Veteran local concertgoers and readers will be able to recall Monadnock Music from the same memory bank where reside the BSO, Cantata Singers, Camerata, Handel+Haydn, and our other venerable musical institutions. And now MM turns 50, and soon will again begin serenading southern New Hampshire with its signature mix of nine free concerts in historic country churches and four ticketed main events at the air-conditioned Peterborough Town House.
Conductor/artistic director Gil Rose and his Monadnock Music Festival Orchestra (including many familiar Boston freelancers) opens the season there on July 10th with Beethoven’s First and Third symphonies. And actually the first country church concert will be in a synagogue: Rachmaninoff, Joan Tower, and Schubert at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Keene on July 12th. Famous visitors include Boston Modern Orchestra Project with modern Americana and pianist Christopher O’Riley. The schedule is here, or consult BMInt’s Upcoming Events.
In recognition of this impressive anniversary, BMInt was eager to talk with MM managing director Christopher Sink and co-founder Jocelyn Bolle.
BMInt: Congratulations on Monadnock 50th Season.
CS: Amazing, huh? An anniversary like this is like a holiday. You hang out the flags and invite your friends and family over for a feast. You make it special because it means a lot.
For an organization like Monadnock Music, where historically more than 90% of our revenues come from gifts, it’s a great opportunity to call people together and to clearly restate the fact that we’re still here because of them. We wouldn’t have lasted if we weren’t meaningful to our audiences; we are truly a community-sustained organization. This season we can acknowledge that shared success and also point to the shared responsibility for the future.
JB: It’s hard to believe that it’s been a half-century since Jim (Bolle) gathered a group of musicians from all over the country to record repertory old and new in the Nelson (NH) church. I remember that an unanticipated challenge was just getting them here, because about 90% of them got lost on the way! Remember, we had no GPS, no cellphones, and there were hardly any road signs out here then. But get here they did, and after a week of rehearsals there were free concerts in the church to thank the tiny community for its hospitality. I don’t think we knew then that something had begun that so many of us would devote such important parts of our lives to.
How does the season reflect 50 years? The traditions, the history, the cause for flags and feasts?
CS: I think when a festival hits 50, you want something ambitious, a chance to be nostalgic and an opportunity for simple celebration. Gil (Rose) has constructed a season that really provides for each of these almost emotional needs.
For ambition, we open with the first of a five-year cycle of performing the complete Beethoven symphonies. This first year we’ll tackle 1 and 3, the Eroica. By year five we’ll have build up to the 9th. For nostalgia, Gil has worked with founder Jim Bolle on a three-concert weekend, a sort of alumni weekend, that brings back more than two dozen artists who have played a significant role in the life of the festival and for whom the festival has been an important part of their career. On Friday night July 24, pianist Christopher O’Riley will play Rachmaninoff, Schubert, and Scriabin, then on Saturday, more than 20 artists will play music by James Bolle, Milhaud, Elliot Carter and others in the Nelson Church, and on Sunday we finish the weekend up with a return of the New Zealand Quartet. I think the weekend will be musically wonderful and full of meaning for so many people both playing and listening.
For celebration, we close the season with a Gershwin concert. Gil has found the original Paul Whiteman Band orchestrations from the 1920s. Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F will be familiar pieces to the audience, but I think they’ll be surprised by the sound of these original arrangements. We’ll add in some dancing and champagne, toast ourselves, and bring the season to a close.
Then we start to get ready for year 51!
I know that Monadnock Music had some financial difficulties a few years ago that you’ve been pulling out from under. Will 51 be a growth year?
CS: There were some difficulties and last year the budget was really tightened to enable the Festival to retire its accumulated debt. We were successful in putting ourselves back in the black and that felt terrific. But now we’re really cautious. The 50th season, driven in part by the meaningfulness of the anniversary, is a substantial expansion of what we did or spent in 2014. I think that’s appropriate. But I don’t think the festival is ready for substantial growth at this point. We have some foundations to shore up and we need to develop some fresh capacity before we get too aspirational. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll stretch ourselves artistically as far as we can. We just won’t focus on the immediate reward of “now” at the expense of future years.
I understand you had some special visitors recently?
Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, visited our office in Peterborough; Ginnie Lupi, director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, was with her. Amazingly, all three of us, the NEA, NHSCA, and Monadnock Music, are turning 50 this year. We have a long history with both of those organizations: we received our first NEA grant in 1968 and our first NHSCA grant around the same time. We were all established in that great rush of optimism that characterized so much of the 1960s. There was a real belief then that art matters. The fact that we’re still here 50 years later should be evidence of the benefits we bring at the local, state, and federal level to the cultural life of the US. What was wonderful for me about Chu’s visit was the message that even a small organization like Monadnock Music, in rural New Hampshire, can be seen from Washington DC and acknowledged for our contribution to the arts fabric of the country. I am a true believer in the arts, and for me that recognition was deeply meaningful. I hope it is for others as well.
