Making a bigger, better music festival

Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival learns many lessons from last year’s ‘hugely successful’ fest

JAMAICA — As Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival returns to Jamaica Town Hall Aug. 4-10, Susanna Loewy, its founder and curator, says she's looking forward to building on last year's “hugely successful” events.

And she's clear that there were some missteps at last year's events. These, she says, were excellent lessons moving forward.

With a troupe of nine performing musicians, a conductor, a composer-in-residence, and two artists-in-residence, the festival will host an ambitious array of events: an afternoon family concert, a Tropical Storm Irene fundraising concert, a music and art collaboration for kids and young adults, an open rehearsal, and a community potluck with an open mic.

Admission is free, but donations are welcome - the same arrangement as last year. That's because, Loewy explains, she is committed to keeping PFCM open to all.

“Even at $10 a ticket, families could end up putting out $50 or even more, which can be very difficult for some people. I'm really trying to make this an inclusive event,” she says.

Loewy is producing the event again, and says she's looking at an ambitious 10-year plan for the festival. She's also flute professor at Kutztown University and teaching artist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she plays in its pops and ballet orchestras.

Meanwhile, Lowry admits to having made a few “miscalculations” in putting together last year's festival, which suffered from the heat and some scheduling snags. “But I don't know if I should be blamed for the weather,” she says. “Nonetheless, last year was so hot, that concerts became difficult for all of us.”

This year, she promises, PFCM got a grant to install a ceiling fan in the Town Hall, so if things heat up, and not in a musical way, musicians and audiences will be covered.

Loewy also says she intends to expand this year's offerings: “We'll have one additional evening concert scheduled and all three of our concerts will include pre-concert talks and post-concert receptions.”

Where the festival last year lasted only three days, this year's fest will span 10.

“At the time, I thought the shorter festival would be a good idea, making it a very concentrated event,” she says. “But in reality, it turned out that there simply wasn't enough time for rehearsals. So instead of cramming all our events into a single weekend, we'll spread the concerts throughout the week.”

Now musicians are given a whole day off, and evenings off when they're not performing - and Loewy is setting musicians up with a relaxing two-hour daily lunch break.

“Part of the reason musicians come here is the beauty of the area, so it's only reasonable we give them time to explore things like the waterfall in Jamaica State Park,” she says.

The musician roster for this year includes flute, clarinet, oboe, two violins, viola, two cellos, harp, composer, and conductor.

Returning with Loewy to make the festival happen are Julia Biber, Joseph Hallman, and Evan Ross Solomon. And PFCM has several personnel additions: harpist Cara Fleck, oboist Bethany Slater, and violinist Sarah D'Angelo. Richard Scerbo will join to conduct the larger pieces.

Loewy says she is pleased that such an illustrious young musician as Scerbo has agreed to join PFCM. Artistic director of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra and the Inscape Chamber Music Project, Scerbo was instrumental in the founding of The Philharmonia Ensemble and the Londontowne Symphony Orchestra in Maryland.

Music old and new

Although the festival includes classic works by venerable heavy hitters, Loewy says she's committed to including newer music in the concert programming that will also thrill audiences.

“I really think that new music is vital to the continuation of classical music as an art form,” she says. “That's one of the reasons that I have a composer-in-residence in the festival. I want to engage the audience with contemporary music. The hope is that having the composer present and composing music specifically for the festival makes music of the 21st century increasingly accessible.”

That's not to say Loewy's slighting the classical canon.

“I really tried to balance the programming between time periods and also nationalities,” she says. “This year, in addition to the newly composed pieces by Joe Hallman, we're playing two pieces by Mozart and have quite a bit of Romantic and Impressionist music, with works by Schubert, Ravel, and Debussy.

“My hope is that, within the context of the remarkable more familiar pieces, people can then hear the newly composed music in a musically phonological and syntactical way. All the pieces should complement each other, creating a concert experience that is enjoyable for everyone as a whole,” she says.

Loewy said a piece by Hallman will be performed at each concert.

“The highlight undoubtedly will be his triple concerto,” Loewy says, for which PFCM will give the world première at its closing concert.

Hallman recently completed a series of chamber concerti composed for members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra.

A longtime collaborator with the internationally acclaimed American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, Hallman wrote multiple cello concerti for her - for which the world première, with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, was recorded and is available at all major digital retailers.

Visual arts join the party

Cinematographer Kimberly Culotta will once again be on hand to film the festival. The footage can be used in fundraising, as on Kickstarter, Loewy says, but this year Culotta will be revealing another side of her artistry - as she hand-sketches details of the week's events.

Loewy says she wants to emphasize that PFCM is more than classical chamber music. Her sister, Natasha Loewy, is returning as artist-in-residence, and Oakland, Calif., painter Riley Bamesberger will be joining the visual art team.

Loewy explains that Natasha and Bamesberger, with intern Kelly Crosslin, will put together a music and visual arts collaboration in the Town Hall on Aug. 8 at 3 p.m.

They'll use canvas, big and small paintbrushes, acrylic paint, and potatoes and fruit for printmaking. The session will be geared toward children and young adults, although it'll be open to all.

Only in Vermont

Family is important to Loewy, and so, she says, is place. And because of that, we have this festival. Although she teaches and performs throughout the country, she says she has a lifelong connection with Vermont.

“My family owns a cabin on Pikes Falls Road, and I've been coming here all my life,” she told The Commons last year. “I always exclaim to people that Vermont is my favorite place on Earth. I felt bad that I never contributed anything to the community, however, and I wanted to get more involved - and then I thought up this festival.”

Loewy says she is particularly pleased that a community potluck picnic is returning as part of the concert on Thursday at 6 p.m.

“Last year, that potluck brought members of the festival together with the residents of the area. We had even one family camping in Jamaica State Park who came over to join the festivities. This year, we'll have an open mic evening hosted by my brother, Jesse Loewy, who'll invite the whole community to join the music celebrations. I don't want people to think some elitist outsiders are all that make up the festival; I want to incorporate the whole community into the occasion as much as I can.”

And what of the future? Loewy says she hopes to make PFCM a continuing event. She's working on a 10-year plan, taking a look at sustainable funding.

“I really am committed to this,” she says. “This festival is really important to me. I began looking forward to it from the last day of last year's events until the first day of this year's. PFCM is glad to be back.”

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