Sad news for chamber music fans and for anyone who enjoyed a very casual alternative to their summer classical music consumption: Southwest Chamber Music announced that they will end their twenty-year-old summer concert series at The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA.
This is definitely a loss for the Southern California classical music scene.
- The music-making was first-rate: works by contemporary composers shared programs with both familiar and rarer pieces by Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and post-Romantic favorites like Haydn, Mozart, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Britten, and many more, all performed with reliable skill and artistry by the Southwest musicians.
- The venue and atmosphere were unique: patrons could choose between more formal seating on the Logia attached to the Huntington family’s mansion and revel in the space’s excellent acoustics, or to bring folding chairs, blankets, and coolers filled with food and drink so that they could picnic and relax on the lawn; The Huntington’s galleries were open during intermission, allowing attendees to get glimpses of Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” a Gutenberg Bible, and many other treasures; you could even have a pre-concert dinner at The Huntington’s tea room or a sunset stroll through the Huntington’s vast gardens.
All of that is now history.
In their email and online statement announcing the decision, Jay Belloli, Southwest’s Board President, says, “It became apparent that the Huntington summer festival was taking organizational resources away from our international leadership role in new music. Our board has tremendous confidence that the LA International New Music Festival is the best way for Southwest Chamber Music to continue to serve our goals and our community.” [Emphasis theirs].
In a follow-up conversation I had this past Monday with Jan Karlin, Founding Executive Director, she reiterated that this was an artistic decision, not necessarily a financial one. “I’m happy to say that we’re financially stable. We certainly could afford to continue both series, but the summer at The Huntington took a lot of planning and half of our resources — not just budget, but also time, energy, staff, etc.”
Instead, they are focusing on the latest edition of their New Music Festival, five concerts July 7 – 15 at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The final decision came after multiple discussions between the Board of Trustees, Ms. Karlin, and Jeff von der Schmidt (Southwest’s Founding Artistic Director and Ms. Karlin’s husband).
“It was a unanimous decision by the Board. The summer repertoire was just not part of our mission.”
According to Ms. Karlin, that mission involves not just performing contemporary classical music, but championing composers and musicians who may not otherwise get exposure. “There are many wonderful organizations in L.A. performing traditional and new chamber music. But let’s face it: the L.A. Phil and others are primarily looking towards Europe. We’d like to shed more light on Asian and Latino music — and more music by women.”
It is an interesting move. On one hand, this makes sense given Southwest’s penchant for new music from its inception and the many connections it has made with Vietnam and Mexico since the beginning of the new millennium.
On the other hand, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher given the two-decade longevity of the series at The Huntington vis-a-vis the New Music Festival’s mere two years in existence. The summer series attracted a different kind of audience than the ones who’ve attended the LA International New Music Festival, thereby exposing more people to the music they espouse than otherwise would be possible. A concert featuring Vietnamese and a few other living composers has limited appeal; but pair the music of Pham Minh Thành with works by Ravel and Debussy like they did at The Huntington in 2012, and the reach is much broader. Because of that, the two series have been complimentary, not contradictory, and I would think that Southwest’s stated mission would be better served continuing to do both. Obviously, they disagree.
Furthermore, their email statement references the 2014 summer season hiatus (ostensibly caused by construction at The Huntington), but failed to mention that the New Music Festival was also skipped last year. In fact, Southwest has presented very few performances of any kind since the end of the 2013 summer season; their 2014-15 season so far has been limited to a couple of free outreach concerts featuring solo or duet performers plus their educational efforts. The 2015 edition of the New Music Festival to be announced this coming May will take place in REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a venue with roughly half the seating capacity of the festival’s prior location of Zipper Hall at The Colburn School.
Given the organization’s absence of substantive programming during the past 18 months, the delay and relocation of the 3rd LA International New Music Festival, and now their decision to abandon their summer home since the early 1990’s, it’s clear that Southwest is going through a bit of an artistic, and perhaps even organizational, retrenchment.
Just what is Southwest going to do with all those resources now freed up by walking away from The Huntington? “We’re considering various other projects, but I’m not at liberty to say what they are just yet,” explains Ms. Karlin.
Might any of those future projects involve a return to The Huntington? Possibly. As Ms. Karlin says, “We parted ways with them on very amiable terms. They left the door open for new projects with us and said that they’d be happy to have us back.”
Some of the information about this year’s New Music Festival is already available at Mr. von der Schmidt’s blog HERE, with complete details to be announced in May. In the meantime, here are my past reviews of Southwest Concerts at both venues:
Summer Season at The Huntington
- July 2013: Soprano Delaram Kamareh, Knussen’s Winnie the Pooh steal the show at Southwest Chamber Music
- July 2013: More photos from opening night of Southwest Chamber Music’s 2013 Summer Festival at The Huntington
- August 2012: Four hands and a voice: Southwest Chamber Music’s final 2012 summer concert
- August 2012: An exotic addition to a French summer at the Huntington: Southwest Chamber Music plays Debussy & Ravel, and invites back a Vietnamese virtuoso
LA International New Music Festival
- March 2013: Anne LeBaron’s latest gem out-sparkles the rest at final LA International New Music Festival concert
- May 2012: Southwest Chamber Music’s promising new festival
- Jan Karlin: courtesy of Ms. Karlin’s LinkedIn page
- The Huntington lawn and logia: photo by CK Dexter Haven:
- all others: photos by Timothy Strempfer for All is Yar