By Tim Diovanni
BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. – When Marya Martin, a flutist from New Zealand, was founding a chamber music festival on the East End of Long Island in the summer of 1984, some locals expressed concerns. Fellow Hamptonians will not attend your concerts because they’re too interested in cocktail parties, they told her. But Martin, convinced there were music lovers in the Hamptons, proceeded undeterred.
In that first summer Martin organized two chamber music concerts at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, selling tickets from her home in the same town. Flash forward 35 years. The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival has considerably expanded its operations. The summer season now includes thirteen concerts and twelve programs at three venues. A spring series offers a musical appetizer for festival enthusiasts, and five Pop-Up concerts crescendo into the summer season.
Whereas the inaugural season featured familiar concert fare without a planned overarching theme, in recent years Martin has designed programs that interconnect. This year’s theme, “Destination America,” celebrates “the amazing impact that America has had on composers and musicians and vice versa.” The festival brochure displays small Statute of Liberty torches next to pieces or composers with connections to America. Two of these – Summer Hours for piano and winds by Kenji Bunch and A New Country, a song cycle by Paul Moravec – are festival commissions that will premiere on Aug. 5 and 19, respectively.
As the festival has developed, Martin and her fellow musicians have endeavored to maintain its central mission: to provide passionate and intimate chamber music performances to communities on the East End. “When we started 35 years ago, we didn’t think where we might end up,” Martin said in an interview by phone. “We just wanted music in this community.”
The evidence of YouTube recordings from past seasons and the experience of this summer’s opening night on July 22 attest to the high quality of the festival’s performances. But high ticket prices for more than half of the summer concerts, including the nine at the church that constitute the backbone of the summer season, appear to be a problem in drawing a wide audience from Bridgehampton and its environs, the festival’s primary objective.
This hurdle loomed large at the opening night program, a musical portrait of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn for which Martin enlisted Alan Alda – most famous for his role in the M*A*S*H television series – to act as narrator.
Alda illuminated the sibling composers’ relationship by reading passages from letters that they sent to each other. When he was young, Felix wrote to his sister – the elder by four years – for guidance. She was his closest musical adviser. Over time, however, the dynamics changed. When she was 30, Fanny asked Felix whether she should publish her music. He replied negatively. Fanny had become more like the student than the teacher, Alda observed.
Although Alda presented a well-researched script, the paucity of information on the composers’ formative years was indeed surprising considering the inclusion of Felix’s Octet, which he composed at the age of 16, on the program. This work premiered in one of the Sunday musicales that the Mendelssohns hosted in their home in the 1820s. For about 100 guests, Fanny and Felix performed pieces by celebrated composers like Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, with musicians whom their father had hired from the Hofkapelle in Berlin. They also played music they had written.
Though drawing parallels between that series and the July 22 concert is tempting, a financial disparity spoils the comparison. While guests attended the Mendelssohns’ musicales for free, only those with enough money for tickets could be present on this festival’s opening night.
A cushioned seat on the downstairs side or balcony of the church cost $55, one on the downstairs center was $75. Students could buy the cheapest ticket ($10), but with the distance from the closest sizeable university (SUNY Stony Brook) to the church being 53 miles and the average age of the townspeople likely hovering around 50 (about twenty years after anyone could pass as a student with an old college ID), not many student tickets had been purchased. Possibly 20 of the approximately 300 audience members at the concert were under the age of 30.
After the repeat of the musical portrait on July 23, ticket prices for concerts at the church remained the same for students and decreased by $10 for all others. (The exception is the concert on Aug. 18 when tickets are $30 cheaper for downstairs center and $25 cheaper for downstairs side and balcony.).
The concert I heard bespoke a high artistic standard in an acoustically intimate hall. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker offered thoughtful, lyrical phrasing, especially in Felix Mendelssohn’s elegant Piano Trio No. 2.
By adding the Pop-Up concerts, the festival has moved in a more accessible direction. These five 30-to-40-minute performances by the Rolston String Quartet on July 19-21 were free and in different towns, thus reaching out to a larger, more diverse audience.
But these Pop-Ups paled in comparison with the more substantial church concerts, which typically run for more than two hours and incorporate various ensembles. The Pop-Ups only offered string quartets.
How could the festival increase access to its church concerts? I asked artistic director Martin whether the festival could discount unsold seats about 15 minutes before each concert. She said presenting cheap rush tickets “is not the best marketing situation for us,” adding that empty seats generally had been bought by people who were “unable to come at the last minute.”
Still, even while acknowledging the great cost of presenting classical concerts, one might hope the festival will find a way to enable more community members access to this rewarding series.
Tim Diovanni is a New York-based music writer and recent graduate in historical musicology from Columbia University. He writes program notes for The North Shore Symphony Orchestra and contributes regularly to Feminist in the Concert Hall, the Women’s Philharmonic. Advocacy’s blog.