Classical music is loved, celebrated and fostered at the Bowdoin International Music Festival
By Ramona du Houx and Morgan Rogers in Maine Insights
As the music from five students filled the air with Karen Tanaka’s Invisible Cure, a contemporary chamber music piece from Japan, everyone present at Bowdoin College was enthralled. The piece was performed with such bravado and intensity the audience gave the performers a standing ovation.
Festivalgoers at the Bowdoin International Music Festival (BIMF) never know what to expect from these inspired concerts, as the musicians are students from a summer camp where they are challenged on how to perform pieces. Often the summer training leads to unexpected discoveries and delights.
Maine has one of the most unique classical music festivals in the nation that draws talent from around the world. BIMF has been opening its doors every summer for 49 years. It is world renown for the talent it attracts both in students and teachers with collaborations from the New York Philharmonic, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and London’s Royal College.
“This just seems to be the best camp out of all of them. You get everything here. I’ve experienced festivals around the world and now I have one that does it all,” said Boris Abramov, a professional classical violinist who has been attending BIMF as a student for seven years. He was one of the inspired musicians performing Tanaka’s piece.
Abramov sat down after a rehearsal to explain why he truly loves to come to Bowdoin every summer.
“I get private lessons, personal coaching, lots of rehearsals, and to play in concerts. It is the best thing a musician can ask for,” said Abramov.
Boris is no stranger to music festivals or performing. He has been studying the violin since he was seven. Originally from Azerbaijan, Abramov moved to Israel at a young age and studied with Stella Zlatkovsky. He has played with the Jerusalem Chamber Orchestra and has recorded a CD.
He left for the United States to study music when he was just seventeen. Now 24 he continues his passion for studying violin. He’s currently in the Master’s Degree program for music performance at the Schwob School of Music, at Columbus State University in Georgia.
“A lot of festivals cannot offer what is being offered here,” said Abramov. “If we do the work then we get as many times to perform as we want. Here you get what you put into it.”
The work Abroamov described was hours upon hours of independent study and then more time spent practicing with fellow musicians to perfect a piece. If at any point a musician doesn’t wish to take the stage they aren’t forced to. But more often than not they do, as they don’t want to let down their fellow musicians.
A key difference between other music festivals and this festival is the focus on the synergy through chamber music and independent study.
The schedule of when a student will perform is up to the student, which is also unique to music camps. Their advisor-coach will encourage them to take the stage and sign up for a concert hall time but in no way tells them they have to perform. The process builds greater responsibility and confidence. It also gives the performers a longer lasting sense of accomplishment. Solo performances often take students time to work up to and during the last two weeks the concert halls are booked solid as the students come forward one by one to perform.
“A lot of festivals are based on competitive environments where students jockey for a better positions. There’s a lot of pressure put on students in that kind of atmosphere. This festival is deliberately more collaborative in nature,” said Kippy Rudy, the Development Officer of BIMF. “It really helps students build character and confidence by letting them make choices of when to perform and whom to perform with.”
For, the enthusiastic Rudy, classical music is a living, breathing art form with a great future she sees being formed at BIMF.
“I think too often as a society we view classical music as a historic piece. This festival’s approach is that classical music is still a living evolving art form,” said Rudy.
A portion of the festival, called the Gamper Festival, is dedicated to contemporary classical music. This season’s Gamper Festival by had one concert devoted to each continent.
One particular piece called “Table Music” kept the audience in rapt attention. It consisted of students sitting at adjoining desks connected by a sensitive sound system to catch the slightest note produced by touching the surface of the desk. These students were able to create a symphony of sounds through the way they ran their hands across the wooden surface.
“We devote three nights to contemporary work. That is really unparalleled. It gives you an idea of something different going on here that you don’t see in other places,” said Rudy.
The full program is a six-week intensive chamber music study that focuses on collaborations and performances that bring together renowned artist instructors, performers, soloists, and gifted semi-professional classical musicians from around the world. During each season the community has the opportunity to view more than 100 concerts and public educational events, and the majority of them are free.
“The big difference between chamber music and orchestral music is that in an orchestra there is always a conductor. In opera, there is a conductor. In chamber music it is completely collaborative. No one person there is more important than the other,” explained Rudy at the impressive Studzyinsky Hall, the major concert theater on Bowdoin campus.
Formally the hall was a swimming pool in the 1920s. The building was redesigned into a 280 seat concert hall with state-of-the-art practice rooms. This space has seen some spectacular performances that are a testament to the talent at BIMF. Rudy recalled one such performance.
“In solo work we probably have other students here that have a little more technical mastery, but when these four students played a piece by Brahms they totally rocked it. If they had finished by smashing their cellos on the ground like rock stars I wouldn’t have been surprised,” said Rudy. “I didn’t know anyone could do that to Brahms. It is a rare delight to see any musicians enjoying themselves as much as those four did.”
Students at BIMF work hard all summer after an intensive acceptance process. BIMF only permits the best of the best from around the world to attend but it comes at a price. Tuition for a conservatory, school of music, or a festival like BIMF is very expensive and many students must rely on loans, scholarships or sponsors.
“A good student can be spending between $45,000 and $60,000 a year on tuition, room and board, and materials in order to attend a conservatory or a school of music,” said Jim Morgan, Chairman of the Board at BIMF.
Morgan said that it is important to provide scholarships because it allows talented students to attend who would have no other way of paying the tuition. The more aid available the more talented students from various countries apply for BIMF.
“We give out an enormous amount of financial aid. About 62 percent of our kids get some sort of assistance to be here and for some we give them full scholarships,” said Rudy.
Along with financial aid many community members sponsor students, like Morgan does.
“I do it because it gives me great personal pleasure,” said Morgan. “I love talking to them about where they are from, what they are reading, what they are thinking, or why they choose a particular instrument. Most of all I want to discover why they want to perform because the majority of them know they are not on the road to riches.”
But some do become world-renowned professionals with classical music careers after attending the festival.
BIMF’s focus on creating a music festival that relies on collaboration and independent study, while bringing in community involvement was and remains the vision of Lewis Kaplan, who founded the festival with the late Robert K. Beckwith in 1964. Kaplan will be leaving after the 50th anniversary in 2014, but will continue to provide support to BIMF.
“He has really set the tone at this festival and we don’t want to change that. Of course a new artistic director is going to come in and they will make their own mark,” said Rudy. “I think there is great sensitivity and awareness that what we are doing is ensuring a legacy while building a future.”
BIMF is building a future for classical music by ushering in a new talented generation of musicians.
“By the time summer is over I’m feeling pretty good about the future of classical music, about the upcoming generations, about all the good things that happen when people come together to hear something that is wonderful and they share that experience,” said Morgan. “Music is the universal language that brings us together and gives us a way of understanding each other. It’s tremendous being able to have that opportunity here in Maine.”