Festival Series at crossroads
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday, 03 June 2013 09:43
Since 1980, the Festival Series has been bringing some of the greatest classical acts in the world to the stage of Kobacker Hall.
|South African music legend Hugh Masekela speaks to students at BGSU's Donnell Theater earlier this year. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
That first season featured a then up-and-coming cellist, Yo-Yo Ma whose stop at Bowling Green State University was mentioned in a feature story in the New York Times.
When Ma returned for the celebration of the 20th Festival Series in 2000 he was arguably the most famous classical musicians in the world.
But bringing Ma, or pianist Lang Lang, or jazz star Regina Carter, or world music pioneer Hugh Masekela, to town costs money. Lots of it. Ticket sales don't cover those costs, and some of the donated funds that helped cover the gap have evaporated.
That's leaving the College of Musical Arts, which sponsors the series, in a lurch.
"It's unsustainable in its present form," said Jeff Showell, dean of the college. Officials are in the process of "trying to redefine what it is."
"The festival series is at a crossroads," said Elizabeth Cope, an arts marketing and communications specialist.
Susan Hoekstra, director of public events for the College of Musical Arts, said that from the time she arrived on campus several years ago the future of the Festival Series has been in question.
In the past the focus has been on classical music with some jazz and dance performances.
A survey of audiences showed that the most popular performers were: the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, Ma, the family piano ensemble the 5 Browns, the Vienna Choir Boys and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
But while the size of audience at the concerts has held steady, in contrast to many other classical series that are seeing declines, filling Kobacker continues to be a challenge.
Even Masekela, a veteran performer with hit records to his credit, played to a lot of empty seats this spring, and not just because he had people dancing in the aisles.
After his concert, some audience members asked Hoekstra why more people weren't there.
Not that ticket costs can sustain the series. That's taken donors, who are fewer than before, and sponsors who provide in kind not cash services. The university provides the space, but no monetary support, except for a $25,000 subsidy from the dean's office. The series is meant to be self-sustaining.
The expectations of the university have changed, Showell added. "We're under a mandate to become more encompassing of all the arts."
That's evident in the 2013-2014 series that was announced in April.
It will open Sept. 28 with a live taping of "From the Top," a National Public Radio show that features young classical musicians, and is hosted by pianist Christopher O'Riley, who performed here in 2012.
On Dec. 6 the College of Musical Arts will stage a holiday extravaganza featuring university talent to coincide with ArtsX, an annual event in the School of Art that pioneered the idea of bringing all the arts on campus together.
On April 5, the series for the first time will introduce theater when The Improvised Shakespeare Company performs.
The other concert features pianist Jeremy Denk, on Feb. 15. Denk's visit is a collaboration with the David D. Dubois Piano Festival and Competition. He will give a master class and serve as a judge during the finals in the competition that attracts national and international teenage piano talents.
Showell talks of engaging those who are already supporting in the arts in region, including Toledo and Findlay, and promoting BGSU as a destination for those Cope termed "the cultural thought leaders."
The arts must also reach out to a younger generation less enthralled with "sitting in a darkened theater" quietly, Showell said.
Cope said the College of Music experimented at the end of the spring semester with a twitter friendly concert, where instead of being ordered to shut off their phones audience members were encouraged to keep them on and tweet about the concert experience.
Hoekstra said that just about all the artists the Festival Series brings in also spend time with students whether in master classes or in the wide-ranging dialogue Masekela engaged in with the day after his performance.
Cope said these kind of encounters can have profound influences on students and their careers.
Cope said the series must also find a way to engage families as a way of embedding the arts in youngsters.
The community has also asked for summer events. On July 3 before the city fireworks are launched from the football stadium, the College of Music will host a performance of "All Hands on Deck," an original musical created by former Pemberville resident Jody Madaras,
"We're putting our feet in the water and seeing what we can do in summer," Hoekstra said.