Leaders of the New Hampshire Music Festival see the highly esteemed organization as being at a critical juncture.
For 57 years the Festival has enhanced the cultural life of the Lakes Region by giving residents and visitors an opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of classical music through its six-week summer concert season.
Most see the summer concert program as the Festival’s crown jewel. But it is that series of weekly concerts and chamber recitals that Festival leaders are scrutinizing.
As the Festival’s management embarks on this period of re-evaluation with the view of making the Festival relevant in the 21st century, it should do so with the full recognition that the caliber of music that today’s Festival audiences enjoy is the product of the vision of those who have nurtured the program over the years.
The Festival’s management is understandably concerned that the audiences for the classical concerts have been declining. A decade ago, sold-out concerts were the rule — both in Plymouth and Gilford. This summer the classical concert is being performed only once — in Plymouth — and it is rarely sold out, according to Festival President David Graham. (After an absence of several years, weekly concerts are once again being given in Gilford, but the program for those concerts features light classical and “pops” fare).
The Festival management’s move to reassess the future has made musicians nervous. Even veteran musicians have been told they will need to reaudition for next season — having to reapply for their jobs, as it were. The fact that this comes at a time when the Festival is without a permanent conductor certainly only adds to the apprehension.
That the Festival wants to reverse the trend of declining attendance is understandable. The Festival is an artistic endeavor, but it is also a business. It has bills to pay and other obligations to meet. If revenues decline too much, then that could put the Festival’s vaunted mission in jeopardy.
In an article appearing in last Saturday’s Citizen, Mr. Graham noted that what the Festival is seeing is part of a wider trend: Fewer people are attending classical music concerts.
Festival leaders are only being prudent by being attentive to this trend. But it is also important that they see it in the wider context.
The National Endowment for the Arts survey, which was cited in The Citizen article, which showed declining attendance at classical musical concerts by young adults (ages 18-34), also showed an even greater decline (on a percentage basis) in reading and attendance at sports events among the same age group.
But does that mean that young adults are less interested in classical music? Another recent study suggests not. A Nielsen survey showed that, in 2006, sales of musical digital tracks downloaded through such online services as iTunes and eMusic increased 65 percent from the year before. The fastest-growing musical category was classical music, up 23 percent. A large percentage of those paying to download that classical music are young people who own iPods and other types of MP3 players.
The challenge facing the Festival leaders is not necessarily to change what is offered; it is how to get young people who already have a taste and appreciation for classical music to put down their iPods and go into the concert hall. In some ways it’s not much different from the challenge facing the management of professional sports teams to get young people to come to the stadium instead of watching the game on TV.
Whether it’s sports or music, nothing matches being there, surrounded by people who love what is unfolding as much as you do. There’s a magic in the concert hall. Future supporters of classical music just need to be convinced of that.
The management of the New Hampshire Music Festival, working in collaboration with its next music director and its devoted and talented musicians, can make the next 57 years just as exciting and magical as the last 57 have been.