By Richard Knox
The clock is ticking on the future of the New Hampshire Music Festival.
A far-flung group of professional musicians who have played in the summer festival for years is aiming to raise at least $150,000 in the next few weeks to prevent the 70-year-old institution from going under.
The Music Festival has been an important part of cultural life in the Lakes Region for decades, offering classical music in concert halls and churches, on mountain tops and wooded glens, and even on barges floating in Squam Lake. But a January 27 announcement from the organization seemed to be a death knell for that tradition.
In an email to supporters, the board said there will be no 2023 season and the board “with great regret voted to close the Festival.” The average cost of a season in recent years has been about $650,000.
However, in the last year the organization’s debts ballooned to a level that left “no funds available to even contemplate planning for the future,” the board said. It blamed the situation on a 44 percent, pandemic-related decline in attendance and a 50 percent drop in donations.
Another factor, the board said, is the “rapidly escalating cost” of performance space and housing at Plymouth State University. The university has raised fees significantly over the past 10 years, from around $60,000 a year to $160,000, according to Festival officials.
“It was difficult to fathom the reasons of the university officials,” said Joel Johnson, who directed the Festival chorus from 1963 to 2013. PSU officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Management missteps also contributed to the crisis, according to insiders.
A substantial infusion of pandemic relief funds wasn’t enough to offset all the negatives.
Several dozen veteran players in the Festival orchestra and chamber groups, calling themselves the musicians’ “collective,” recently took over Festival management. They’ve planned a shortened, three-week season for July 10 through 28.
They put forward a varied offering of classical and contemporary music that includes two weeks of chamber orchestra concerts and a final week with full orchestra.
Paul Polivnick, the Festival’s esteemed music director until he retired last season, says he’s willing to return to conduct this summer – for free if necessary. “Money should not be any kind of consideration,” Polivnick said in an interview. “I’ll be there no matter what.”
Two anonymous donors have come forward to cover outstanding debt from the 2022 season. But to pull off this summer’s season the musicians must raise a substantial sum in a hurry.
Deadlines loom. Musicians must reserve the dates and sign contracts, a process usually completed in March. Venues must be arranged; the musicians say Plymouth State University has told them the Silver Center for the Arts, usually the principal venue for festival orchestra concerts, will be available. Housing for dozens of musicians and their families must be arranged – if not at PSU then in supporters’ homes.
The musicians have set an ambitious $200,000 fund-raising target, but if housing can be arranged outside PSU dormitories, the traditional arrangement, the needed amount may be substantially smaller.
Joe Higgins, a bass player who is co-chair of the musicians’ group, says they’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars. But even if the needed amount is $150,000, raising the remainder in the next few weeks is a daunting goal.
Higgins says the hope is to garner enough donations of $500 to $1,000 “so that when we go after much bigger donations we can say, ‘This is something ongoing you can be part of, it’s not just to bail us out.’ That’s a more positive and satisfying thing.”
The Festival’s dire financial position came as a surprise to the musicians and even to Polivnick and some board members.
This is not the first time the Music Festival has been on the brink of death. It faced funding and management crises in 1967 and again in 2009. “It rose from the ashes because of the community,” Polivnick said. “Its public has always stepped up.”
The next few weeks will tell whether the planned season, or something scaled back from that, will be possible.
Meanwhile, there’s been some turmoil within the Festival’s board. Last week [EDITORS: Thursday 3/16] three of the panel’s nine members resigned, in part over differences in the Festival’s current direction, communications and accountability.
Board chairman Phil Boulter of Moultonborough said in an interview that the resignations would have no impact on the Festival’s ability to mount a season this summer. He said the exact shape of that program – how big the orchestras will be and what they’ll perform – will depend on the strength of fund-raising.
“It’s a go,” Boulter said. “The musicians have raised enough money now to do some concerts. It’s looking better than I would have expected.” He said new board members will be brought on, some from the musicians’ group.
Insiders say it’s crucial to demonstrate that the Festival is viable this summer.
“You’ve got to get some combination of people talking about the future beyond 2023,” said Deborah Leonard Kosits, who was executive director of the Festival between 2013 and 2018. “They’ve got to have an artistic vision. I’m confident if people see how creative the musicians and board are being and what the future looks like, it will be worthy of investment.”
The Musicians of the NH Music Festival are at NHMFMusicians.org.
Richard Knox is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about the arts in New Hampshire. He has been a regular in the NH Music Festival Chorus. He lives in Sandwich.