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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Rockport Chamber Music Festival starts a new era

 Miriam Kahlil, in Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre. Darryl Block photograph

Miriam Kahlil, in Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre. Darryl Block photograph

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Barry Shiffman cares more about what happens offstage than he does onstage. 

The Rockport Music artistic director does care what happens onstage. You can see that in an instant, with his first summer festival about to begin, and performers like the Emerson, Dover and Brentano string quartets, sensational young singers like Davóne Tines and Samantha Hankey, soloists like Yekwon Sunwoo, Colin Carr, Stephen Prutsman—almost two dozen unforgettable evenings of music planned.

But great evenings of music have been the norm in Rockport, for more than three decades. If the RCMF leadership simply wanted to continue doing that, they wouldn’t have hired Barry Shiffman.

“I’m focused on a couple areas,” he says. “What’s going on outside of the main-stage, for one. Things like community engagement—the focus of my career. Popup concerts—in donut shops, grocery stores, street corners. Continuing our large history of educational programs, and free programming. Bringing the concert experience to audiences that have not felt welcome in the past.

“But another area of interest is the investment in emerging careers,” he says emphatically. “We’re expanding that, bringing in a group of young artists on the cusp of great things.

“If you want to see a young artist shrivel up, give them a calendar with nothing on it for three or four months. But give them concerts, and then everything opens up.”

As long as Shiffman has a say, young artists won’t be shriveling up any time soon. He knows what he’s doing: as founding member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which successfully built a career around new music and great playing; as director of the Banff Centre competitions, which makes artistic judgments on the best young musicians and subsequently furthers their careers; and as a dean at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, coaching even younger musicians early in their development.

“One thing I’ve channeled from the Banff competitions: it may be easy to say that Sally is better than Tommy, but it’s also obscene and wrong,” he says. “They are all great, and music is not competition anyway. We go into the competitions knowing that, and all along we do our best to overcome it, knowing we better do a whole helluva lot of good afterward.

“That’s why competitions are trying to become festivals, and why I’m interested in expanding our integration of emerging artists.”

And he is. A sextet of Rockport Fellows—including a young quartet, violinist Danny Koo, and pianist Tony Yike Yang—will perform all throughout the festival, on street corners, on the main-stage, in the late-night cabarets (yet another new wrinkle). Tines, Hankey, Sunwoo—all these performers are hardly conservatory students, but still evidence that Shiffman has his eye on the future.

“I want to be a little less of a consumer, and more of a producer,” Shiffman says of his programming strategy. “I can do this because of the phenomenal support of the community. “Opening night is an example. We’re mixing ‘Ayre’—a new staging, terrific theatrical work—with ‘Souvenir de Florence.’ That’s what we can do, pairing a great work by Tchaikovsky, with a wonderful group of players, and then Golijov. We’re saying, ‘Let us show you what else is possible.’

“In St. Lawrence, I experienced the direct impact that successful, visceral presentations of new music can have on a career. It was very important to us. We need to normalize new music, and not make it a special event all the time. At the same time, you have to create a festival that both challenges and comforts—that goes between the two.”

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival opens its 37th season on Friday, June 15 with two works: Tchaikovsky’s sextet “Souvenir de Florence,” and a new staging of Osvaldo Golijov’s dramatic “Ayre,” featuring soprano Miriam Khalil. The festival runs through July 15 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. For complete program information visit www.rockportmusic.org or call 978-546-7391.

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