IN: News & Features

RCMF: Variety, Tradition and Pizzazz


Pianist Stephen Prutsman
to open Festival

Beginning with a festive June 14th opener celebrating the Roaring ’20s in jazz, chamber music, and even an accompanied photoplay, the 38th-Rockport Chamber Music Festival, “Source and Inspiration,” will peel back the layers of the creative process, exploring the many sources that inspired composers and performers, it also promises to serve as a deep well of inspiration for all who attend the festival events. The gorgeous seaside venue will once again be the go-to site for top chamber music from veteran and upcoming performers. Artistic Director Barry Shiffman has inked a season with variety, tradition and pizzazz, as he tells us below.

Source and Inspiration: Is this a marketing label, or will the thematic glue be apparent to audiences who attend one or two events, or does it only emerge over several of the 30 events between June 14th and August 31st?

BS: The theme applies throughout the festival, from our opening night connecting jazz influence with the great French composers, to the splendor of mountains inspiring the film Mountain, dance inspiring “Take this Waltz” program, or A Far Cry performing Lembit Beecher. I don’t think that contemplation of the theme is necessary to enjoying a concert or a number of concerts, but is an interesting guiding light for the curation of the festival. I have been fascinated with the many ways a composer finds and reacts to that source of inspiration. I hope the audience enjoys seeing and hearing these links.

Are there individuals making festival debuts that you would like to highlight?

There are so many, it is hard to know where to start. Opening night with the great Italian soprano Cristian Zavalloni, who is equally at home singing contemporary works of Louis Andriessen or jazz. Violinist Blake Pouliot, whose career has exploded in the last year, having recently replaced Renaud Capuçon in the Brahms Concerto with the Dallas Symphony.

Barry Douglas!! Don’t miss him. A powerhouse of a pianist who performs the repertoire with which he won the Tchaikovsky Competition gold medal in 1986. Cellist Ani Aznavoorian, The Vera Quartet, JCT Trio, Venice Baroque with Avi Avital, violinist Philippe Graffin from France, cellist Pieter Wispelwey from Holland, pianist Piers Lane from Australia, the groundbreaking Art of Time Ensemble…the list goes on.  

Your cabaret events, which debuted last year, seem to have been successful. Have most of the patrons attended the “regular” concert beforehand, or do many arrive just for these late-night fetes? Tell us more about the format. Rockport used to roll up its sidewalks at 8:00. What do the Town Mothers think? Does this tie in at all with RM president Tony Beadle’s Jazz events?

The cabaret does dispense music in a more informal setting. The music making changes with the space it is in, and we found last year that the performers loved the close connection to the listeners and vice versa. It attracts many regular concert goers as well as new listeners. Tony has also used the third floor for some jazz and singer songwriter events and the response has been excellent. We are blessed to have a venue with such great rooms for sharing music.

Artistic Director Barry Shiffman

You will be playing in 8 of the 15 chamber music concerts. Tell us what it’s like to do admin, socializing and performing. 

I am involved in 6 mainstage concerts and 2 cabarets, and I am looking forward to all of these performances. Some are supporting roles, and some have more of a spotlight. The energy of the festival, from the rehearsals and concerts, socializing with artists and patrons, and working with the amazing team that is Rockport Music is something I have been looking forward to all year. The days are long, and by the end of the festival I am exhausted, but it is joyous work, and truth be told, as soon as it is over, I miss it.

Tell us about the age range of the audience and the performers.

For the performers, there are both young artists at the early stage of their career like the Rockport Fellows (Vera Quartet, Kevin Ahfat, Liam Smith, and Sae Yoon Chon) to established world-class artists like Richard Goode and the Takacs Quartet. For the audience, the age range is quite diverse from teenagers to 80+ years old. The music speaks to all age groups.

I don’t see any staged dramatizations or commissioned works this year…

True, this year we don’t have any theatre presentations like last year’s production of Were You There with Davone Tines, or Kafka and Son with actor Alon Nashman. Some of our performances involve video, and some involve a very wide range of performers as in Take this Waltz. There is a good deal of contemporary music of living composers, but true, no commission of ours this year. There are several in the pipeline and we will soon see them on our stage. Commissioning often looks out two or three years. I would encourage you to check out the Aizuri Quartet, who brilliantly pair Haydn and Beethoven with the recent work of American composers Gabriella Smith and Caroline Shaw..stunning!!

