On stage at this new breed of smaller festivals, musicians have a chance to take complete control of the performance itself. "The more concerts you play," says David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet, "you begin to realize that you’re at the mercy of your presenters. You might play your best, but so many things could have been done better, from the acoustics to the lighting to more trivial artist amenities. But even more important is the preparation of the audience—the program notes they read and their general involvement in whatever series you have." Music@Menlo’s advance-ticket holders receive specially prepared CD’s ahead of the performance that offer in-depth explorations of the music and the historical context of the composers’ careers.
Andsnes notes that festivals enable artists to explore a more innovative repertoire than they normally perform at major metropolitan concert halls. While Andsnes plays heavy doses of Brahms and Grieg during the rest of the year, he regularly invites a less often heard contemporary composer to be in residence at the Risør festival. Last summer the featured composer was Britain’s Mark-Anthony Turnage; an additional focus was the music of Frenchman Henri Dutilleux.
Musicians and audience members alike refer to the festival-going experience as more intense than a one-off concert during the regular season. "People enjoy listening more at festivals," says Finckel, who, in addition to having founded Music@Menlo, codirects the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "You don’t get off work, rush home and get in your suit, sit down at 8:01 and try to figure out what’s going on. A festival is a pure leisure activity rather than a subscription or a social obligation."
Sociability plays an undeniable role, however; by attending several festival concerts in succession, audience members frequently get to know one another. At Trasimeno, concertgoers included lifelong friends of Hewitt’s from her native Canada, members of the European diplomatic service, a group of well-heeled Japanese who appeared in Issey Miyake gowns every evening, Israeli academics, and Italian financiers in summer linens.
But in contrast to larger gatherings such as Salzburg, festivals like this one are more about the music itself than a high-octane social scene. Talk among the Trasimeno attendees usually centers on whatever is being heard that evening—how a particular performance compared with one by Murray Perahia or Radu Lupu, or spirited recollections of Vladimir Horowitz’s last public concert in New York.
The open-air settings in historic courtyards add charm and, at times, introduce an element of chance to the concerts. At last summer’s event, while crickets chirped loudly in the background, evening breezes obliged the performers to keep a close eye on their sheet music. Rain briefly interrupted one stellar performance, a duo piano recital that Hewitt gave with Akiko Ebi. Tarps were hastily brought in to cover the two ebony concert grands until the showers ceased, and the playing resumed. Downpours the next day caused the festival’s final concert to be held in a nearby church rather than the castle’s courtyard.
Not surprisingly, many Trasimeno audience members are avid fans of Hewitt herself. Kazunori Shibuya, a former high-tech executive from Japan, attending the festival for the second year running, says he has organized an Angela Hewitt fan club in his homeland. "We call her the prima donna ballerina of the keyboard," he explains.
Of course, Hewitt says, having your own festival can be a good career move—though a financially risky one. "What I’m doing here is really enlarging my audience," she says. "If I’m going to spend money on promotion and publicity, a festival is a good way to do it. Because then people get the right image of you, the right picture of you." By keeping her festival small and very much marked by her own personality, she provides a rich encounter for music lovers. "It’s a chance to be a part of something friendly, where people can get to know each other; a chance perhaps for them to feel closer to me."
Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.