The Miracle of the Parma Festival

In a world…where classical and popular music make few efforts to get along with one another–and where success in both idioms often lies within lines of least resistance–along comes the Parma Music Festival (held annually in Portsmouth, New Hampshire).

Contemporary music festivals rarely incorporate both classical and popular music.  In order to do so, venues have to be found which are friendly to both musics, as well as to variations on both which defy categorization.  In our neck of the woods–north of Boston–as in many other places, venues tend to segregate themselves along either classical or popular lines, rarely incorporating both; and even more rarely do they host both musics at the same time.   Apart from occasional composer concerts at concert halls, much of the performance that goes on in classical venues is “old-fashioned”, both in terms of the music performed  and with respect to the careers of the performers, most of whom have come up the “competition ladder” playing the old chestnuts.  And in venues known more for popular music–most of which are very noisy and require music performed at the 90+ decibel level–alternative pop acts are often snubbed, not to mention classical performers and composers.

As a “non-pop” (as composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz termed contemporary classical music) improvisational composer/performer who has not followed the traditional route for classical performers, I have noted that concert venues do not really understand my approach; and even quiet progressive places like bookstores and tea rooms usually do not get what I do. This is in stark contrast to online live performing–the venue to which I have largely had to resort to build my career so far–where my audiences have been very supportive in a way they could not be in the “real-world”.  IM’s, live chat, etc. during performances will someday leave real-world venues in the dust in terms of performance flexibility–but for the foreseeable future, musical careers will continue to rise and fall on the variable fortunes of “real-life” venue work.

Enter Bob Lord and Parma Recordings.  Known for his pioneering work not only in purchasing struggling classical labels like Capstone Records but also for bringing seemingly disparate musics together on the same label, Bob and Parma have succeeded now with two Festivals in making the latter paradigm work in the real as well as recorded worlds.

Case in point: my “compositional piano improvisations”, which lie somewhere between background and foreground music, need a venue where conversation during music is OK (and hopefully inspired by it),  but where a dedicated audience may also form if the music requires it.  I found such a venue at the Festival, a wonderful little theatre called the Music Hall Loft, where folks were partaking of breakfast in the other room for the first half, and coming into the theatre to listen for the second half–a natural progression, as it were. Other Festival performers had this opportunity as well: the amazing bass clarinetist Matthias Müller presented his fabulous otherworldly improvisations in Portsmouth’s Riverrun bookstore –another venue which encouraged simultaneous quiet talking and listening.  And following both of our concerts, gifted performers working in the popular vein presented their works.

Ah, for a 365-day-a-year version of the Parma Festival!  A place like the salons of old, where conversations, and performances drawn from both written and improvised music, fuel each other.

Liszt_at_the_Piano(Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano, by Josef Danhauser, a painting of Franz Liszt playing in a Parisian salon. The imagined gathering shows George Sand, Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini, and other artists and musicians of the era).

Copyright 2014 Gregory Hall