pianoSonoma, a Unique Music Festival in the Sonoma Wine Country

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A chamber music session at pianoSonoma

A chamber music session at pianoSonoma

pianoSonoma Music Festival
Michael and Jessica Chow Shinn, Co-Founders and Co-Directors

Session 1: Sunday, July 26 – Saturday, August 1, 2015
Session II: Sunday, August 2 – Saturday, August 8, 2015

To apply, click here. (DEADLINE for 2015 December 1, 2014)

I have just recently learned about a different kind of music festival, pianoSonoma, which convenes annually in late July and early August at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, under the benevolent guidance of Co-Founders and Co-Directors Michael and Jessica Chow Shinn, both faculty members at the Juilliard School.

Jessica and Michael Shinn

Jessica and Michael Shinn

People attend music festivals for different reasons, most of which are passive, unless they happen to be Tanglewood Music Center Fellows or “young professionals” at Marlboro. They go as members of the audience to hear star musicians they would not normally find in their area, or they like to continue their experiences at Carnegie or Davies Hall in some pleasant rural setting suitable for a summer holiday. Their active participation is usually limited to laying out a picnic, consuming it, a listless read of tedious program notes, uncritical applause, and coping with post-concert congestion in the parking lots, especially after a manifestation of Lang Lang or Yo-Yo Ma.

pianoSonoma is built on a different model, an active one comprising two halves: serious, generally amateur, adult musicians and young professionals launching their careers as Artists in Residence, who would be TMC Fellows or the equivalent elsewhere. Juilliard faculty members provide formal instruction for the serious adults and mentorship for the Artists in Residence. According to pianoSonoma’s statement, the festival is “dedicated to providing a unique forum for emerging Artists in Residence to interact with serious adult musicians through concerts, chamber music rehearsals, classes and community engagements. By helping to educate festival participants in the arts of musicianship and performance, Artists in Residence, mostly recent graduates of Juilliard, develop leadership and communication skills, while gaining valuable teaching experience. Through this intersection of musicians and their collaborations in community concerts, we also create new audience awareness and appreciation of classical music.”

At Gemstone Vineyard, flutist Emi Ferguson presiding

At Gemstone Vineyard, flutist Emi Ferguson presiding

There is also fellowship and fun, revolving around the music everyone is playing and the Sonoma Valley’s own contribution to civilization, the excellent wine produced there. Concerts take place both at the Music Center and at an outstanding boutique winery, Gemstone Vineyard. If the Shinns were to call their enterprise a workshop, it might seem less unique, but the word festival is more than justified by the festive atmosphere, which I recently experienced at one of their periodic reunions. Above playing music is not something to be pursued in isolation, but together, and chamber music is where everything is headed.

A middle ground of sorts between pianoSonoma and traditional music festivals is occupied by the Bard Music Festival, where audiences are stimulated to intellectual activity about music by lectures and panel discussions, mostly by musicologists and other academics. It is equally valid that music-lovers benefit from knowing something about the circumstances of music, on the assumption that composers tended not to live in a vacuum. Beethoven is documented as having bored at least one nobleman to death with his talk about politics. It occurred to me during this year’s festival, devoted to Franz Schubert and his world, that the Schubertiade played by professionals on stage might have benefitted from some judiciously considered audience participation. Now I can see the Shinns surreptitiously collecting participants from the crowd at Bard during a break and hustling them off to a pop-up pianoSonoma session in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Fisher Center. The Hudson Valley wine served at Bard, however, can’t compete with Sonoma, although it’s not bad, especially the Millbrook cabernet franc.

And at the Boston Early Music Festival, there is a wealth of master classes for students and professionals, even viola da gamba “petting zoos,” and the early music movement in general is rich in highly skilled amateurs, just like the old days, but again much of the socializing occurs at the Pizzeria Uno on Commonwealth Ave. where the wine list is, to put it kindly, utilitarian.

Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, Sonoma State University

Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, Sonoma State University

Apart from my own experience with Michael Shinn’s teaching through a class at Juilliard Evening Division, I was excited by the Festival’s mission because it addresses precisely the crucial problem in classical music today: building and educating audiences. It is not as if the tradition of art music were about to die out at any time we can envision today. The alarms about the death of classical music are nothing but journalistic attention-grabbers. I can’t remember a concert I have attended that wasn’t well-attended, sold out, or close to it, although it is true that there is no Van Cliburn to fill Tanglewood’s vast Music Shed and Lawn anymore, and they must rely on the likes of Diana Krall and James Taylor, and the Metropolitan Opera has its own, largely self-inflicted problems. At many concerts one sees a lot of grey heads, canes, and walkers, but at others the audiences are mixed in age, at some even youthful. Audiences show little sign of dying out, but we can be concerned about the relationship between those audiences and music, given the decline of classical music radio and the record business, but most of all in the funding for music instruction in high schools, which has traditionally provided an important platform for the democratic appreciation of classical music. Students could learn read music and play an instrument, play in the band or orchestra, all together in the company of their peers. There is a vast cultural difference between that and expensive private music lessons, and the feeling that the enjoyment of music consists of going to a concert hall to be present, passively, at the performance of some highly publicized musician.

Like many performing musicians, Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, is not terribly concerned about the future. Because certain sectors of our population, notably Asian-Americans and Russian-Americans, value playing an instrument as part of basic education, or the discipline of growing up, many Americans are in fact studying instruments and continuing in college, often reaching impressive, professional-level skills, far more than can ever support themselves through music. These people will become the lawyers and doctors of the future, as well as the ticket-buyers—the most informed audience in over a century. We could anticipate something like the relationship of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to their audiences—of which the core were accomplished amateur musicians, learned in music if not virtuosi. Some of these amateurs were as strong as the professionals, like Count Ferdinand Troyer, an outstanding clarinettist, who commissioned Schubert’s Octet in 1824. This had a profound influence on the way music was written and how it was performed. Dr. Botstein blames the decline of this on Richard Wagner, above all, but there was also Beethoven, who wrote string quartets that could only be performed by professionals, the growth of the symphony orchestra and its dedicated halls, and public concerts by professionals, who, along with jaw-dropping virtuosity, brought a powerful mystique to the stage, making music even more inaccessible, Clara Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt. This is indeed a process of dumbing-down.

While Dr. Botstein’s audience of the future is battling its way from college, university, or conservatory through business, law, or medical school, older music-lovers are the heirs of this passive late-nineteenth century culture, further narrowed, by radio, television, and recordings. Many have had some music instruction and let it go, as I have myself, and there is a distance to go before they can enjoy what they once worked for. Extension programs like Juilliard’s and others make it possible for those people to move forward.

There is an old cliché about music being something that floats in the air, free for all to enjoy, since Orpheus charmed the wild beasts with his lyre, but the fact is that classical music, or better, art music, is complex, and the more one understands, the more one can enjoy it, rather like a very fine wine. I’ll leave it there, merely pointing out that the learning curve may be somewhat steeper in music, but that the Shinns have been wise in their matchmaking.

To apply, click here. (DEADLINE for 2015 December 1, 2014)


Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, Sonoma State University

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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