“Music is music,” says Bob Lord, composer, bassist and CEO of PARMA Recordings. This is the only way in which Lord apologizes for otherwise unapologetically programing acts such as a rock singer/guitarist, a jazz band, a string quartet, and a symphony orchestra in one concert. As for the crowd for this show, it went wild no matter what the genre. There were standing ovations and cat calls after almost every number. The concert was the main event at the inaugural PARMA Music Festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 17.
The festival ran for three very full days of concerts, presentations, panel discussions, and a potpourri of socializing and networking events. While I normally expect music festivals to materialize around a common musical denominator such as jazz, chamber music, early music, fiddle music, etc., what was most striking about the PARMA Festival was its diversity; diversity within musical styles and event types, its combination of local, national, and international artists, and also its audience. The combining of genres normally thought of as “high-brow” and “low-brow” in the same concert, the accessibility of the venues, and the potent marketing brought in an encouraging mix of people. The performance venues were spread over less than a mile radius and included spaces such as churches, bars, concert halls, and wharfs.
One of the sources for this diversity is PARMA itself. PARMA Recordings is a production company based in New Hampshire that serves as a middleman between music makers and their consumers. No matter what the genre, composers and performers invest their money, time, and talent to have their music recorded and distributed by PARMA. These musicians ultimately hope to attract greater exposure and income than they could on their own by having their works produced and marketed by the company. Most of this revenue comes from selling the music to television and film companies. Composers who sign up with PARMA know that their music may be licensed for use in TV and film. “We’ve definitely gotten concerns such as, ‘Is it going to be in a deodorant commercial?’ but ultimately, it’s a fantastic exposure opportunity and we don’t strive to do anything vulgar with the music, so usually they’re pretty happy to get their music out there,” says Jacob Weinreb, managing director of the licensing department.
Lord encourages musicians to “think more like a band.” In a rock band, everyone contributes different talents, such as composing, arranging, marketing, driving, licensing, etc., but, “it all washes out in the end.” Lord’s point is that a tiny organism such as a rock band thrives on the fine balance between the successful collaboration of its members against a real market of music consumers, and that’s precisely what he feels is missing from the world of new concert music and symphony orchestras. From talking to some of my string player friends, many chamber ensembles function in a similar way.
In addition to the festival promoting the agenda and products of PARMA Recordings, the inclusion of several other institutions demonstrates that the concerts were not entirely self-serving. The festival also hosted an offshoot conference of the Society of Composers, Inc., featuring performances of pieces by its composer members as well as paper sessions. Surprisingly or not, a large number of the SCI paper sessions also approached the problem of genre and accessibility to audiences. Scott Robins spoke about making 21st-century rhythmic topics accessible to college students through the use of prog rock examples.
Kevin Zhang talked about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole. These talks were presented alongside what would seem to be more conventional fodder for papers given at an academic music conference, e.g. explications of the music of Grisey and Zwilich presented by Brian Penkrot and Jessica Rudman, respectively. Some of the presentations found their way to the concert hall: Iowa undergraduate composition student Adam O’Dell performed his solo percussion piece right after presenting a paper. Some of the SCI members expressed great appreciation for the conference being held at this lively festival, rather than in a stuffy lecture hall housing only fellow composers.
The other striking collaboration in this festival had to do with the locale of New England, and Portsmouth in particular. Many of the performers were local—including bands such as Tan Vampires and fiveighthirteen, students and faculty from the jazz ensemble of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center, players from the Boston New Music Initiative, and the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra, led by the exuberant maestro John Page. Also included in the mix was Classical Music By the SeaTM, a local educational organization that strives to promote the understanding and appreciation of classical music.
The audience for the larger events included both many musicians (and the usual obligatory friends and families of musicians), and a wide variety of locals, as well as passersby who happened to see a poster on the street; one tourist confessed that he saw someone carrying a cello and simply followed him to the next event. The panel discussion on licensing and the music industry attracted students from UMass Lowell majoring in music business. I’m also sure that the wide variety of venues in use helped attract a good mix of people, whether a concert was held in a church, a bar, a wharf, or a music hall.
The main event concert was well worth the drive from Boston. Rarely have I borne witness to the world premiere of a piece by a prominent deceased composer; at this concert, I encountered Lukas Foss’s Elegy for Clarinet and Orchestra, a piece recently uncovered by Christopher Foss, the composer’s son. It was brought to life at the concert by the assured hands of Richard Stoltzman. Incidentally, this performance, along with the process of uncovering the piece, is being turned into a documentary.
I had many favorites at the concert. High school senior Anna DeLoi was dazzling in her rendition of Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto. I was most excited for composer Tina Tallon, who won PARMA’s 2013 student composer competition and had her string quartet selective defrosting performed competently by members of the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra.
Switzerland native Martin Schlumpf was one of the featured international composers. His piece Streams received its world premiere at the event and featured a savage duo: Matthias Müller on clarinet and David Taylor on bass trombone. The piece is rich and eclectic and provides room for the soloists to improvise their own cadenzas, in this case a successful Third Stream-like extension of the old concerto tradition. The concert was perhaps too long, but was quite well conceptualized by the way in which Will Dailey and Ovidiu Marinescu provided both stylistic variety and interludes during the set changes; a clear differentiation of genre was obtained by an effective change of lighting on stage. The lighting was neutral for the classical music and colorful for the jazz and rock music. It’s a shame, actually. Why couldn’t Arthur Gottshalk’s Ceremonial Fanfare get a little touch of green from the lighting team? Finally, one of the crowd pleasers on the program was Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2. I enjoyed it as well, even though I thought that Márquez could have taken greater liberty and added more personal touches to the traditional Mexican danzón.
I got a lot from this festival. It’s good to see that there are so many composers out there who, like me, grapple with the need to write music that will please themselves and help them grow as composers and humans. At times those two pursuits can seem diametrically opposed to one another, but at other times it is possible for the two goals to work hand in hand, resulting in music that will bring us some income as well as recognition and respect from our peers. I am very glad that in all of my encounters at the festivals no one expressed an urge to “dumb down” or “sell out” in order to find an audience. However, when I encounter the wonderfully pluralistic “anything goes” American attitude, I also become concerned that we may be setting ourselves up for mediocrity or for music that is inoffensive—and thus, by our inoffensiveness, offend the music connoisseur who is seeking true expression and challenge.
One of the topics I discussed with Bob Lord concerned context. Many of us remember Joshua Bell’s experiment of playing in the subway and finding out just how different his audience’s reaction was when he was just an anonymous street performer. Maybe you take the most artfully created piece of music and put it in a commercial, but you run the risk of completely changing the intention of the piece. There is a responsibility for the composer to understand the context in which she is writing a piece; what is her audience, and what is her place within society; how does her piece contribute to the betterment of music, art, or society.
But this is perhaps a topic for another time and another essay. In the meantime, I’m so glad to see so many performers and living composers received so well and I’m looking forward to next year’s PARMA Music Festival.
Osnat Netzer is a composer and pianist based in Boston. Her opera The Wondrous Woman Within will receive its world premiere in her home country of Israel in 2014. She teaches theory and composition at Harvard University.