Fifty Years of Opportunities Received and Given
"I thought it was a great opportunity, something my colleagues and I would really enjoy. Did I visualize what it would become? Not even close!" Maestro Lewis Kaplan is talking about his founding of the Bowdoin International Music Festival in 1964. The renowned violinist, conductor, and master teacher who will celebrate his fiftieth year as Artistic Director of the festival next summer, reminisces about the life changing experience that the Brunswick, Maine, music festival has proved to be, both for himself and for the countless students and faculty who have participated in the program.
Kaplan's involvement with the Bowdoin International Music Festival began, as have many other events in his life, quite serendipitously. "My brother was a student at Bowdoin in 1963-64," he recounts in his lilting, soft-spoken voice. "My wife and I had visited him in the winter of 1963 and made the acquaintance of the college's then music chairman, Bob Beckwith. There had been a group of musicians performing a concert series each summer. In May 1964 these musicians, who were waiting on their orchestra schedules had not yet signed their Bowdoin contracts, and the college's Vice President, Wolcott A. Hokanson, Jr. grew impatient and cancelled the series. Beckwith feared that if performances were cancelled this season, the series would never be restarted, so he told Hokanson that he could produce a new chamber group within twenty-four hours.
At that time Lewis Kaplan was leading the ground-breaking chamber ensemble, the Aeolian Chamber Players, and they were preparing for a big concert at Carnegie Recital Hall. Beckwith called Kaplan in New York on a Friday afternoon and asked if the Aeolian Players would like to play a summer series at Bowdoin that year.
"Sure, why not?" Kaplan recalls replying, and he offered to come to Maine to discuss the offer the following week after the Carnegie performance. "Beckwith said I would have to come the very next day. I asked him if he were truly serious about the plans, and he said he was and would I please bring my proposal for the series with me. I took the next plane to Portland, and we met with Hokanson. In less than a week after Bob's (Beckwith's) first call, we had an engagement for five concerts."
And thus began the long collaboration that would make the music festival grow from five concerts and nineteen students to a program with 250 students, more than fifty faculty members, and over 1000 concerts and public educational events that runs six weeks each summer from mid June to end July. The program, as their mission statement proclaims, "brings together renowned artist instructors, performers, soloists, and gifted pre-professional classical musicians from around the world for six weeks of intensive chamber music study, collaboration, and performing." This year's theme is Around the World in Forty Days, was inspired by Kaplan's observation that at one concert there were five faculty members from four different countries onstage, and he noted the festival lasted forty-two days.
Executive Director Peter J. Simmons, who took the helm of the festival fourteen years ago after serving as Assistant Director of the Maine Arts Commission, says that the Bowdoin Festival is unique because "we are non competitive." We focus on practice and performance. In any conservatory you always look to see how you measure up with your classmates. Here our philosophy is that you have to learn to do everything! You have to know your theory, the history of your instrument, musical genres in order to become a full-fledged musician capable of finding a job. We emphasize that this is not a competition. Everyone helps everyone else. We want this to be a place where students don't feel under pressure to take a narrow path."
Perhaps this nurturing atmosphere has its roots in the program's original connection to Bowdoin College, one of the nation's oldest and most respected liberal arts institutions, but Simmons says that the festival is now independent of the college. In 1997 as their missions diverged – Bowdoin's music department stressed music history and theory and the festival on performance and practice, the two entities mutually agreed to separate, with the festival maintaining its own board and administration and raising its own funding. But Bowdoin still houses the students and offers use of their performance facilities and classrooms.
Asked about other milestones in the program's long developmental process, Simmons and Kaplan outline a series of sea changes that brought the festival to its current model. Among them, Kaplan cites the cooperation between the festival board and the college in the 1970s to "bring ten highly talented students to the program free of charge." He mentions, too, the improvement of the concert venues that has occurred over the years – from the less than ideal Kresge Auditorium and First Parish Church, to the opening of the excellent Crooker Theatre in 1992-93, and then to the creation of the state-of-the-art Studzinski Recital Hall in 2003 – advances which helped attract larger audiences. Kaplan also credits the various musicians who have been associated with the festival, such as the addition of the Ying and Shanghai String Quartets, and the Bowdoin Virtuosi, a select group of the world's most accomplished young artists who are invited to perform with the festival faculty. He and Simmons recall many of the now famous students who have graced the program, among them Emanuel Ax, Fred Sherry, Paul Neubauer, Murray Perahia, Jaime Laredo, and Yefim Bronfman.
And the program looks forward to more shifts and changes as it reaches its half-century mark. During Simmons' tenure the administrative staff has been streamlined and reorganized to encompass six (including Simmons, himself) full time staff members – (though during the summer that number jumps to seventy-five), and while Simmons concedes it is very, very busy and they could always use more help, the mechanics of the program seem to run very efficiently. Simmons also praises the festival's board, whose composition has changed over the years, who have become more sophisticated about not-for-profit management and more actively involved in the process.
