By Richard Knox
The Summer of ’17 finds Paul Polivnick well into his second act as music director of the New Hampshire Music Festival. His first act spanned seventeen years, from 1992 to 2009. His encore began last summer.
Second acts in this business are far from the norm. “Usually when a conductor is finished – whether of their own accord or not – they’re gone!” Polivnick says with characteristic candor. “It’s a very rare occurrence when a conductor has more than one tenure. It’s something I’m quite proud of.”
Polivnick figures he’s designed 120 programs for the NHMF over his 19 years at the helm, give or take a concert or two. That’s a lot of music! This track record gives him an uncommon view of how summer music festivals have evolved over the past two-and-a-half decades – and a unique perspective on the NHMF’s own evolution.
So this seems like a good time to ask Maestro Polivnick to talk about how he goes about designing a season, how things have changed, and what he hopes for the Festival’s future.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
The 65-year-old NHMF is part of a grand tradition of American regional summer music festivals. How do you see them?
There are certain commonalities and there are differences from place to place. In some other places the programming is centered around top-40 hits. Audiences often resist new music. But the trend nowadays is to offer the widest possible repertoire. The trick is how to do that without sacrificing your main mission, which is and always has been playing the classics as well as possible. You can very easily jeopardize that mission.
You know New Hampshire summer music audiences well. How would you characterize them?
Our audience is primarily composed of people who are New Hampshire residents, not tourists. Some are year-round, others come and go. The basic feeling is that it’s an audience who’s been to the Festival before and keeps coming. The audience is a familiar friend to us.
How do you design programs that will attract them and keep them coming back?
People who come to a summer music festival want upbeat stuff – but of course, they also appreciate beautiful sadness. In a festival of five different orchestral programs and five chamber programs, you want to have as much variety as possible while providing everybody with enough of what they think they want to hear.
Each program should be like reading a novel. Each piece should lead to the next one. There should be a beginning mood and an ending mood. The keys of the compositions affect one another.
How do you go about building a Festival program?
Programming is half the battle! We have an artistic committee composed of board members and musicians. Brad Dumont, the Festival’s artistic administrator, suggests things to me; I respect him highly and he’s very helpful. But when all is said and done, what you see in the program is mine.
What’s your philosophy about programming new or unfamiliar music?
As a matter of policy, we perform a certain percentage of new music. But I’m very sensitive to what types of new music have a good chance of being effective. We’re like chefs who know how to prepare thousands of fantastic dishes. We know there are thousands of things people would love if they knew they existed. But you can’t get that to happen if you’re only putting on music that nobody’s ever heard before. And we can’t broaden our public’s horizons if we can’t get them to come!
That gets to a core issue: How can you expect an audience to appreciate something they’re hearing for the first time?
First, I don’t program anything I’m not certain can produce the intended effect on the audience. In other words, I’m not going to play anything that goes over their heads, like speaking Greek to somebody who only speaks English. But over the years you can raise the level of awareness of an audience so they can get more on first hearing.
That’s a long-term project. Many groups stick with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. I think the NHMF is doing a bang-up job of broadening our audiences’ horizons. And I’m happy to help!
How did you program this season to further that project?
This summer we have a Mexican program with music by Copland and Revueltas. We’ll have a narrator and a showing of the film Redes with a Revueltas score. There’s a lot going on. Another concert has a Prokofiev piano concerto never heard here before – an incredibly difficult piece – and we have a young pianist, Steven Lin, who plays the hell out of it.
And as part of our four-year-old “composer portrait” series, we’re featuring Huang Ruo. I had him as a conducting student when I was music director of the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestras from 1997 to 2002. He’s gone on to great international success since then. He’ll actually be singing in Chinese – a piece called Leaving Sao that he wrote for his late grandmother. It’s quite dramatic, very emotional. It has both dissonant Chinese brightness but also a very beautiful middle section with more Western harmonies.
That concert also features this summer’s major choral/orchestral work, Haydn’s “Mass in Troubled Times,” also known as the “Lord Nelson Mass.” Is it difficult to draw audiences to choral works?
We’ve seen our choral programs grow in popularity. Dan Perkins, who was brought in to continue the fine work that Joel Johnson did, has done a terrific job. We now have an intense week-long Choral Institute that’s also helped raise the level of choral music-making in the Festival and beyond.
Now that you’re well into your second tour of duty with the Festival, how do you see things shaping up?
The most notable thing about our current incarnation is the variety of things we offer during the five weeks of the Festival. There’s a great deal more variety than there used to be. And that’s really fantastic! We’re doing outreach to Wolfeboro; the ultimate aim is to have our all concerts repeated there. Meanwhile, we’re offering innovative musical experiences that take advantage of this wonderful landscape. We have the Music in the Mountains chamber concerts in spectacular settings. And we offer Arts Walks, where hikers can encounter musicians and visual artists along the trails. We also sponsor an all-day, wall-to-wall music festival in downtown Plymouth.
And what does the future hold?
Well, we have this wonderful five-week summer festival. But there are 47 more weeks in the year!
This spring we brought 630 fourth- and fifth-graders to Plymouth for a program called “The Orchestra Sings,” a collaboration between the NHMF and Carnegie Hall. We have a new relationship with the Heifetz International Music Institute that will bear educational fruit in the future.
We’re actively discussing what else we can do to enrich the musical environment of the region. Maybe we’ll do a winter festival. After all, if you believe that classical music benefits people – often profoundly – it stands to reason you’d like to reach as many people as possible. So we’re looking at how we can grow from where we are now — which is already pretty good!
Richard Knox has been on the staff of National Public Radio and The Boston Globe. Currently he’s a senior correspondent for WBUR in Boston and a regular contributor to its CommonHealth blog. He’s a member of the NHMF chorus and also sings with the New Hampshire Master Chorale and The Boston Cecilia. He and his wife Jean live in Center Sandwich, N.H.