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Bushnell Shifts Musical Gears

Classical Program In Flux As It Tries New Approaches

July 16, 2006
By MATTHEW ERIKSON, Courant Staff Writer

Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, the Cleveland Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas - these names are revered by most any classical music lover, and well known to appreciative audiences at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts during its 76-year history.

But visiting orchestras and conductors of such world-class quality are no longer on the Bushnell's schedule, yielding to a greater presence by local classical groups with an occasional guest artist.

Bushnell administrators and trustees will tell you that Hartford's premier nonprofit performing arts venue is in a state of experimental flux in its classical music programming.

Others, protective of the Bushnell's flagship classical music series - known formerly as the world symphony series and most recently as the Advest Classical Series - question the Bushnell's artistic leadership and continued commitment to quality classical music.

All agree that the art form is under more pressure than ever before.

"The world has changed. The Bushnell's mission in 1930 I think hasn't changed, but how do you interpret that mission in the 21st century is the real question," David Fay, the Bushnell's executive director since 2001, said of the hall's history.

Reflecting on the Bushnell's legacy of visiting orchestras, Fay said, "It appears that the economics of continuing to do it with audiences are not being sustained. They are, in fact, going the other direction."

Fay cited a March 2005 concert by the San Francisco Symphony and its charismatic music director, Tilson Thomas. Only 1,167 people attended the orchestra's performance at the Bushnell's Mortensen Hall, which has a capacity of about 2,700. With a performance fee of about $100,000 (the going price for a first-rate touring American orchestra), the Bushnell lost $69,000 that evening.

This year, a March performance by the New York-based Orchestra of St. Luke's and British tenor Ian Bostridge didn't do much better. The concert in the Bushnell's smaller, 900-seat Belding Theater attracted 450 people.

Last season, the five-concert Advest Classical Series - which also featured guitarist Sharon Isbin, young Metropolitan Opera singers and the Miami String Quartet - had only about 125 subscribers. In the 1993-94 season there were 1,200.

Fay said the series was near death years before the loss of Advest as a corporate sponsor. (Merrill Lynch acquired the Hartford-based brokerage firm last December.) He said the subscription model isn't tenable today in America, now that last-minute buying - from airplane tickets to hotel reservations - is king.

"Trying to re-create what worked in 1930 is simply not going to cut it today. It just won't," Fay said. "We can either throw our hands in the air and give up and say it doesn't work, or we can say to ourselves, `Wait a second: What is the challenge that we face in the 21st century to get those folks excited about the medium, about a symphony concert?' And we have to admit that part of it is giving them music that's going to resonate with them now."

Fay is enthusiastic about a January recital by 26-year-old violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn, one of the Bushnell's few scheduled classical performances by a visiting artist next season. He gets even more animated about the prospects of new commissioned works and a symphonic concert of video game music, similar to a Bushnell program last year of music from the "Final Fantasy" video games.

"It's about the symphonic music of today. Just like Mozart wrote for court entertainments or Beethoven wrote for any numbers of entertainment, which then became what we refer to today as classical music. Over time, it gained a stature of its own," he said.

"In time, we'll look back and say what are the great symphonic suites of the late 20th century and the early 21st century? Some of them will live in this entertainment or video game world but will take on a classical sense of their own. That's where I draw a comparison to the classical composers 200 years ago."

Inaugural Concerts

In 1919, the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall was planned as "a center for the benefit of the public in educational and cultural activities ... to encourage public appreciation of music, art, science and all benevolent, religious and other public activities." When the Bushnell opened on Jan. 13, 1930, its inaugural concerts featured the Philadelphia and Boston symphony orchestras.

Today, the Bushnell displays colorful banners advertising touring Broadway shows alongside the lofty proverbs extolling art, chiseled on the building's Georgian Revival exterior.

R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, president of the Bushnell's board of trustees, said its mission has broadened to include educational programs, children's theater, dance and lectures to appeal to all segments of the community.

"One of the things we've wrestled with is putting together the right mix of classical arts, not just symphonic music," he said. "What I've heard is that there was an elitism to the Bushnell. Symphonic music plays to that stereotype."

On the other hand, Griebel said, the Bushnell's Broadway series helps balance the hall's books and makes the Bushnell accessible to the wider community.