But the biggest challenge facing the festival is the planned retirement of Maestro Kaplan as Artistic Director effective after the 2014 summer program. Simmons says that plans for a 50th anniversary celebration are already underway as are also the initial steps in the process of selecting a new Artistic Director and launching a capital campaign to secure the funding needed to carry the festival forward.
Kaplan speaks of his retirement "as really only very partial. "Whoever my successor is, I think he or she will probably want to work with me. I don't intend to get in the way, but if the new AD feels it would be advantageous to call on me, I will certainly be there for the festival. After all, the Bowdoin International Music Festival is more than a job for me. To see its continued success is a natural feeling for me, "Kaplan avows.
"Nothing will change in my schedule during the academic year," the maestro adds. "I will still continue to teach at Juilliard, Mannes and as a visiting professor at London's Royal Conservatory. But upon reflection, he says with obvious enthusiasm, "Well, actually, as of two weeks ago, I have been appointed a visiting professor at the Xi'an Conservatory in China, so that is hugely exciting for me and the festival."
It seems typical of this versatile musician that he would be embarking on a new and vastly different adventure in the sixth decade of his professional life. Lewis Kaplan began to play the violin at age five and received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Juilliard before organizing the Aeolian Chamber Players, one of the early mixed timbre ensembles comprised of strings, winds, and piano. "I felt the time was right," he says simply. "It was pioneering, but with a great deal of naivet├ę. We played forty-fifty concerts a year, and it was rewarding personally and artistically, but it was certainly not much a money maker," he recalls.
In addition to his chamber music performances, Kaplan has distinguished himself as a conductor and a teacher. "I would find doing only one thing boring," he explains. "I feel that having multi-faceted experiences helps me to help my students." And Lewis Kaplan is surely passionate about teaching his students. He has earned a reputation as an extraordinary mentor, giving master classes around the world. His eyes light up as he explains, "I find it a great challenge and responsibility to see a great talent and then see how far you can take that talent."
Asked about his pedagogical philosophy, Kaplan gives a complex, humanistic answer: "I believe that for a long time there has been too much stress on just technique. I think it was Plato who said that music competitions had become all about technique and that the real reason for making music was fast disappearing. Music was really about reaching people's souls; the musician needed only enough technique to do that. I feel that people learn an instrument in the same way they grow. You don't just grow physically and at some point work on your mind; you grow unevenly in every direction. Teaching mere technique is like teaching a trade. If you are really teaching a human being and you look into the mind and soul of that person, you will ask yourself 'how do I bring out what is there?' Great teaching is an art."
Kaplan's educational thinking is shared by the festival's prestigious faculty. "They come from some of the major conservatories in the U.S., U.K., Europe, and now China," Simmons says. "They build their studios with a range of ages and abilities." The average studio has six to eight students though larger groups may then have more than one instructor. A grad student who wants more teaching experience is assigned to each studio. "Probably half of the young musicians bring with them their own students from wherever they teach during the academic year, and then they try to mix in some new students – even a few high schoolers – to create energy."
Being accepted to this highly respected program is a rigorous process for both applicants and festival administration, though video auditions over the internet have streamlined the method considerably in recent years. Simmons say that the January deadline usually yields seven hundred applicants for 250 spots. Most of the festival's fundraising efforts go toward scholarship, and 62% will receive some form of financial aid toward the $6000 cost of tuition, room, and board for the six weeks. Considering the beautiful Maine environment and the fabulous Bowdoin food, not to mention the caliber of the instruction, Simmons feels this is a reasonable fee. "People don't understand until they become involved with music how much a high performing kid costs his parents with lessons, instrument – (they can mortgage their houses for a violin!) - and instrument maintenance."
Like Kaplan, Simmons enjoys watching these students grow as artists. He is especially intrigued seeing the maturation of the twelve and thirteen year-olds "who wouldn't be here if they weren't already way ahead of their peers. It's frightening," he remarks. When youngsters are under fourteen, they must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Simmons tells an amusing anecdote about a young Chinese pianist, Peng Peng Gong, who, "with came with his non-English speaking parents and had to negotiate all the tasks necessary for the summer experience from travel to shopping to rent paying in addition to his musical studies.
Simmons smiles recalling one of the young man's concerts: "He came on stage in his little tuxedo and sat down at the piano. He placed his tiny hands on the keys and rocked back and forth before launching himself at the pianist and playing this enormous Liszt piece. When he was finished, he gave a timid bow and walked off stage. I asked him what he thought. 'Oh, I made a mess of it!' he said. But, on the contrary one of the faculty tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, 'Now I believe in reincarnation. No way a twelve year-old from central China who had just learned to speak English could play a piece like that without something else going on!' "
Like Simmons, Kaplan delights in such incandescent moments, but both men are realists when it comes to preparing students for the demands of the professional music world. "One is always surprised when a student does go on to a solo career or wins a major competition because the odds are stacked against them," Kaplan posits. While the festival does not offer a formal program addressing the classical music business, it does provide seminars each summer on interests of the students, such as discussions on injury prevention or the practicalities of the chamber music world.
