the festival's box office. "We've made it our goal to sell out the house," Polivnick says of his own approach to programming. "We do primarily great works by great composers." Indeed, overtures or symphonies or concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Rossini can be found in each of the two most recent seasons, as well as the upcoming one.

But so, too, can the music of North Carolina composer Russell Peck, whose work has been performed regularly at NHMF since the beginning of Polivnick's tenure. His Peace Overture, a 1988 tone poem inspired by the life of Anwar Sadat and the Israel-Egypt Peace Accords--and one of several Peck compositions on a CD that Polivnick recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra for the Albany label--is scheduled for the festival's August 7 - 9 concerts this summer.

Polivnick says his approach to unfamiliar music is "to start off with a composer and a piece that I'm convinced I can sell to my public, get them to appreciate and enjoy it. With the first success I bring that person back right away, so I get the audience very familiar with them. Meanwhile, I start in with another composer. You see a lot of lip service being done to new music with short pieces that aren't heard again for ten years. I do a limited number of composers, perhaps, but I do real service to the ones I get involved with."

As for Polivnick's espousal of those "great composers" who require no "selling" effort on his part, "I think it's been a good thing, for several reasons. I thoroughly enjoy these works, enjoy learning more and more about them." And consistently filling the hall, he says, "creates a high-energy concert. The enthusiasm our performances have created in that situation has led to this facilities project we have going now. It's a major undertaking that would have been unthinkable even three or four years ago."

In their report on the festival's 50th year, Daniell and Graham noted that NHMF had finished the year with a balanced annual operating budget of $670,000, and that gifts from individuals to the annual fund had more than doubled in the last five years, to $240,000. Veteran arts consultant Albert K. ("Nick") Webster--former managing director of the New York Philharmonic, architect of the NHMF's long-range plan in the mid-1990s, and now a member of the festival board--calls Daniell "low-key but strong, one of those rare business leaders who instinctively knows the right course, but also the need for good process." Webster says that Daniell, Graham, and the other "top-flight people" working to build the Center are taking "a Granite State New Hampshire approach that's not necessarily risk-averse, but appropriately cautious."

Yet from the beginning, Webster has encouraged the community to dream big, "because it's large ideas that they need. The people of means up there are coming to realize what a year-round program will mean for the quality of life. When the Center for Music planners pull it off--the educational spinoffs, the ability to use these new facilities in ways that go way beyond a summer festival--it will be tremendously exciting."

Chester Lane is senior editor of SYMPHONY.