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From Critic to Creator

After a long career of writing from the sidelines, John Rockwell tries his hand as impresario, putting together Lincoln Center's first festival of the arts.

July 21, 1996|Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

NEW YORK — "I've always loved festivals," says John Rockwell, contemplating with satisfaction the fact that after a career spent with his reporter's eye fixed on cultural events, he now has one of his own to run.

Rockwell, director of the Lincoln Center Festival (which gets underway Monday and runs through Aug. 11), may be an impresario now, but he is an observer by trade. As a music critic at the Los Angeles Times and then for more than 20 years at the New York Times, he covered a beat that extended from the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the great summer festivals of Salzburg, Aix-en-Provence and Edinburgh, and ranged as far as Tokyo, Morocco and a celebration of Arctic culture in the upper reaches of Norway.

In print, he was an agitator and an advocate, putting his eloquence at the service of artists whose work he found challenging, vibrant and new: composer Virgil Thomson, for instance, whose opera "Four Saints in Three Acts" he praised for its "insouciant avant-gardism" and "nose-thumbing vivacity," and director Robert Wilson, whose collaboration with Philip Glass on the opera "Einstein on the Beach" he calls "one of the great experiences of my life."

Then, two years ago, he was given the opportunity that almost every critic both craves and fears: the chance to put other people's money where his mouth was. Rockwell had spent the previous two years as the New York Times' roving cultural correspondent based in Paris. When he returned to the United States, Lincoln Center President Nathan Leventhal gave him a call. Would he be interested in creating a festival in his own image from scratch? He was.

"How many people in their mid-50s get a chance not only to change careers completely but also to enter a field in a position of such prominence? To be given Lincoln Center with all its resources--it was extraordinary. I would have been calling myself a wimp for the rest of my life if I'd said no."

So he said yes, and the result is Lincoln Center Festival 96, a three-week blowout of music, theater, dance, film, technology and the unclassifiable Vietnamese water puppets. One of the major offerings is Wilson's staging of "Four Saints in Three Acts."

To a degree that seems almost improbable at an institution with the corporate profile of Lincoln Center, this festival is the product of Rockwell's taste. The rationale for programming Maguy Marin's choreography of Delibes' "Coppelia" was that "I saw it and I liked it and I thought it would be a great thing to have." If Leventhal turned to a critic, rather than a proven arts administrator, it was "because of his creativity, the breadth of his knowledge and his taste," and having done so, he granted him the freedom to indulge it.

"You can't hire somebody like that and then second-guess his programmatic choices," Leventhal says. "Of course, the flip side of having that flexibility is that he can't point to anybody else if it goes wrong."

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Rockwell loves festivals in part because he thinks of them as more than a collection of performances: "I buy into the idea of a festival being a secular continuation of a religious ritual. Festivals become places of pilgrimage, events that lift people out of the ordinary and into a realm of art."

As Rockwell squints out his office window at the sun-washed roofs of Lincoln Center, a concrete landscape of right angles and gray-white planes, he is actually talking about Bayreuth. Every summer, in the Bavarian town where the descendants of Richard Wagner still manage the theater the composer designed for his own works, Wagner's latter-day acolytes come to bask in the great man's spirit and go to a different opera every night.

But of course, Rockwell's festival is not Bayreuth--or Salzburg or Aix or even Edinburgh--and it is not taking place in some mountain-ringed village of quiet, cobbled streets where, for a two-week period, cosmopolitan culture blends with picturesqueness. No matter how big the Lincoln Center Festival is, it will not take over the town. Whether its presence can even persuade people to brave the fetid air and melting sidewalks of Manhattan in midsummer is an open question.

With a few exceptions (notably Lincoln Center's own 30-year-old Mostly Mozart Festival), what cultural life New York City does have in summertime, when those who can afford it generally head for the hills or the beach, has thus far tended to be outdoors and free. So Rockwell is banking on tourists.

"There's no question that in the dead of summer, some New Yorkers leave town," he acknowledges, "but for the same reason that they're leaving for Paris and Florence, Parisians and Florentines are coming here."

And if New Yorkers do like their city's institutions quiet in summer--well, they shouldn't: "It would be sad to think that the cultural interests of New Yorkers die in June and only flicker back to life in October."

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