Boston-based Juventas New Music Ensemble, the subject of many positive reviews on this site, has had surprising success with its free virtual programming. Devoted to the famous composers of tomorrow, the ensemble has, of late, made a virtue of necessity by growing its audience electronically. “American Mirror” [viewable HERE] inaugurated the ensemble’s 16th season in the company of more than 6,500 viewers by the end of a week. Thanks to outstanding musicians, stellar composers, and the superb sound and video from Futura Productions, Juventas seems to have found a very useful niche.
To put this achievement in context, Juventas has an annual budget of only $78,000. By contrast, the Boston Symphony has an annual budget of over $100 million and crossed that same YouTube viewership threshold only twice in the past 12 months.
The Juventas team designed the evening as a three-dimensional experience, drawing on elements that make nights in the concert hall so special. Professor Karen Ruymann of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee ran her signature pre-concert “Composer Conversation” on Zoom. Without the need to travel, all six composers joined audience members from across the country for a lively discussion. The ensemble offered a downloadable program book from its website. And team members hosted a chat room with viewers during the performance. While most classical ensembles are currently offering pre-recorded content, Juventas streamed live, unedited video as the musicians were performing. “It was a little scary for sure, but we wanted to bring our audience the thrill and authenticity of live performance,” says Caplan. As if to prove the concert was live, he even responded to messages from the YouTube chatroom live on camera.
Under Oliver Caplan, the ensemble’s fourth Artistic Director, Juventas doubled the size of its board and rebranded with a fresh look. Caplan has energized the organization with timely, socially relevant programming and a composer pool more representative of the diverse community that Juventas serves. New initiatives include an audience choice program that invites listeners to vote on favorite pieces they would like to hear again, a pre-concert “Composer Conversations” moderated by Ruymann, and post-concert Meet-the-Artist Receptions.
By fall 2019, Juventas was regularly performing to audiences of 125-150 people in Boston’s First Church. “This is a standout crowd for an ensemble that, by mission, focuses on composers most people have never heard of,” says Board President John A. Carey.
With the onset of COVID in early 2020, the ensemble’s 15th-anniversary season seemed like it might be cut short. But the ensemble’s ten core musicians embraced a new plan during Massachusetts’ stay at home advisor. In “Stay Home With Juventas.” every Wednesday evening for three months, one of the ensemble’s musicians performed a solo concert from his or her home, live-streamed on Facebook with whatever equipment they had on hand. Violinist Ryan Shannon put the first concert together in just five days. The series regularly set new audience records for Juventas, with over 10,000 viewers tuning in over the course of the spring. “The numbers were great, but what really stood out to me were the personal stories,” says Caplan. “There was a hospital worker in Somerville who I saw in our Facebook chat room every Wednesday night, and I thought, if this series brings solace to just this one hero, it will have been worth it.”
Over the summer, the ensemble convened a think tank of musicians, staff and board members to chart a course forward. The group decided to design an all-virtual 2020-21 season, building on the successful June 13th prototype with Futura. “All the scientific data suggested we’d be dealing with COVID for a long haul,” explains Caplan. “Planning a virtual season from the get-go, rather than taking things month by month, allowed us to build the kind of season-long journey arc we normally have over the course of the year. We named our 2020-21 season ‘Now More Than Ever,’ because difficult times are when we need music the most.”
Juventas took one more leap. After three seasons of growing ticket revenue as a source of income, the ensemble decided to make its entire 2020-21 season available for free. “With widespread financial hardship, we wanted everyone to be able to join us without barriers,” explains Carey.
And then a surprise: On September 8, Juventas was named winner of the coveted American Prize Ernst Bacon Award for Performance of American Music. Second place went to Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony. The U.S. Army Soldiers’ Chorus and Field Band was third.
Juventas’s groundbreaking virtual season continues November 14th at 8pm, with “The Voice of the Rain,” a program of music inspired by autumn and nature.