Over 19 gilded days and nights, the Newport Music Festival’s 52 embedded musicians will enliven mansions, churches, tents, and museums with engaging mainstream offerings of chambermusic, vocal extravaganzas, and more various fares. The 43-concert festival brings Joshua Bell, A Far Cry, Imani Winds, Jake Heggie, Charlie Albright, and Frederica von Stade to such venues as the the Elms, the Chinese Tea House, Belcourt, and especially to the Breakers, where, when the full moon is streaming through the open arches, we erupt in Gatsby goosebumps without later suffering to be found face-down in a pool.
Highlights of the 50th-anniversary festival include the Fourth of July opening festival concert celebration with Boston Brass, sunrise concerts at the Chinese Tea House on July 6, 13 and 20, an evening with mezzo von Stade and composer-in-residence and pianist Jake Heggie on July 7, A Far Cry performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3 on July 8, free “From the Porch” concerts at the Newport Art Museum on July 10 and 17, a Bernstein centennial concert with excerpts from West Side Story and Anniversaries featuring pianist Jeffrey Siegel on July 12, the Newport debut of 2017 Van Cliburn gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo on July 12, Grammy-nominated Imani Winds in its Newport debut at the Breakers on July 13, Young Persons’ Concert featuring Siegel on July 14, Bell headlining the festival gala on July 15, festival ensemble-in-residence Summer Strings performing everything from Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson to Brahms at Newport Vineyards on July 19, and the Newport debut of pianist, composer, and improviser Charlie Albright on July 21. Click HERE for tickets and further details.
The Malkovich era, which concluded after last summer’s 49th season, had induced much buzz over discoveries of new headliners and idiosyncratic forays into unusual repertoires. Farflung critics reported on these events with intense interest. Mark Malkovich III presided with panache over 36 years, from 1975 until his death, in 2010. The fourth Mark Malkovich retired at the conclusion of the 2017 festival. One can learn much of the storied institution from the history page HERE.
The subsequent regime change made way for the artistic directorship of Pamela A. Pantos, a retired mezzo fluent in five languages and possessor of serious music-business creds. BMInt wanted to learn more about her vision and mission.
FLE: In an earlier chapter of your life you sang opera. What was your favorite role?
Pantos: There are a whole slew of them, quite frankly. Certainly Carmen, because it’s such an engrossing world. You dance, you sing, you act. Vocally I really loved all the bel canto, such as Adalgisa Norma, Cenerentola, the title role, you know, Barber of Seville, Rosina. But as to playing, and acting, I enjoyed Carmen the most.
Will your operatic background influence what you book? I see there are three or four concerts that have vocal components. At least one is completely opera, others mixed.
The festival started as an arm of the Metropolitan Opera. The first concert the very first year was “An Evening at Maestro Rossini’s,” and they actually did the Barber of Seville in the first year in 1969 in its entirety. Half of the repertoire that year was vocal. In the second year Frederica von Stade came, as did other young artists from the Met. This was due to Glenn Sauls, their first general director, who ran the Young Artists Program there, so he brought in all these wonderful artists. And for a long time, there was lots of opera, lots of art song, composers that we actually don’t hear as much about. There was a Viardot opera. Lee Hoiby did some of his pieces here. There was Menotti done. A lot of vocal repertoire was done in the early days. I based the decision to go back and do more of that this year to honor the legacy of the past while looking to the future. That’s the theme of the season, really honoring that legacy. To do so I picked one significant piece from each of those 49 years and built the programs based upon those 49 pieces to make sure that we were representing all of the different eras of the festival.
I understand that that’s the past. Now, what’s the future? I hope it isn’t Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
[laughter] For a long time there hasn’t been a working composer present; this year Jake Heggie is coming. He’s one of our foremost American opera composers and he’s playing with von Stade (48 years after her debut here), and he’s also presenting his own art songs at the Newport Art Museum. He’s written lots of music based upon works, objects of art in different museums, so we used that as the thematic for the program.
