Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Newport, Rhode Island
July 9-25, 1999

Newport Music Festival underwent a conceptual shift 24 years ago when Mark Malkovitch III took over the captain’s chair as general manager after its sixth season.

Founded as a festival to highlight new American music, Newport was started in 1969 by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra who wanted a summer season in this Rhode Island yachting paradise much like the Boston Symphony Orchestra had in Tanglewood.

“They tried to do outdoor opera and it just didn’t work,” says Malkovitch’s son and Newport Marketing Director Mark Malkovitch IV. “A soprano lost her voice and a cello literally fell apart.” Thoughts turned to presenting other forms of music in an alternate venue, namely indoors. Newport’s spate of stunning turn-of-the-century mansions, once private homes of Vanderbilts and Astors, were in the process of being opened to the public through The Preservation Society of Newport.

“The Orchestra seized on the chance to do chamber music in these beautiful chambers,” says Malkovitch the younger. “That’s how it all started.”

It also set a course on quite a different latitude than the one it’s currently navigating. “When the Newport Music Festival was first founded, it made its mark by doing unknown American music. [Music critic] Harold Schoenberg caught on to it and he really put Newport on the map,” continues son Malkovitch. “The festival’s thrust originally was purely American music, but that changed when Dad took over.”

“Dad” changed the focus of the festival to performance of mostly Romantic — and especially piano (Dad’s a trained pianist) — literature.

The Festival’s motto, “Well known works of little-known composers and minor masterpieces of major composers,” while not period-specific enough to be entirely truthful, is apt since Malkovitch Sr. does invest a lot of time to unearth yet more Romantic repertoire. (In fairness, the elder Malkovich did produce a totally all-American festival in his first season as general director and has had a piece dedicated to him by John Corigliano. “I have always been interested in contemporary music and have tried to encourage our American composers,” he says.)

Major composers this season are more singular than plural. Every afternoon concert this year (17 concerts out of 57 total) is devoted to Rachmaninoff’s piano, chamber and vocal music. All of it.

Rachmaninoff is treated as an American composer at Newport. (Okay, so died in Beverly Hills.) (Okay, so he died an American citizen in Beverly Hills.) Newport will perform his transcription of the “Star Spangled Banner” this year. (Okay, so he died an American citizen in Beverly Hills and he arranged the National Anthem.)

Soloists from 18 countries, also found by Dad, make up Newport’s ad-hoc ensembles this season, including Cuban-American pianist Juana Zayas, Azerbaijani soprano sisters Fidan and Khuraman Kasimova, and yes, Victor Borge (90 years old and still going).

As for other American music this season besides Rocky, the Abaca String Band from New York City will do a program of their own arrangements of American popular music by composers like Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Richard “The Lady is a Tramp” Rodgers, Harold “Over the Rainbow” Arlen, and George Gershwin. A contemporary international work will also presented on this concert — Abaca’s arrangement of Pete Townshend’s “Pinball Wizard.”

And of course, here in the “sailing capital of the world,” it is only fitting that some concerts take place at sea. Champagne brunch aboard a ship, champagne receptions before midnight Liszt concerts inside a Newport mansion, champagne dinner party on mansion grounds overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Surely Newport must be the only music festival with an Official Champagne (Louis Roederer) and suggestions for dress (resort wear for morning and afternoon concerts, formal attire desirable — though not required — for evening concerts).

From Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms
by Mic Holwin
© 1999 NewMusicBox