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Meet the Director:
Melvin Chen’s Vision for the Festival
By Janet Reynolds
Editor’s note: As you know, Melvin Chen is the Norfolk Festival’s new Director. As all new Directors do, Chen is mixing things up a bit and he wants to share some of the exciting things that are coming, beginning with this season’s thematic structure and additional musical opportunities. We started our “Meet the Director” series with a short Q & A that gives a few more personal details about Chen’s past. Want to learn the piece of chamber music he feels is the perfect introduction to the wonders of this type of music? Take a moment to read the Q &A.
In this part of the Meet the Director Series, Chen talks about his vision for the Festival and where he hopes to lead it in coming years.
“The Festival has a long history, a distinctive history of having the best musicians performing at the festival and also serving as an incubator for the next generation of musicians. I want to continue that tradition. Norfolk faces the same challenges most performing arts organizations face, which is to keep their current audience and to expand and build a broader base of audience support for the festival. One of the things I want to do is to find interesting and innovative programming to bring in a broader audience geographically and age-wise.”
Part of that strategy, Chen says, is to expand the festival’s geographic reach. “The goal is to make Norfolk a destination spot so that not just people who live in the area come to concerts but people come from around the country,” he says. ”They plan a special trip because they know they will hear something exciting.”
Chen is also deeply committed to the educational focus of Norfolk, a factor that makes it unique in the summer music festival world. “I want to search the world for the best ensembles and instrumentalists and give them a unique and enriching experience,” he says. One way to expand the educational programming for festival fellows is to offer them more public performance options, especially options that include playing side-by-side with experienced professionals. While that has been a factor in previous summers, Chen is ensuring this opportunity occurs in a more deliberate and systematic way. Beginning this summer, every Friday night concert will include at least a few fellows playing alongside faculty colleagues.
“This is a draw for students,” Chen says. “If there’s a sense among students they’ll have the opportunity to play in a Friday concert in front of big crowd and work with professionals, to rehearse and prepare as a professional as a learning experience for them, that is something that will be attractive.”
Chen also believes firmly that making the Festival more about the music itself rather than the people performing it is critical to building audiences for the future. “Traditionally audiences show up for recognizable names,” he says, “so when the Emerson String Quartet comes, those are sold out.” In contrast, less recognizable names often draw smaller audiences. “I want people to recognize that no matter who’s playing, they should expect a great performance, whether you know the people or don’t know the people,” Chen says. “That is something we have to build, that there’s an assumption of quality no matter who the performers are.”
To that end, Chen has programmed the summer more thematically. This summer will feature a strong focus on Dvořák and his influences (Chen will explain more about that in our next Meet the Director interview.) “Each Friday night each program focuses around a particular idea or theme,” he says. “Sometimes people show up and they see the pieces and you have no idea why they are together. I think a theme that unifies the program we can use to help explain this is why they go together. This way people have a context for listening to the program.”
To assist with this understanding, Friday night concerts will include free Pre-Concert Conversations with Yale Professor Paul Berry. “He’s someone who can delve deeper into the connections of the idea of the program and the particular pieces of the program,” Chen says. “I want people to look at the idea and then think I’d like to hear how the pieces draw on the idea.”
“I want them to come because they’re interested in the idea of the program, knowing that when they come they’ll hear great performances,” Chen adds. “Regardless, they know they’ll get a great concert experience.”
Next up in our Meet the Director Series: How Chen’s life as a performer helps inform the musical choices he’s made for this season and why part of the Festival is focusing on Dvořák and his musical influences.
Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.