Heggie transcribed Debussy’s delicious Chansons de Bilitis, originally for two flutes, two harps, celesta and narrator.
He arranged the work for string quartet for Joyce DiDonato. It’s actually quite beautiful.
So there’s not going to be a harp or a flute?
No, no, it’s just string quartet. And DiDonato just did them in her recital at Wigmore Hall, and this is the American premier.
You have such a plummy voice. Have you narrated it?
Yes, I have.
I hope you haven’t recited it in English, because it’s rather lascivious.
[laughter] We’ve made sure that we do everything in original language and that we are including inserts with the translations
And going back to the future?
We are emphasizing education and outreach that will be a year-round presence. Our new mission is to become part of the tapestry of this community year-round, not just in July.
Still in mansions?
We’ve used a variety of venues that people would feel comfortable in, and lucky for us we are in Newport, so they are easy to find. Throughout the winter and spring, we held two performances at the Newport Art Museum, one at the Marble House, and one in the Channing Memorial Church.
We’re doing three outreach concerts this summer as well, a Fourth of July concert with Boston Brass, and that’s looking to both the past and the future because Boston Brass was here in the ’90s. That’s an example of looking to the past and reinterpreting it in a new way. And then two free concerts on the lawn of the art museum. This is significant and we’re also doing some outreach in some underserved communities.
Will we ever again see entire seasons devoted to one composer?
Probably not, and I’ll tell you why. What about those who don’t like that composer? You’ve now eliminated an entire population, and quite frankly I think it’s a little bit of overkill. I love Beethoven, but I hear so much of his repertoire and it was primarily piano repertoire. There weren’t as many of his string quartets. If you’re going to do a composer, then I would assume you had a broader panoply. Nonetheless, at a small chamber music festival it would be very hard to do that. I actually think it’s important for the artists who perform here to be able to play music that they are very passionate about, and not everyone has the same passion for the same composer.
To what extent are you going to dictate repertoire? This year I understand you’re celebrating your past, but to what extent are you going to just turn performers loose?
We partially did this this year. Last summer, when I met many of the artists, I asked them at the end of the season to tell me what pieces you’ve played here before that you love playing or what’s a piece that you’ve heard someone else play somewhere else, or here, that you’d love to play? For example, I had never heard of Turina’s On the Spanish Morning. It’s basically a piano quintet with solo viola, and two of the artists, not the violist surprisingly enough, mentioned it to me. When I heard it, I said, wow, I’d love to build this in.
Many of this summer’s pieces came from the artists themselves. On opening night, for instance, the second half is the Mendelssohn Octet, an idea of cellist Sergey Antonov. He grabbed me last year and said ‘Pamela, I’ve been dying to play this octet for years. Can we please play it next summer?’ We then devised that program, the Dvorak American String Quartet and then some Copland songs and then the Mendelssohn. The theme is hope for the future, which is perfect for opening night on the 50th anniversary. So to circle back to your question, a good deal of the impetus came from the artists themselves, and then I made sure that it fit into a framework.
It would have been a lot of work, picking all the repertoire for 40 or 50 concerts. Having the artists involved in rep takes a little of the pressure off of you, and it also is going to be good for artists’ morale, because the take on the festival in the music world is of having to learn scads of new music and playing it in one or two rehearsals. This practice often exhausted people.
We have also extended the rehearsals. This year there’s a minimum of three rehearsals for some of the lighter fare and more for some of the larger ensembles, such as Souvenir of Florence by Tchaikovsky or the Rimsky-Korsakov Sextet. We went from two to three rehearsal rooms, basically increasing the rehearsal ensemble space by 50%. And I’ve also gotten some other spaces for some of the bigger ensemble pieces, so there’s lots of space as well as time. I sent the rehearsal schedule out about six weeks ago, and asked everyone to look at it carefully and if you need more or less time, tell me now. Getting the artists involved and being able to say hey, you know, on this day I’m playing this piece, or for a singer to say I’m singing this, is there any way we could move that there, made everybody feel very comfortable.