How has the balance among opera, orchestral music, soloists and chamber music changed over the seasons?
Monadnock Music was originally formed to provide the broadest range of music and, by performing in so many locations, to make it as easily accessible as possible. Gil has reasserted that original mission in the breadth of his programming and his commitment to far-ranging repertoire over the past three seasons. Gil has also worked to differentiate the performances in the Peterborough Town House from those in the villages. The Town House concerts have traditionally been ticketed, the village concerts free. For Gil, the determining factor is largely scale or performer renown. For example, Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 3 will play in the Town House as will pianist Christopher O’Riley. Chamber pieces and emerging artists are featured in the village concerts. This year, though, we do have the New Zealand Quartet playing in Harrisville as part of the 50th reunion weekend, so that logic doesn’t completely hold. It never will completely when you strive to present the best available artists in the venue most suitable for their work.
How has it been to have a director who doesn’t play or compose?
That’s an interesting question. As you know, my career has primarily been in not-for-profit theater. Monadnock is my first venture into music. But I have worked (in theater) both with artistic directors who act and with those who don’t and those who are playwrights and those who are not. I’m not sure how much bearing those activities actually have on their primary role.
Even for me as a managing director, when I worked in theater and told people what I did, they almost always said, “Oh! You must be an actor.” When I said I wasn’t, they always looked a little puzzled. While I loved theater, being an actor seemed to me to have nothing to do with understanding how organizations grow, thrive, manage risk, etc. It was as if they thought there was only one avenue in to understanding an enterprise.
Being an artistic director requires a very different skillset from the one I have. That’s why Gil and I work so well together. We complement each other. To create a coherent season, an artistic director has to have an encyclopedic knowledge of their art form, a compelling artistic vision, a keen understanding of the industry, a solid grasp of the organization’s capacity, a sympathy for the particular audience, and so much more. Gil is fluent in each of these areas. But none of them must necessarily be built from a base of playing or composing.
The artistic directors I’ve known have usually directed. Gil conducts, which is the same thing. Again, that’s an omniscient role—the bringing together of individuals and unique voices into a balanced ensemble. Of course, it’s a matter of scale, but I think it’s difficult to act or play within an ensemble while keeping that godlike overview. Composing seems to me to be more akin to conducting—you’re bringing all the parts together into a whole—but it is no requisite to gaining the skills needed for artistic leadership.
The fact is that there are a dozen avenues into the jobs we do, and multiple lenses through which we grasp and understand our organizations and chart courses forward. Of course, you need to love music or theater or the simple act of service to one’s community. Naturally, acting, playing, writing, composing can be means of embracing what we do, avenues towards insight, etc., but at the basic level, those activities are the result of what Gil and I do. Enabling Monadnock Music to present the kind of music it does, the quality and breadth, is the product, the “gift” of Gil and my work to our audiences.
Tell us about the country inns and the bucolic setting.
Monadnock Music is really the perfect reason for, or a perfect complement to, a weekend in the country. The region is much less developed than those areas north of Boston, or the Cape, or the Berkshires. It’s genuinely rural. You can see the stars and it’s quiet. It’s easy to craft a wonderful weekend of music, hiking, swimming, antiquing and eating well.
I’m still pretty new to the region myself, so I love exploring it and finding places to eat, shop and wander around.
Because Monadnock performs throughout the region, just attending multiple concerts (over the weekend or over the season) is a tour. This year, four of the major concerts are in Peterborough, a beautiful town, and there are nine others ranging over the hills. The concerts in those nine are performed in classic New England meetinghouses. Despite their similarities, they are surprisingly different—age, size, unique architectural features, and they each have their own acoustical qualities. The characters of the small towns and villages are very different as well, so it’s fun to explore and take note of those surprising differences.
There are wonderful places to stay. The Inn at Valley Farms in Walpole NH offers terrific farm stays. The Fitzwilliam Inn, my favorite of all time, is just at the base of Mount Monadnock. There’s also a tiny B&B in Temple, the Birchwood Inn, that comes complete with an English pub. Right in Peterborough is the comfortable and convenient Jack Daniels Motor Inn. My favorite places for dinner are Burdick’s in Walpole and Waterhouse in Peterborough. Both offer interesting menus of seasonal foods. But there are dozens of choices. Everyone you meet is more than happy to give you personal recommendations.
For my own perfect afternoon, I’d gather a picnic—the best resources are the Walpole Grocery, the Dublin Store and, in Peterborough, Roy’s Market and the 12 Pines. Then I’d take my feast to the Friendly Farm in Dublin, an old-fashioned petting zoo. The people who work there are really nice, the animals super friendly, and the place is immaculately clean. I love to picnic there. Just be prepared for goats trying to climb on your lap and chickens hopping up on the table to see what you’re eating. Don’t worry, they do sell little bags of grain, so you don’t have to share.