Tuesday, March 3, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Boca fest gearing up to be 'fabulous,' despite scaling back

Itzhak Perlman. (Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON – Itzhak Perlman really wants to conduct the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

And Charlie Siemon has always wanted to hear the symphony in the amphitheater at Mizner Park where the third Festival of the Arts Boca gets under way Thursday. His wish dates back to the day the amphitheater opened with the Florida Philharmonic and its chorus performing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

“And it just blew the socks off this joint,” said Siemon, a land-use attorney who is chairman of the festival and one of the founders of the Centre for the Arts at Mizner Park. “And I said, ‘Someday, I want to close the festival with Beethoven’s Ninth.’”

The two men will get their shared wish Sunday, March 15, when Perlman will lead four soloists, the Master Chorale of South Florida and the Russian National Orchestra in the symphony, whose closing Ode to Joy is a semi-official global hymn of brotherhood.

Perlman, who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his U.S. debut this year, is one of the central figures of the 2009 festival at Mizner Park, along with Beethoven. Four of the six concerts feature Perlman as soloist or conductor, and three of those are devoted to the music of Beethoven. The Israeli-born violinist will be heard as soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto, as chamber musician in an evening with students from the Perlman Music Program, and as band leader in a night devoted to the klezmer music of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Also featured during the music portion of the festival are pianist Jeremy Denk in the Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto (in E-flat, Op. 73, Emperor), cellist Nina Kotova in the Cello Concerto No. 1 (in A minor, Op. 33), of Camille Saint-Saens, and pianist Ana Karina Alamo in the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue. The Russian National Orchestra, under conductor Mikhail Pletnev, will be the house band for the festival , and the young Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra will lead the concert with Kotova and Alamo, which also includes the Plump Jack Overture of the American oil-fortune heir and composer Gordon Getty, and the Dvorak New World Symphony (No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95). (The schedule can be seen here.)

Late last week, the festival announced that violinist Joshua Bell will make a brief cameo appearance with de la Parra, playing more Saint-Saens: The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28.

Salman Rushdie, featured at a festival event Friday.

The other part of the festival is its literary component, and here, too, the Boca gathering has big names on its roster: Salman Rushdie and Jamaica Kincaid each host events, and there are nights with novelists Anthony Doerr and David Ebershoff, former United Nations diplomat and author Shashi Tharoor, as well as a Florida Atlantic University literary panel featuring Emanuele Pettener and Andrew Furman.

But despite all that star power, this third iteration of the Boca celebration of the arts is a downturn-influenced affair. The 11-day fest is six days shorter than last year’s and it has done away with the jazz events. Community events have been reduced to the FAU literary panel.

Even the hospitality tent is smaller this year.

The culprit, of course, is the global economic slump. “It’s been really tough,” Siemon said.

“We did scale back the festival significantly. We eliminated the jazz program, and most of the community programming we did last year,” Siemon said, referring to programs in 2008 featuring the Boca Ballet Theatre and the Boca Raton Symphonia. “In anticipation, not of what’s really happened, but in anticipation of it being tough, we tried to provide ourselves with a margin. So we’ve reduced the festival.”

This year, the festival’s budget is the smallest in the celebration’s brief history, at $1.54 million, and Siemon hopes to see it come in about $50,000 less. The inaugural festival in 2007 spent slightly less than $2 million, and the 2008 festival slightly more.

Sponsorships were hit hard this time around, and cutting back the festival by about 25 percent was the best way to save on daily costs for 24-hour security and traffic control, he said.

But it was only reluctantly that the festival decided to drop the jazz portion, which last year featured Pat Metheny, Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Siemon said the festival was planning programs from Jazz at Lincoln Center, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and Russian jazz pianist Eldar Djangirov.

“But it required us to stretch the days out, so we picked up more per diem, and we were concerned that people would choose to spend their money on Perlman and not on others,” he said. “So we finally, unhappily, very late in the process, in October, decided not to go forward with our jazz tickets.

“But we would very much hope to be able to, as soon as the economy gives us any sign of promise, to restore that,” Siemon said, adding that the Centre for the Arts wants to create an “ongoing jazz activity” in which jazz artists would be brought in on a monthly or bimonthly basis.

Conductor Alondra de la Parra.

Although ticket sales began soft, things had improved by last week, said Monique Force, marketing director at the Centre for the Arts. Sales, in fact, are up over last year, even though the festival is six days shorter.

