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Russian River Chamber Music Faces Uncertain Future

Posted by: on Jun 16, 2010 | Comments (0)

Bad News from the Bad Economy Files: Russian River Chamber Music, which for 18 years has done an excellent job of presenting mostly free classical music concerts, is being forced to consider either canceling their upcoming 2010-2011 season or “significantly curtailing” their activities.

“I’ve got these artist contracts on my desk right now,” RRCM artistic director Gary McLaughlin said this morning, “but I’m unsure if I can sign them.”

I know times are tough for everybody, and every classical-music organization knows what McLaughlin is talking about. And yet when I first heard about Russian River Chamber Music by stumbling into a concert at the Raven Theater by Ethel, I knew they were a special case—all of their concerts were absolutely free to the public.

“It counters that old elitist image of chamber music,” McLaughlin told me for a Bohemian article in 2008 of their free admission policy. “It makes it so it’s not just for wealthy people or snooty people. With the economy going the way it is, it becomes even more attractive. We have wine and food receptions after every concert, and the artists come, and people can actually talk to the artists—and that’s all free, too! So, it’s a cheap date. No tickets, free wine. What’s not to like?”

I agree. Last year, the group experimented with charging admission, but found that ticket sales were “definitely in the ballpark” of the previous season’s donations. That’s a good sign there’s plenty of voluntary support for free chamber concerts from world-class traveling quartets visiting Sonoma County. In fact, McLaughlin says the five-member board is seriously considering making concerts free again, with the benefit of exposure to larger audiences who might not otherwise hear chamber music.

But some key backers have curtailed their financial support, and the future is uncertain.

“Everyone’s making very painful cuts, and for the next year or two, I don’t think things are going to change a lot,” McLaughlin says. “How do you weather this and stay in the game? Or do you just close your doors and call it quits? I’m not ready to do that. I didn’t put 18 years of my life into it just to see it do that.”

It’d be especially sad, since the upcoming season would focus on music and literature. Scheduled programs include a song cycle by three Bay Area composers based on the poetry of Gary Snyder, as well as the Cypress String Quartet’s performance of an author-approved composition based on Anne Patchett’s bestseller Bel Canto. As ever, the string quartets would visit area schools for free educational programs for kids—last year, the visiting groups from Shanghai, Paris and Tel Aviv all played to packed schoolrooms.

How can you help make it work? Right now,  Russian River Chamber Music could use any support, whether in the form of financial donations or in the form of energetic souls who can offer fresh ideas and help “save the ship,” as McLaughlin says. You can email him here, or call 707.524.8700.

Believe me, it’s a ship worth saving.

Aye, I Must Capitalize Eighth Blackbird

Posted by: on Apr 23, 2008 | Comments (0)

Which is a shame, really, since they’re one of the best damn classical groups in the country and yet they insist on being called.. . ugh. . . can’t do it. . .. eighth blackbird. For reasons too long to get into here, I’ll allow the privilege of decapitalization to fIREHOSE, but not to Eighth Blackbird; I will, however, say that they were great at the Healdsburg Community Church last week.

It takes a lot to get me inside a church on any day of the week—let alone a Sunday. I suppose some free Tanqueray and J.M. Rosen’s cheesecake at a party hosted by MF Doom with a Susan Hayward look-alike contest and the complete works of Joan Miró on display might do the trick. Either that, or a performance hosted by the fantastic Russian River Chamber Music Society, which for over 16 years has been presenting free chamber music performances in Sonoma County, taking a close second.

So after a visit to the Great Eastern Quicksilver Mine and a dip in the river at Camp Rose, I did the unthinkable and went to church. Eighth Blackbird was just starting, and I immediately realized I’d made the right choice. Their first piece was a wacky thing for violin, clarinet, and piano, and it was both painstakingly precise and yet totally off-the-cuff; the fourth movement, fittingly, was titled after an R. Crumb comic: “Cancel my rumba lesson!”

The next piece utilized a de-tuned viola growling like a UPS truck, and after that, a composition, “Musique de Tables,” was played completely by the rapping of hands, fingers, knuckles and arms upon a tabletop. “Coming Together” was a hilarious duo for cello and clarinet consisting entirely of glissandi, sounding, as introduced, like a conversation between two adults from the Peanuts television specials—the two players wandered around the room, “talking” to each other in a very convincing primal dialogue. And the final piece was pure insanity, another highly complex thing that left me wondering: how do they rehearse this stuff?

Here’s the deal with Eighth Blackbird. What they do, they could be hella pretensh about it, but they’re not; they laughed along with the crowd at the ridiculous moments, they concentrated along with the crowd at the complicated passages, and they came off as very personable and real. The next day I read a tepid review in the Chronicle about ‘em, which was too bad, because I couldn’t see anyone disliking them based on the Healdsburg show. [alas, they played a completely different program.]

Avant-garde music is usually the province of middle-aged intellectuals, but I’d wager to say that any 5-year old—or anyone with an open heart of any age—would easily be ecstatic with Eighth Blackbird. And to think that every composition they performed was written no earlier than 1987! Consider yourself lucky if you were there, and thanks to Gary McLaughlin and the RRCMS for booking ‘em.