[ Interviews ]

Melvin Chen on the Summer of 2018

February 16, 2018

It may still be frosty and cold in Connecticut, but Director Melvin Chen is already thinking about summer breezes and what’s going to happen at Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for the summer of 2018.

By just about any measurement, Chen’s inaugural season as Director was a rousing success. Last summer he expanded the performance opportunities of the Fellows to include regular performances with the Artist Faculty performing on the Friday evening concerts, created a themed mini-Festival within the overall summer schedule (the focus was Dvořák and his musical influences), and he expanded pre-concert talks.

The intent of all these changes, he says, is to further enhance Norfolk’s reputation as both a leading chamber music festival and a school for musicians planning professional careers. “The Fellows playing more on Friday night — I think it was great for everybody,” he says. “It was educational and a good opportunity for the Fellows to work alongside Faculty. I hope the audience enjoyed seeing up-and-coming talent. Some festivals do this, but we’re making it a distinguishing feature for the Norfolk Festival, a point of attraction.”

2017 Fellows (L – R): Grace Takeda viola,
Katherine Arndt violin,  John Belk cello,  Michiko Theurer violin

It’s a strategy, he says, that’s already impacted the group of Fellows applicants for this summer. The number of applications has increased, he says, and the quality of applicants is also higher than last year. “It’s going to be hard to choose the Fellows because the level so high,” he says, noting 60 applied for four violin slots. “It’s a good problem to have. I really want to try to get the best students from around the world to come to Norfolk.”

The themed mini-Festival is a distinguishing element that Chen aimed, in part, at expanding Norfolk’s audience. “People liked the Dvořák focus. They got to know about him and his influences and who he influenced,” Chen says.

The mini-theme this year will be 1918. “It was a particularly fertile year for music,” Chen says, noting it was the year Debussy died. “We will spend a couple of programs on his music, his contemporaries and his friends.” Also in the musical mix will be taking note of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. “That particular piece is quite important,” Chen says. And 1918 was the year Leonard Bernstein was born. “He was obviously a huge influence on American composition as well as the classical music world in America,” Chen says, referencing, among other things, his popular TV Young People’s concerts.

“It’s the kind of a year we can draw a lot of inspiration from,” Chen says. “It will inform most of the programs for the summer.”

Other exciting developments for this summer include having the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra perform for the summer on July 21, Dawn Upshaw’s return after a long absence to perform with the Brentano String Quartet July 14, and having the Shanghai Quartet in residence for two weeks. “They’re one of the premiere quartets in the U.S.,” Chen says, noting they are Norfolk alumni who studied with the Tokyo String Quartet. “They play all over the world. It’s great to have them at Norfolk this summer.”

Additionally, Chen is closing out the chamber music session with a bang, with a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons coupled with Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. “That will be an exciting finish for the last chamber concert,” he says.

Developing exciting musical options is part of Chen’s longer term strategy to build audience at Norfolk. “One thing I was blown away by last summer was by how deep and loyal the support is for Norfolk,” he says. “The challenge is to grow that and retain the special feeling of Norfolk, to get others as committed and devoted.

“When I go to an Emerson String Quartet concert, the Shed is full,” he continues. “What can I do to make all the concerts full. For me the main thing to really try is to get people more excited about what is happening at Norfolk. What we’re doing musically is different from Tanglewood and other places in the area. The biggest challenge to get out message of what Norfolk is doing and the high quality. The goal to have sold-out concerts the whole summer.”

Which is why, even as Chen ponders the summer of 2018, he’s thinking ahead. “The role of a music festival is not only education and presenting great chamber music but also to add to the repertoire,” he says. “I want to commission new chamber works for the future.” While that’s a forward-thinking plan, in some ways, it harkens back to Norfolk’s roots. Back in the summer of 1918, the Festival was a 2-3 day event, he says, with the music focused mostly on contemporary composers. Commissioning new work, then, “is basically continuing the tradition of what Ellen Battell did,” he says. “She commissioned music of contemporary American composers.”

By Janet Reynolds

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.