“The Perlman events are selling particularly well,” Force said, with the solo night and the klezmer evening “very strong,” and the Ninth on the verge of selling out. The main events hold 2,400 to 2,800 seats, she said.

Rushdie’s appearance in the literary part of the festival is also moving plenty of tickets, Force said. Ticket prices range from $15-$25 for the opening-day Future Stars Competition, $25-$40 for the literary events, $50-125 for the musical events, and $75-$250 for the Ninth. Passes are available that cut the prices from 10 to 20 percent, but the most expensive premier-level tickets were almost sold out as of last Friday.

All events take place under the tent at the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater at Mizner Park. Parking is free and available in the four garages that line the park as well as on the street.

The festival has its origins in a collaboration of the Centre for the Arts and IMG Artists, the New York talent agency run by Barrett Wissman, who proposed the idea of the festival several years ago to Siemon and Wendy Larsen, his law partner and chairwoman of the Centre for the Arts. Wissman told them he wanted to create several festivals worldwide to advance the cause of culture, Siemon said.

“Part of what he wanted to do was to play a meaningful role in introducing future generations to the great music, the great culture of the past,” he said. “And he saw the festival environment as a way of bringing the art to new audiences in a different way than you could ever do at any hall anywhere.”

More importantly, while there already was significant summer arts festival activity, there wasn’t one for the winter.

“His idea was that there was not a significant wintertime festival in either Europe or the United States, and that Florida was probably the most popular destination for both Europeans and Americans who are culturally inclined,” Siemon said.

Elizabeth Sobol, managing director for IMG, said Monday in a statement that collaborating with the Centre for the Arts has been “a great pleasure.”

“Creating something from scratch – out of thin air, as it were – is always a challenge. But where there is a vision – and passion – it can be a deeply gratifiying experience,” Sobol said. “Seeing the Boca community galvanized around performances by some of the greatest classical musicians of our time has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my professional life. “

One crucial part of the idea was that it be an outdoor festival, in order to attract people who would never set foot in a concert hall. Siemon told the story of a developer he knows whose first concert ever was the performance in 2007 of pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Rakhmaninov Third Concerto.

“One of the things we like best about the festival is we get an awful lot of people who really have never been to a major orchestral performance in their lives,” he said, including the developer, who was “blown off the planet” by Bronfman’s performance. “(He) calls me the next day and said, ‘I need you to do me a favor.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He said, ‘I want to buy some CDs. I want you to tell me what I should learn, who I should listen to.’ We got his two kids and his wife as well.

“He would not have come but for the festival, and but for the tent. If it had been a concert hall, he would never have come,” Siemon said.

Siemon also sees the festival as a way to forestall what he describes as a “lack of humanity in our popular culture … (which) has anesthetized many, many children, who are now reaching adulthood, to those fundamental principles of humanity that have gotten us through the first 10,000 years of our existence.

“I speak frequently before the city of Boca Raton, and suggest to them that it’s far more important that our children benefit from the wisdom of the ages, from the arts and the humanities, than they learn how to kick a soccer ball,” he said, adding that Boca Raton has been a good supporter of the festival, providing cash as well as fire and police protection.

And the Centre for the Arts “certainly didn’t start this to be anything but an enduring legacy.”

One Boca Raton city official said the festival already has begun to make its mark, and some of that is showing up through the national marketing made on behalf of the event.

“I happen to have contacts in the arts in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and they have remarked to me, ‘You guys are really coming of age,’” said Assistant City Manager George Brown. “The festival is earning the recognition it deserves and that is helping identify the city as a place of culture.”

Brown said he’s enjoyed his visits to the festival.

“The level of quality is extremely high,” he said, singling out in particular the Russian National Orchestra. “I have heard all the world’s major orchestras, and I would put them in the top 10.”

Force, the marketing director, said while this has been a year of contraction for the festival, the Centre for the Arts is planning a much broader focus for the future. “We want to be a festival of all the arts,” she said, including adding visual arts, theater and dance.

Brown, whose city is contributing $125,000 to the festival this year, said that sounds like a promising idea.

“The city would probably support diversification at the venue,” he said. “It would be great to have expanded opportunities.”

Siemon said in the future the festival also hopes to have a naming sponsor, though this year turned out to be “absolutely the wrong year for that.”

But in the short run, everything for this year looks good.

“I think it’s going to be a fabulous festival,” he said.

A view of the Count de Hoernle Amphiteater and tent
during the 2008 Festival of the Arts Boca.

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