The Ravinia Festival: A talk with Zarin Mehta

7. Developing Younger Performers and New Repertoire

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about education for a minute, because Ravinia has a wonderful program, the Steans Institute, which has been part of the vision of Ravinia, and this is a way of bringing in younger audiences and training the next generation of musicians.

ZARIN MEHTA: The Steans Institute started 10 years ago as a means of, if you like, a finishing school for extraordinarily talented young instrumentalists and singers. Two separate sessions. Right now, we just, I think, Isaac Stern just finished three weeks of his, I’m not sure what he called it, master classes at Carnegie Hall. Almost every group that performed with him, or studied with him in his group of people, there were people who had been at the Steans Institute. Every single one of them. This was very exciting to us. And the talent that’s out there, the number of extraordinarily talented young people who are coming out of our conservatoires and so on, if one wanted to be pessimists and say isn’t it great but where are they going to play and who are they going to play for? But I think that the more people that are involved in classical music the more proselytization there is outside and the more people will come to hear these young… our rising stars concerts is proving that. When you put a young person like Vadim Repin to play a concerto with the symphony, he’s selling as much as a Peter Serkin now. And that’s not to downplay Peter Serkin. I’m just saying people are excited by seeing youth out there to perform.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is wonderful. Let’s bring it back to composition a bit. We’re talking about new and seeing new performers and how exciting that is. What can we do to develop repertoire, to get new composers, to get people hearing new things?

ZARIN MEHTA: Well, I don’t know if you’re aware of a thing I started about 4 years ago called Music Accord. We haven’t really made a big thing out of it by making a press release or anything, but it is a cartel of eight presenters across the country, and we came together in New York, 3 years ago, 4 years ago, with the view of commissioning music from American composers, the idea being that when music is commissioned today, it’s commissioned by an orchestra, by an individual, and he’ll play it, the orchestra will play it once, maybe, another time four years later, et cetera. If more than one person commissions, then you’re hearing it all over the country. So as a result, the idea was to replenish the repertoire. We at the Festival could not really do that with orchestral music because of the lack of rehearsal time we have in the summer, so we said we should do this for instrumental and chamber music and we came up with the following thing. Each year we would commission three pieces: one vocal cycle, one instrumental and one for a chamber group. And I was very careful to say for the chamber group it had to be for an established kind of group, I don’t mean a name, but it had to be a trio or quartet that is a normal format. Because today, with contemporary composers, they let their things go like Mr. Tan Dun, and he writes something for, you know, a water buffalo and a saxophone…

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

ZARIN MEHTA: And that may be very interesting but then it doesn’t get repeated. I mean, this piece that you’re talking of with the New York Philharmonic: how many people are going to redo it? What’s it going to take to redo it?

FRANK J. OTERI: It is going to be a challenge.

ZARIN MEHTA: Right. I’ve been through that. So I said let’s do it for an existing group. So the next step was to sort of find the artists that all eight wanted to present or could present based on their economics, et cetera, and to make a long story short, the first year we had this cello piece of Tobias Picker for Lynn Harrell, and Lynn was going to premiere it at Ravinia last year, but he was not well, he had an operation, so he did it at Lincoln Center 2 months ago, he’s doing it next month here, he’s going to do it in San Francisco, et cetera. Frederica von Stade did a song cycle of Jake Heggie. And the Borromeo Quartet is going to do a quartet of Steve Mackey. That’s the first one. Then we have commissions coming out for Manny Ax, Florence Quivar…

FRANK J. OTERI: Who’s writing the piece for Manny Ax?

ZARIN MEHTA:Nicholas Maw, I think. Sorry, we kept changing.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it’s not just American composers.

ZARIN MEHTA: Well, I wanted it to be mainly, but Manny really wanted to do it and he had been talking so I said, sure, go ahead, you know, it’s new music after all. But it’s going to be 90% American composers. Not for any reason other than saying, people ask me why are we being so chauvinistic, if you like, and I say far be it for me to be chauvinistic. [laughs] But the European composers have a greater access to money from the governments and so on, whereas the American composers don’t and especially young ones, and it depends on the largesse of either orchestras or societies or individual musicians. So that’s how we’re doing it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now I notice, you mentioned the difficulties of premiering a new orchestral work at a venue like Ravinia. But I did notice this summer there that you are going to be presenting music of Christopher Rouse, who’s one of our…

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah, but that’s a piece that Christoph [Eschenbach] has done. He knows it, he knows how much rehearsal time it takes, it’s not a premiere.

FRANK J. OTERI: Because what better way to introduce new audiences to a new piece than to hear it outdoors in a comfort zone like Ravinia, as opposed to a concert hall.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah. If we knew what rehearsal time would be required it would make it that much easier. When you commission a new work, you don’t know. You know, recently the NHK Symphony Orchestra came to Chicago and when we booked them, they had commissioned a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina. They asked for a 10-minute piece to open the program. The rest of the program was Sarah Chang playing, I forget, Sibelius, and then the Prokofiev 5. It turned out that this Gubaidulina piece ended up at 30 minutes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. [laughs]

ZARIN MEHTA: It was difficult. So what do you do with the rest of the program? This is like three weeks before the tour. It was, we had a long program, and the piece went on for 30 minutes.

FRANK J. OTERI: What was the audience reaction?

ZARIN MEHTA: Good. That was fine, but they had, you know, because it was a tour and because they had time before the tour to rehearse it everything’s fine, but if that suddenly happened to Ravinia we wouldn’t know how to rehearse it. It would cost me thousands of dollars for overtime to do it.

FRANK J. OTERI: How many rehearsals per concert, on average?

ZARIN MEHTA: Two.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony was only rehearsed twice?

ZARIN MEHTA: No, in that case we did three. We did overtime, we planned the rest of the program in that week in a way that we could do it with less rehearsal. Itzhak [Perlman] playing Tchaikovsky was, you know, fairly straightforward with the Chicago Symphony, you could imagine, we did a run through, et cetera.

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