"The world is changing faster than it ever has before in history," Kaplan adds, "and those who play really well and can adapt to those changes will have success." That a classical musician's life has its ups and downs is a given for the maestro. "I am not sure it was ever easy for any of the great artists," he says with a sigh. "But there are the rewards. I feel nothing can replace a Beethoven quartet or a Bach sonata. One has to have faith that no matter which way the world turns, that will not change. You cannot live on a Beethoven sonata, but, nevertheless, it is a guiding light. You can always come back to a Mozart concerto or a Brahms symphony and know that there is something of true greatness about it." The passion with which he speaks these sentences – a passion shared by the faculty – makes it abundantly clear how the Bowdoin International Music Festival inspires its students.
Conversation with three of the young musicians on campus this summer bears witness to these lessons well learned. Asked to verbalize the significance of the festival experience for them at this point in their careers, each waxes eloquent. Lior Willinger, a pianist from West Palm Beach and an undergraduate at the Peabody Conservatory, is studying with Yong Hi Moon. He says he and his brother are first generation musicians in his family and that he "loves the opportunity music gives to bond with other people. The faculty goes above and beyond. It's a great place to develop your musicianship and meet people who have the same enthusiasm for music as you do."
Young Israeli violinist Boris Abramov, a student at Georgia's Columbus State and a member of Sergiu Schwartz's studio, feels "that the festival is unique in that you can make it what you want. You have a great deal of freedom to do what you most desire during the summer program. You get lots of attention from the faculty, and there are so many master classes and chances to perform. It is all good exposure."
Laura Lutzke, one of the elite Bowdoin Virtuosi, has already been garnering attention as a professional violinist. As one of the festival's post-graduate attendees, she holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Juilliard and a second master's from London's Guildhall. Having first come to Bowdoin with her Juilliard teacher, Lewis Kaplan, summers ago, she has been playing with the faculty for three years now. She praises the wide range of festival students. "It can be inspiring to play with a fifteen-year-old who is really great. The diversity also helps. You become aware that not everyone is like you. You can learn from someone else, and he/she can learn from you." She pays tribute to the nurturing atmosphere: "When students and faculty come to concerts, they do not judge you. They come to support you."
Abramov echoes the non-competitive theme. "If you compete with someone, eventually one of you is going to lose. The festival teaches you that in a healthy, inspiring way; it makes you think positively. It puts the emphasis on you, yourself."
Each of these young artists is immersed in practice and performance this summer. Abramov, who has just played the Grieg Violin Sonata No. 3 at a June 27th concert, is also learning all the Beethoven violin sonatas. Lutzke has already concertized with the faculty during the first week, playing Lou Harrison's Trio for Violin, Piano, and Percusssion, and Willinger is preparing Schumann's first piano sonata for performance as well as an array of compositions as a collaborative pianist.
The festival concert schedule features a carefully constructed assortment of performance series, among them the Young Artists of Tomorrow series for student musicians, Festival Fridays in which residential and guest artists perform larger scale works, the Wednesday Upbeat concerts, which showcase a variety of traditional and modern works, the Monday Sonatas presenting a mix of duets and solo performances, and the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music which presents 20th century compositions by American composers, some of whom are in residence at the festival. In addition to these performances, there is a series of community concerts where musicians bring their playing to local churches, halls, and residential facilities, as well as the Bowdoin Festival Extras which includes seminars and master classes.
Programming such a myriad of diverse performances is a Herculean task. Simmons describes the complex, collective process: "It starts the summer before. Lewis and I and some of the faculty discuss possible themes. In late fall Lewis contacts the faculty and asks them to propose pieces they want to play. Then we implement the ideas, deciding when the musicians will be here, what constitutes a good group, who will play what chair."
With the resources at their command the results are generally astounding. For example, early in this summer's festival the Friday, July 5th all-American concert admirably illustrated the virtues of the festival's program. Faculty soloists, guest artists, and the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra with its truly international mix of musicians performed an eclectic range of works by Ives, Gershwin, Barber, and Copland. The musical threads of folk tunes, jazz, and classical European influences were beautifully blended into the program which began with Ives' Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, followed by a new piano transcription of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and then in the second orchestral half, Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14 and Copland's A Lincoln Portrait. The musicians, themselves, represented an impressive cross section of the festival's history.
