Mozart, music as business: Fellows play and learn the ropes

photo by Madeline Hughes
The fellows stay busy with their music busking on Church Street Friday afternoon between rehearsals.

There was standing room only as about 100 patrons filled the Trapp Family Lodge’s Mozart Room last week to listen to young musicians spending their summer as music fellows in Vermont.

Later that night, four other Mozart musicians gathered to play at Manhattan Pizza & Pub in downtown Burlington.

“We were spread a little thin last night,” conductor and viola player Ian Niederhoffer said the next day. The rising senior studying music at Yale took time for an interview in between rehearsals last Thursday.

Ryan Baird, a doctoral music student from the University of Southern California, played the bass at Manhattan Pizza the night before.

Both are attending the Vermont Mozart Festival program for the second year. Each learned about the program by word of mouth through other musicians from their respective schools.

It’s part of the three-week “reimagined” Vermont Mozart Festival where 30 musicians ages 21 to 31 from all over the U.S. and often other countries flock to Vermont for summer fellowships.

The musicians set up their home base at Champlain College, staying in dorm rooms where they eat, sleep, play music and learn about the business behind the music.

“I jumped at the opportunity. This year I wanted to return because last year it was definitely challenging, but it helped me to grow. I’m excited to see the direction (the festival) is headed in,” Baird said. While practicing and playing his bass he is also working on a business plan for his Los Angeles musical ensemble.

Last year he worked on building the Southern California Bass Society.

Business classes don’t often go with music theory, but Vermont’s Mozart Festival fellows are also learning to build jobs for their musical careers.

Music graduates typically outnumber available jobs in the marketplace each year. Therefore, festival creator Michael Debrovsky makes musical entrepreneurship a priority for the fellows’ time in Vermont.

“Michael, our fearless leader, created this festival and he is open about the process. He is teaching us how to build our own projects, which isn’t part of our traditional music education,” Baird said. “It’s hard to leave this festival and not tackle the music world in a different way.”

The fellowship empowers musicians to think critically about forming and funding ensembles, and how to run effective rehearsals, Niederhoffer added.

After last summer’s fellowship, Niederhoffer said he started an ensemble at his university, where he hopes to continue to cultivate his leadership skills for when he graduates next spring.

Seeds take root elsewhere

A similar pedagogy is used during rehearsals.

During the first week of rehearsals, musicians come prepared to work. Fellows begin auditioning at the beginning of the year for the summer, and are recruited through May to ensure the best mix of musicians.

After being chosen for the program, the fellows receive the music to start practicing. The musicians then come together the first Monday of the festival.

This year, the concert series kicked off on Tuesday night with a Cuba Tribute at Hotel Vermont, part of the “Mozart Light” portion of the series.

During last Thursday’s rehearsal, a violinist raised her bow to clarify where the crescendo started. Pencils in hand ready to mark their music, the musicians discussed what bars could be seen as the repeated phrase in the music.

“We’re three days in, yes, but there’s been so much growth in terms of organization and mission,” Niederhoffer said.

He explained how fellows from the Vermont festival have gone on in their careers to create new musical endeavors in places far from Vermont.

“The festival is looking to expand internationally. There’s a Mozart festival in Santo Domingo, where I actually went with Michael with two other fellows from here and we played as a string quartet.

“There’s La Ruta de Mozart, a Mozart festival in Cuba now too. But also here as we become more of a stabilized force and we settle into our venues we see the things we can improve on,” he said.

The festival’s free “Mozart Light” concerts this summer at Hotel Vermont, Manhattan’s and the Charlotte Town Beach are included in the program to give musicians a diverse experience.

“It’s an outlet to let us play together, to bond and to play Mozart better,” Niederhoffer said.

Presenting the music in these settings also brings people into the audience  who might not have been typical Mozart fans.

“I think for an audience to see our youth and hear that music it allows us to be more relatable and approachable, as well as make our music more relatable and approachable,” Baird said.

That’s exactly what happened the night before at Manhattan’s, where after the music ended, people came up to talk to him and other musicians.

The musicians say Vermont’s music scene is lively and welcoming. They want people to ask them questions about their music.

However, even with the “Mozart Light” concerts, the focus of the festival still lies on Mozart.

“I appreciate that we are not changing the music to make it more accessible, we are changing the format,” Niederboffer said.

photo by Madeline Hughes
Five of the Mozart festival fellows play Coldplay and other contemporary top hits at Manhattan Pizza & Pub in Burlington last Wednesday night.

Reimagining the festival

In 2010 after 30 years, financial troubles ended the original Vermont Mozart Festival’s run. Those who picked up the torch call today’s version the “reimagined” Vermont Mozart Festival, which is in its third year, and growing.

Debrovsky, a world-class violinist of over 25 years, was involved with the original enterprise. He decided to bring Mozart back to Vermont “in the spirit of the original festival.”

He bought the rights to the festival’s name and restructured it as a nonprofit.

To make the festival financially feasible, he also made substantial changes. All musicians are students between the ages of 21 and 31. Their studies ranges from undergraduate to doctorate at universities and conservatories from around the world.

Clarinet player Samuel Boutris studies at The Juilliard School. Oboe player Lydia Consilvio studies at the University of Maryland College Park. Cellist Sara Gabalawi studies at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. And the list goes on from there for all 30 musicians.

Also, he wanted to bring in patrons who wouldn’t normally listen to Mozart, growing the fan base to ensure the longevity of the festival.

With outdoor venues such as the Charlotte Town Beach, Shelburne Farms, Shelburne Museum and the Trapp Meadow, Debrovsky hopes to “bring people together over great music and the outdoors.

“The programs are affordable and accessible, and there is community excitement,” he said. People often bring picnics, and the occasions are less formal than a concert hall performance where people may feel they need to pick out the right clothes to wear for a Mozart concert.

People instead wear trucker hats and t-shirts branded by the Vermont Mozart Festival, which also offers a youthful flair.

“The festival branding represents the creative energy that fuels the festival. We have big plans, want to grow the festival as much as possible,” said Marketing Director Kevin O’Leary. That means looking to other premier festivals for inspiration, and not just classical festivals, he said.

“Lincoln Center’s ‘Mostly Mozart’ festival is a great example of an organization that has remained fresh and relevant for decades. Locally, the Discover Jazz Festival has done an incredible job maintaining excellence of programming while growing their audience and reputation. We take the music very seriously, but strive to keep things fun,” O’Leary said.

This summer’s festival has just over a week to go. The schedule and details can be found at vermontmozartfestival.org.

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