But there's also a different view of the way the Bushnell has evolved. "Every effort that the Bushnell makes is for building new audiences for the Broadway shows. No effort was put into building or maintaining the classical music subscription base," said a former Bushnell employee who worked at the hall until recently and didn't want his name used. "Everyone on the staff of the Bushnell sees classical music as a loser: as a money loser, audience loser, time waster, and a sucking-up of resources."

It is a point partly corroborated by Michael Suisman, a Bushnell trustee.

"The rejuvenation of classical music can't take place without the strong support of trustees and someone on the staff who's completely devoted to and familiar with classical music," Suisman said. "We must face the reality that employees at the Bushnell are taking on works in other areas, from Broadway to children's shows, as well as major educational programs. The staff has their hands full."

Fay said that short of the Bushnell's presentation of Broadway, classical music is where he and his staff have committed much of their time. "It's just that we've worked very hard to be in harmony with the other players here in town so we're not stepping on each other's foot," he said.

Since fall 2003, Steve Metcalf has worked with the Bushnell as a part-time consultant on classical music programming. From 1982 to 2001, Metcalf was The Courant's classical music writer and critic.

"People around here - including many of the Bushnell's own donors - rightly expect the hall to be a leader in the classical arts, period," Metcalf said.

There was a time not so long ago when the Hartford Symphony Orchestra would perform no more than eight concerts a year. Now the HSO schedules about 35 concerts a year at the Bushnell in its Masterworks, Pops, Family Matinee and Classical Connections series. That puts the HSO in competition with the Bushnell's own classical series, which many believe is part of the reason for the decline. In contrast to the 125 subscribers to the Advest Classical Series, the HSO had about 2,800 subscribers last season for its flagship Masterworks series.

Collaboration and partnership are now the buzzwords for the Bushnell and the HSO. Since last season, the Bushnell has cooperated with Connecticut Opera and the Hartt School for concerts. The Bushnell is co-sponsoring the HSO's engagement of violinist Sarah Chang on Sept. 8 and 9. Conversely, the HSO is helping sponsor the Bushnell's Hilary Hahn recital next season, as part of its Classical Connections series.

"The classical repertoire base is being well served right now in our community," Fay said, "where I feel an obligation as well as an opportunity is for the Bushnell to play a stronger role in the creation of new work."

To that end, the Bushnell is in discussions with the choral ensemble Concora regarding a commission of a large work for chorus and orchestra.

For the spring, Fay also hopes to bring in another concert of video game music, performed by symphony players.

Great Center, Great Music

As a trustee who is an avid classical music fan, Suisman has a running list of all of the conductors and orchestras that have performed in Hartford.

The Berlin Philharmonic has been at the Bushnell twice. The Boston Symphony Orchestra more times than he can count. For Suisman, the visiting orchestras offer a small city like Hartford an element of prestige.

"To hear these orchestras in a great hall differentiates Hartford from many of the great cities in this country," Suisman said. "Hartford is a great center for great music. I'd like for [the orchestra series] to continue, because I think it's a part of the city's rejuvenation."

Visiting orchestras have also figured in the concert series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. In celebration of the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts' 50th anniversary last season, for example, the university played host to the Munich Philharmonic, London Philharmonic and Boston Pops orchestra. In a typical season, Jorgensen has about eight classical music concerts a year, two of those from visiting orchestras.

But the expense of bringing these orchestras from year to year is becoming more difficult, said Jorgensen director Rod Rock.

"We can empathize with what's going on at the Bushnell - absolutely," said Rock, who estimated that many of the European orchestras cost $50,000 for a single concert.

Rock said that between university fundraising and the Jorgensen series' popular entertainment and children's series, they are able to cover the artist fees for classical concerts.

But, he added, "I think it's going to be difficult for Jorgensen to hold on to classical music in the future. It might be possible not to do touring orchestras anymore. We're trying to hold onto it as long as possible. But I think long-range, it's going to be difficult to bring in touring orchestras."

Among other plans for the Bushnell, Metcalf mentions the possibility of a new chamber music series, led by HSO concertmaster Lenny Sigal, that might begin life in the Aetna Theater of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, with support from the Bushnell. He also envisions a website for local classical music.

"The real sign of health and vitality will be a steady stream of ongoing musical projects both large and small, featuring local artists and students, as well as big-name folks from the wider world," Metcalf said. "All the talk about new models and new approaches is fine, but the proof will be in the pudding."

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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