The Ives' sonata, played by Kaplan on violin and his colleague from the Aeolian Chamber Players, Peter Basquin on piano, recalled the festival's origins and its dedication to chamber music. Both musicians approached Ives with full appreciation for his modernism, his dissonances, and his quirky position in American music. Their playing demonstrated the ideals of collaboration which Kaplan believes important to instill in his students. The Gershwin rhapsody in this particular piano transcription by Eric Zuber, a member of the Bowdoin Virtuosi, was receiving its first public performance. Zuber's technique was dazzling. His take on the piece was less glitzy than some; rather he infused it with lush, rounded tone, a playful sense of banter, a miraculous touch, and a virtuosic velocity that brought the cheering audience to its feet at the conclusion. Zuber's connection to the festival virtuosi and faculty Boris Slutsky emphasized what student Lior Willinger notes, "that the music world is a very small one where bonds and friendships are sometimes made for a lifetime."
In the second half of the concert Kaplan donned his conductor's hat and took over the podium for the two orchestral works. In the concertmaster's chair was Laura Lutzke, performing with great musicality and maturity. The difficult Barber concerto was played by violinist David Coucheron. His ties to the festival go back many years, and he boasts Kaplan as one of his teachers. He holds the distinction of being the youngest concertmaster ever appointed (at twenty-five) to an American orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony. Playing completely from memory with a passionate feeling for both the classicism of Barber's form and the romanticism of his line, Coucheron turned virtuosity into something far more transcendent. In A Lincoln Portrait former Maine Governor and now U.S. Senator Angus King gave a plainspoken, prairie honesty to his reading of Lincoln's words. As a conductor Kaplan displayed the qualities that also make him so remarkable as a master teacher. His pride in and support of his young musicians was palpable, as he led the orchestra with great musicality and joyfulness. He maintained a sense of music as conversation, encouraging each of the sections to speak, listen, and reply. The winds and strings were particularly fine, and the overall ensemble ethic was much in evidence. The spirit of these young musicians gave that extra vibrancy and inspiration to the work.
The audience at Brunswick's Crooker Theatre were thrilled, leaping to their feet at the stirring finale. Many of the listeners are locals from this Maine seaside college town twenty-eight miles north of Portland, but others have made this a cultural and recreational destination. Simmons believes that the festival has become an enhancement to the community. "We are definitely a major player in the summer scene here. Often people who discover the festival as visitors are retirees looking for a place to put down new roots, and they discover the Bowdoin campus and the town, and they eventually settle here. Many of them end up becoming our board members," he smiles.
Not only does this charming, busy, culturally savvy town appeal to visitors, but the Brunswick-Bowdoin location is also, Simmons feels, a draw for the festivals students and faculty. "It's a relaxing summer environment that is analogous to taking the lid off a pressure cooker. It allows the festival participants to focus better on what they are doing. And, then, too, it is not New York City, so we know there isn't a potential critic sitting in the audience. The public is very supportive."
Lewis Kaplan who maintains a house in Brunswick (as well as his year-round apartment in New York) concurs," I can't imagine a more wonderful thing than to spend my summers here."
Indeed, the Bowdoin International Music Festival seems blessed with being a magical, creative place apart from the hustle and bustle, at the same time it represents a dynamic global microcosm of the music world. "We strive to improve artistically and managerially every year," Simmons declares. "Since 2000 we have grown exponentially. At this point we can't expand any more, so all we can do is try to get better."
That kind of quality growth takes different forms and requires a kind of visionary thinking at which the festival excels. After almost a half-century, its Artistic Director Lewis Kaplan is still seeing opportunities and charting new territory for himself and his beloved festival. He sums up his forward-thinking philosophy with an anecdote about his recent China experiences. "One of the most satisfying moments of my trip came when I gave a master class at the conservatory where a woman on the violin faculty had been my student at Bowdoin the previous summer. I had worked hard to get her to grasp what Bach was essentially about. On this visit several of her students performed in my master class, and one played a very difficult Bach movement with incredible insight! I thought to myself, Here I have taught one person who will never forget what she has learned and who is probably going to teach thousands more over the next forty years. This is going to make a huge difference."
It all comes back to the theme of opportunities. All you need to know about Lewis," Simmons states, summing up his colleague's incredible contribution to the festival, "is that everything is opportunity in his mind."
Through Kaplan's vision and the extraordinary dedication of the faculty and staff, the Bowdoin International Music Festival has become a beacon of opportunity in the musical landscape. "It's a place where you learn to be open to so many possibilities," young violinist Boris Abramov affirms. "If you remain willing to embrace different paths, then when the opportunity comes, you will be ready."
Peter J. Simmons and the roster of faculty and students who have immersed themselves in the festival experience over the last five decades know that Lewis Kaplan is not speaking in hyperbole when he characterizes the Bowdoin International Music Festival "as more than just six weeks of artistic growth. It is a life altering experience that the musicians will never forget and will forever carry with them."
Photos - Courtesy Bowdoin International Music Festival