What about lectures beforehand. You have had some fine examples of the genre in the past.

Yes, we continue presenting a number of pre-concert chats, taking these to our 3rd floor this year to enjoy in a more relaxed environment than the hall. Some will be given by performing artists as is the case with pianist Max Levinson explicating Pictures at an Exhibition, prior to Barry Douglas’s performance.

So back to the Roaring ’20s of opening night, we are intrigued by the novelty of watching and “hearing” a silent movie in the chamber context. How does the first part of the program set up the film. Looks like total immersion in the 1920s:

RAVEL: Violin Sonata
Song Set-Second Hand Rose, Stardust, Ain’t Misbehavin’
DARIUS MILHAUD: Creation du Monde
PRUTSMAN: College by Buster Keaton-1927
(live performance by Prutsman & Vera Quartet

The first part of the program has music from the jazz era, and the film comes out of this same time. I was looking for a way to really engage our audience in a festive way and the film has some fun audience involvement which helps break down the wall between performer and listener. It should send the audience out of the hall ready to enjoy our festival after party at our original home at the Art Association.

Why does your program use two quartets?

The program uses two quartets because we have two quartets with us for opening week. The young Vera Quartet are part of our Rockport Fellows Program, that brings exceptional young artists to the festival. The Vera will be involved in a number of community outreach events and a special concert on Saturday morning for children with autism. Part of the fellowship is putting our fellows alongside some of our regular festival artists, and giving then the opportunity to collaborate. I know the Vera will enjoy making music with Stephen. I am familiar with the Vera, having heard them a few times in the past. Their newest member, violinist Becky Andersen, spent time at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, where I am on faculty. The amazing Parker Quartet have a lot on their plate preparing for their recital on Saturday evening, so it made sense to have the Vera take on the film score. Opening night is a real celebration and we wanted to have as many of our festival artists as possible on the stage.

We asked Stephen Prutsman, the pianist-composer for the movie, to elaborate:

In the silent film era, there was no such thing as a silent movie. In fact, there was no such appellation as “Silent Film.” Photoplays, as they were called, almost always screened with music, though, whether improvised, from cue sheets or from improvising pianists. The most significant had scores written for them under the supervision of the director. Composers seemed to fall into three camps, those who highlight the action quite specifically, those which assign leitmotifs to the major characters, and those which merely cover the silence with attractive tones. Where do you see your score for Keaton’s “College?”

SP: I think a bit of all. Certainly, there is a lot of action music like the big chase at the end — and hit points for some of the slapstick. Leitmotives, a little bit yes, notably a love tune that happens a few times. There are also more quotes from other non-Steve Prutsman musical works than you’d expect — both classical and otherwise… Then yes there is some good “underscore” if that’s what you’re thinking. Little bits of background swing that hopefully won’t call attention to itself.

Is it through-composed-arranged? Do you allow for any telling silences?

Yes, through-composed, although since we don’t use a click track, there are times when we’ll need to repeat something or ‘vamp,’ (if we’re ahead of the movie) or jump ahead if we’re behind.

Will the music tell us what the characters are thinking?


Does the music come from the period of the film?

Yes, except for a few ‘adaptations.’

Do you have any evidence that it screened in 1927 with a jazz score?

No, I’m afraid I don’t know.

Will the players be in the dark except for stand lights?

Yes! We should be thought of as pit musicians!


Barry, are you going to be blinding us with late-afternoon sun, or will you pull the gorgeous screen over the windows when warranted?

BS: We always decide this based on the intensity of the light on the day and the wishes of the performers. 

When the window is open, will you make sure that the metronome-like sailboat masts are set to the correct tempos?

I have so enjoyed seeing the light fade and the gentling rocking boats dancing along to the music…so, so beautiful.

Rockport Chamber Music Festival
June 14th through August 31st
Shalin Liu Center, 37 Main St, Rockport

(978) 546-7391

Comments Off on RCMF: Variety, Tradition and Pizzazz