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Playing like blazes

A kick-back summer? Not for those musicians who risk burnout each year amid a torrid schedule of festivals and alfresco concerts.

July 09, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

SUMMER used to be a time to kick back and relax. It may still be for classical music lovers who head to outdoor venues where they can spread blankets on lawns, uncork a bottle of wine and listen to the soothing strains of a symphonic selection or a soulful soloist.

In this new millennium, however, the backstage preparations at many such star-kissed locales have become as frenetic as during the "regular" classical season. Maybe even more frenetic.

About 20 U.S. orchestras pay year-round salaries, so their managements have a vested interest in keeping their players as busy as possible during the summer months. And though these musicians don't have to look for additional work, if they want to, they'll find plenty of opportunities. Summer has long been the season for music festivals, and such events in this country, not to mention elsewhere on the globe, are proliferating as never before.

The classical music summer, in short, is hot.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but in the last five years alone, summer festivals and workshops in America have doubled, from about 100 in 2001 to more than 200 this year, according to Chamber Music America, a national service organization.

Among the newest is the Festival del Sole in the Napa Valley. Its inaugural concert next Sunday is scheduled to include Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, violinist Joshua Bell and the Russian National Orchestra led by Alan Gilbert. The week that follows will bring a slew of offerings devoted to art, fine dining, wine and "wellness" as well as music. Hard on its heels will come Napa's 12th annual Music in the Vineyards, Aug. 9 to 27, which presents chamber music performances at places bearing such names as Frog's Leap and Rutherford Hill.

"Absolutely, the number of summer music festivals in America has grown exponentially," says Christopher Beach, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society, whose SummerFest will celebrate its 20th anniversary season Aug. 3 to 20. "It's the number of smaller festivals that has grown. A lot of them seem to be focused in the West -- Portland, Seattle, Menlo, La Jolla, Santa Fe, San Luis Obispo. Maybe it's the extraordinary weather. But California has laid claim to summer festival land."

"Every time somebody discovers a spectacular natural location, a music festival springs up there," says San Francisco Symphony flutist Timothy Day, who plays at the Moab Music Festival in Utah, where you can take a boat trip down the Colorado River to hear a concert in a wilderness grotto.

So just how busy can musicians get?

Consider a few pages from pianist Jon Kimura Parker's datebook two summers ago: New York Philharmonic, July 3 and 4; Minnesota Orchestra, July 9, 10 and 11; Dallas Symphony, July 16; solo recital in Portland, July 18; chamber music in Seattle, July 21; Baltimore Symphony, July 23; Buffalo Philharmonic, July 25; Philadelphia Orchestra, July 27.

"It was completely crazy," Parker recalls. "But actually it was a fantastically exciting month. l had a really great time."

This summer won't be much different. In addition to the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, held May 27 to June 24, and other dates, Parker will hit a real crunch in August. He is booked to play for La Jolla SummerFest on Aug. 13, and normally he would rehearse for two days before the concert. But on those days he's got a gig at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So he plans to fly to L.A. on Aug. 8, drive to La Jolla for rehearsals on the 9th and 10th, drive back to L.A. for the Bowl dates, then back to La Jolla right after leaving the Cahuenga Pass.

"That kind of scheduling really isn't necessary," he says. "The fact is, I have a lot of friends in San Diego and the La Jolla area, and there's no way I'm going to turn down the L.A. Philharmonic. That's how it works."

For some overachievers, even that pace of concertizing may not be enough.

Percussionist Jonathan Haas has an active concert career (one specialty is Philip Glass' Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, written for him). But he also plays and teaches at the summer Aspen Music Festival in Colorado at the same time that he runs a musicians contracting company (Gemini Music Productions) and a percussion rental company (Kettles and Company).

"The music business has gotten where you have to fill up your year with as much stuff as possible," Haas says. "Especially in New York, you try to pack in as much as you can because the marketplace is shrinking so badly. I'm lucky. It's all accelerated. But my schedule has been like this for about 18 years."

Haas notes too that the vision of a laid-back summer doesn't always jibe with a seasonal set of responsibilities. Students in summer programs, he says, "want that experience to be truly valuable. 'I don't want my teacher on the golf course or playing tennis,' they say. 'I need him to be at the concert to give me coaching.' "

And some musicians look back on more hectic summers.

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