8/6/09 – Record Enterprise

Headline:  In a season of discontent
Subhead:  NH Music Fest patrons organize SOON

Byline:  Marcia Morris


PLYMOUTH—By almost all accounts the musical performances this season at the New Hampshire Music Festival (NHMF) have continued to delight listeners. But a rising tide of purple ribbons adorning the lapels of concert-goers at the Silver Center for the Arts at Plymouth State University, is one visible symbol of a growing discontent amongst the orchestra’s loyal patron’s and donors.  More significantly perhaps, dozens of faithful audience members last week began organizing a patrons’ and donors’ advocacy group which they have dubbed Save Our Orchestra Now (SOON) to collectively address a growing list of concerns about the plans and future direction of the beloved Music Festival.
Audience members have donned the purple ribbons over the past few weeks to express solidarity with the professional musicians of the orchestra who are concerned about their future with the Music Festival after having been informed that they would be required to re-apply for their positions, by submitting audition CDs as well as essays about their  approach to music-making and mentoring before being accepted back for the 2010 season.
The move sparked unrest in the ranks of the orchestra members, many of whom have performed with the festival for many years, even decades, and felt that the measure was an “insult to their professionalism.”.
However, in a statement issued this week, Festival President David Graham said this re-qualification of the musicians has been reconsidered in light of a cooperative and collaborative ongoing dialogue with the orchestra committee over the past few weeks.
“In 2010, we will conduct a fair, ‘in seat’ evaluation of all musicians.  Our new Artistic Director, whom we will name shortly and who will be a professional musician, will conduct this evaluation at the end of next season.  We continue to discuss how to involve our musicians in this evaluation process,” announced Graham.
However, the musicians, who are not represented by a union, are left with ongoing uncertainty about their future, and their supporters are left with a host of questions and concerns.
“The musicians have been involved in head to head negotiations with the management of the Festival because of grievances stemming from their uncertainty regarding job prospects for coming seasons,” said concerned supporter Arthur Albert. “Their plight has aroused the interest of patrons who have formed a group called Save Our Orchestra Now (SOON). As the musicians are engaged in delicate negotiations, it is not our place to interfere with this process, but we are greatly concerned with the future of the Festival. The overall management of the Festival has become our primary focus. David Graham has announced plans for a change in the Festival mission and venue.  We feel that the plans (including the building of a new Festival Hall) are ill-defined and will have potentially grave financial consequences for the future of the Music Festival.”
Now in its 57th year, the Music Festival has, over the years, become a much-anticipated highlight of the summer season for residents of the Lakes Region, as well as summer visitors from around the country and the world. The professional orchestra members, many who travel from as far away as Seattle and San Francisco to perform during the six-week summer festival each year, have developed a deep sense of community.  Bonds of friendship have evolved between the orchestra members and their devoted fans, many who say they arrange their vacation schedules each year around the NHMF calendar.  
However, President David Graham says that over the last ten years, the New Hampshire Music Festival has experienced dwindling audiences—a challenge that has precipitated a review of their financial position and artistic mission.  In a July 13 letter to their Festival patrons, Graham and Festival Director Henry Fogel said that “it is essential for us to reverse the growing lack of support for the Festival’s classical concerts” by creating “fresh enthusiasm for classical music” in a new and expanded audience. They have outlined a vision for doing this that involves reaching out to younger audiences, bringing in a crop of younger, student musicians, mentoring, showcasing emerging talent, and fostering a new “collaborative” style of making music.
“Leaders in the classical music scene have observed that concert performances that provide an atmosphere of discovery and emotional excitement create fresh enthusiasm for classical music and retain current audiences, capture new audiences, and recapture former audiences.  We are confident that our vision to reinvigorate music making will develop new and renewed interest in the Festival.”  explained Graham.  But many concert-goers remain unconvinced, feeling that the changes may erode the traditional base of support for the festival that has grown up over decades of stellar performances. Members of SOON report that they are being deluged with email from people concerned about the future of the Music Festival and wanting to join their efforts to restore the “original spirit” of NHMF.  Long-time donors and subscribers have indicated that they are contemplating suspending their ticket purchases and charitable support.  Some express fears that the changes in the artistic mission, and especially the move to the Red Hill venue in Center Harbor scheduled for the 2011 season, will have catastrophic consequences for the financial health of the organization.
While there is no doubt that when the orchestra takes the stage in its next performance, they will be greeted with applause and acclaim.  But uncertainly about the future has definitely but a damper on the joy of music during the 2009 New Hampshire Music Festival.