I hope we’ll be able to detect the improvement in polish, because there have been some concerts where people are playing music that they’ve never played before and will never play again, and on a bad night it kind of sounds that way. On a good night, of course, everything is wonderful. It seems like we’re going to be cured of that particular issue.
You list 43 concerts this year instead of 50 last year. Why not 50 concerts for the 50th year? Is it economic? Is it focus? What was the thinking?
I never even thought of that, 50 for 50, quite frankly. I think that’s brilliant. Basically, it started with the venues and their availability, talking to the Preservation Society, the Newport Art Museum, Blithewold, and Belcourt. We worked out what is good for everybody. I also examined what nights sold the best, what repertoire sold the best; it was a combination of things. There is also consideration for our festival artists. You’re asking them, as you said, to be on top of their game for several concerts in a very short timespan. We try to devise a schedule that allows them time to decompress, to walk the Cliff Walk or go to the beach or rekindle that flame themselves.
And it sounds like you’ve come to that decision because you were a performer yourself.
Absolutely: you’re right about that. The empathy for the artists and understanding what their needs are, and on the other side, understanding the audience as well. The audience experience is key and there isn’t one concert that we have taken for granted. Each one has been carefully crafted. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at our website, but we’ve already sold out, I don’t know, six or seven concerts, and many other concerts are nearing capacity, so it looks like we’re going to have a great season, which means that people want to be here and can sense our respect for the music, the artists, and the audience. These were several of our goals this year: we listened to what the audience said, we looked at the data, we listened to the artists. You know, it’s a listening profession.
I’m not trying to be critical of the past, but it seems like we’re going to have less of a cult of personality.
It’s not about me. [laughter.] It really is about the art. I say that because I was a mezzo. As a mezzo, sometimes you’re the title role, maybe as Carmen, but you’re often not. You’re part of the ensemble; that’s what this role is. My role is to serve our audience, to serve this community, and serve those artists so that the audience and the artists have the best possible experience.
Now, I counted 52 artists, which is a lot. Will you know all their names within a week?
Oh, sure. [laughter]
And I was comparing with previous years, and I think it’s fair to say that there are fewer Eastern Europeans coming and Europeans in general than in years past. Is that just because that’s what your little red book has in it? Irina Muresanu and Sergey Antonov and others are certainly coming back and are familiar, but there are a lot of new names coming and fewer of the old guard returning.
Well, in terms of artists who live outside of the United States, one of the issues beyond our control is the current immigration situation: it is extremely difficult for artists to get working visas. And that’s just a fact that the entire industry is faced with. I know of Canadians who have had issues coming over the border to perform. That’s something that we faced in terms of who comes in, but I do think our festival lineup is very international [regardless]. I created a map at one point and looked at how many international artists there are. Some of them do reside in the United States now, like Ya-Fei Chuang, the amazing pianist I heard at Symphony Hall playing with the Pops just a couple of weeks ago doing Rhapsody in Blue. She’s coming this year. We have a brilliant Scottish guitarist coming, Sean Shibe, who has played at Marlboro and just won all these competitions. We’ll be seeing and hearing a lot of Europeans, although some of them do currently reside in the United States.
Having artists like Charlie Albright is another way to look at our future. He has youthful exuberance plus a maturity in their playing that goes beyond his years. He’s playing the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, because I was quite frankly reduced to tears from his earlier performance of it. Extraordinary performer.
Another thing that’s interesting is there hasn’t been a lot of Baroque music done at the festival, and we’re doing the Four Seasons with harpsichord. We’re doing a Baroque concert at Belcourt with Bach and Scarlatti, also Boccherini, and the harpsichord is playing two Royer pieces that are virtuosic past understanding.
Our future vision includes broadening the repertoire, and going back to the audience experience I just mentioned; we are also encouraging the artists to speak to the audience a little bit more. I reminded them in a letter a few months back about how it’s not the ’50s and ’60s, when music education was strong in schools. It’s our obligation and our responsibility to talk to people and talk to them about why we love a piece, and why is it being played or why is it significant to us today, and where’s the correlation and how do we relate?
