How Festivals can Attract New Audiences to American Music

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Five years ago some friends of mine drove me down to a bluegrass festival in Stumptown, West Virginia — a more than 10 hour journey from New York City which was more time than I’ve ever spent in a car in my whole life being the die-hard urbanite!

At the Festival there were people camped out all weekend to hear such great American musicians as Jimmy Martin, Charley Waller and Larry Sparks. In fact, I was able to greet Jimmy Martin personally after his set. Upon telling him I came from New York, he greeted me saying “Suuuun, welcome to the YOO-nited States!” But later I was able to play some fiddle with him at an impromptu jam session he led from the back of his gig van. There are many people with similar reminiscences about Leonard Bernstein from his many years at Tanglewood.

Music festivals offer a unique experience for listeners to discover music informally and as a result are in a unique position to attract new audiences to unfamiliar music. Yet so many established music festivals in America resist taking the lead in reshaping American musical thought. Despite the absence of a comprehensive American new music assault this summer, there are still many laudable efforts outdoors nationwide which are the focus of the third NewMusicBox.

I visited Chicago for a talk with Zarin Mehta, Executive Director of the venerable Ravinia Festival, who described the limits along with the new potentials for festival programming. And while his musical passions are not exactly entrenched in the music of the here and now, we found a common ground. Mic Holwin scoured the nation in search of American repertoire in a hyper-history of summer music festivals. (To be consistent with our first two issues, she wondered if she would need to change her surname to Smith. We let her keep her name and the hyper-history remains every bit as thorough. In fact, this time we even have a picture on every page!)

We asked Michael Torke, Greg Sandow, Marilyn Nonken and Joseph Dalton to describe a memorable outdoor premiere they’ve heard and to describe their most unusual exposure to a new piece of music. We’d like to know your experiences as well and ask you to offer your opinion about the feasibility of an all-American new music festival as the perfect opportunity for new audiences to discover some of this great music. To help you discover new music, we’ve added RealAudio samples to all 22 recordings featured in this month’s SoundTracks.

Beyond the world of festivals, American music is the top story at the American Symphony Orchestra League who has made a firm commitment to promoting new American music both in presentations and concerts at ITS annual Conference as well as in a new Web site. ASCAP HAS honored orchestras and choruses devoted to presenting new American repertoire and BMI has held its annual awards for young composers. As usual, NewMusicBox features over 200 listings of American music performances during the next two months so even if you don’t have a chance to visit one of the Festivals there may still be an opportunity to discover a new work.