I had had the impression a year ago talking with the Festival’s publicist that one of the things you were going to try to do is have more standing ensembles. I see A Far Cry, Hermitage Trio, and Imani Winds, but there aren’t a lot of fulltime ensembles. What’s the thinking about that?
That is a matter of cost. Bigger ensembles cost more. That was one piece of the puzzle. The other thing is that there was an opportunity to do more string quartets, something that people had asked me about repeatedly. That’s an entire segment of the chamber repertoire that the festival hasn’t presented much of, yet we have so many incredible performers coming who play in pretty famous quartets. Having more rehearsal time gave us an opportunity to do some of that repertoire with people who have the opportunity to be here all summer.
I came from the European operahouse tradition, where soloists, chorus, orchestra, actors, and dancers worked as a cooperative group. Ensemble participation has always been a part of the festival, but when those people had time to work together and really let the repertoire mature among themselves, some incredible things happened. I wanted to go back to that tradition.
It might be interesting in some future year to open up some rehearsals as orchestras do.
We’re opening up some to the major donors this year; as you know, that’s something that a lot of people don’t get to see, so that’s an exciting opportunity.
Will there be any fuss about the Malkovich dynasty? I see that the history on the festival’s history page has been updated, and Malkovich III’s place is certainly secure there. When people ask you about Mark the Fourth, who left last year with some bitterness, what are you going to say?
Because I’m new, I see this as 49 years before me. In the 50th anniversary program, we placed a lot of photos from the archives, so people can see what the festival looked like or what people were wearing in 1969, 1970, and a three-page spread goes into the history of the festival in really interesting detail. We certainly honor Mark Malkovich III, because he was here for 35 years. We’ve restored his former practice of bringing the Van Cliburn winner every year. The concert featuring Yekwon Sunwoo is dedicated to the memory of Mark.
And is Elmer Booze, librarian and pageturner par excellence, still on staff?
After 45 seasons with the festival, Elmer decided to retire.
Okay, so who’s the librarian? I need some wind parts.
[laughter] For which piece?
For the Czerny Nonet.
Oh, my gosh. No, I don’t think we have that, but I could look for it in the archives. We certainly have extensive archives.
So what is the story on the archives? There’s a recorded archive, there’s a tremendous music library, and there’s never really been a fulltime librarian.
Basically it’s all still there. Some of the pieces that we’re bringing back this year come from our archives, but the scrapbooks are also absolutely fascinating. These huge, 3 ft. x 4 ft. volumes contain so much of our past. Of course, for the 50th anniversary, it was very important to dig in, and we did.
Are you ever going to release any of the recordings? There probably are rights issues galore, but there are some incredible performances in them.
A lot of them are on tape. I think that’s best to say it’s a work in progress. They all have to be digitized, and then we’ll need to see what the quality is before we did anything else.
Are you going to continue to record most of the concerts?
We’re recording some of them. As you know, some of the artists have clauses that won’t permit recording.
And will the relationship with Yamaha continue?
Absolutely. They’ve been our partners for over 30 years, and they are an important part of this festival, and they’re very generous.
Lastly, I wanted to thank you for adding some useful content to the concert flyers and losing the cutesy gimmick titles. [laughter]
We’re doing full program notes this year on all of the concerts, and I think that will be very helpful for the audience to read about the pieces, read about the composers, and also see in the program some representative artwork from the period.
Are we going to have to pay for them as in the past, or will they be free at last?
The programs are free this year. I heard that complaint a lot last year. So many people said, ‘I’m here for one concert. Why would I buy the thick, expensive program book?’ So yes, they’re free. [laughter] I think that’s important. I think if you go to a concert, that’s an important part of the experience.
Well, except in Europe, where many of the houses charge for handouts. But then they also charge at restaurants for the free stick of bread.