The Festival at Sandpoint finished its 1995 season recently. Perhaps T-shirts with “I Survived ‘95” might make appropriate gifts for the festival’s staff and management.
Triskaidecaphobia - an irrational fear of the number 13 - is not a disorder music festival leaders would readily confess to. But The Festival at Sandpoint’s 13th season must have given its leaders a superstitious shudder or two, what with weather woes, moving one major concert indoors and important stars canceling. And tallying the balance sheet surely must be causing them some hard thinking about the festival’s future.
It is a future worth thinking hard about, because this festival is something special. It provides high-quality performances, it has a highminded mission, and it gives people a good reason to make a small town in North Idaho a cultural destination.
When The Festival at Sandpoint started in 1983, it consisted of three concerts by the Spokane Symphony at Memorial Field. In 1985, Gunther Schuller, one of the great names in music and a veteran of 10 years at the Tanglewood Festival, was named artistic director at the Sandpoint Festival. By its fourth season in 1986, the festival had grown to 20 concerts of symphonic and chamber music. It survived a traumatic financial crisis.
The festival not only presents concerts. In 1986, it created the Schweitzer Institute of Music where young professional musicians came to work with world-famous teachers in conducting, chamber music and composition. And in 1988, the Schweitzer Institute added a program for jazz musicians.
Now The Festival at Sandpoint stands at a crossroads.
The specially designed tent, which has served as the festival’s symbol for 10 years, is past due for retirement.
The festival’s neighbors complain about the noise and traffic congestion. Sandpoint and Bonner County officials seem entirely willing to throw the festival out of Memorial Field, the only venue in Sandpoint large enough to hold the concert crowds. Attendance at classical concerts has undergone a deep erosion with some fans deploring the decrease in weekend symphony and chamber music performances.
Has the excitement worn off The Festival at Sandpoint?
After 13 years, the festival no longer has the aura of novelty. Sandpointers have come to take the festival audiences and their money for granted. And after 13 years, the festival has not yet developed a clearly defined personality of its own, either. Pop, rock, country and western, blues, bluegrass, classics and serious jazz jostle with each other for audience attraction.
Beginning in the ‘90s, the festival turned more of its attention to presenting an increasingly wide variety of popular entertainment. Names like Mason Williams, Tony Bennett, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson were featured in festival advertising with classical and jazz concerts standing quietly on the side.
Despite Gunther Schuller’s wide-ranging interest in all kinds of music, one began to detect a gap between the lofty idealism of the festival’s cultural/educational mission and the appeal of the cash generated by popular entertainment presentations.
I suspect, however, the festival will not be able to compete for an audience in the pop, rock and country and western market with The Gorge, with Silver Mountain and with the new Spokane Arena.
This might be an ideal time for the festival to devote more attention to what it does best: Concentrate its presentation on classical music and jazz. The festival could then romance the audience for these types of music more openly. Here, The Festival at Sandpoint has the field to itself.
The past two summers have seen a few festival concerts taken to Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Spokane. The festival should do more of that. But tickets should be priced reasonably. Festival ticket pricing with varied prices for different events is a nightmare, anyway. A $16 ticket for the chamber music and jazz programs at The Met seemed far too high to attract an audience.
The quality and variety of symphonic programming at Sandpoint is high and the performances often excellent. But those performances are often hard to enjoy because of the noise of traffic and trains and unpredictable weather. The festival needs to find a place where an all-weather structure can be built that will afford protection for both musicians and audiences.
Some of the best music-making occurs at the chamber music programs where new music can be heard along with established classics. The festival should again schedule Sunday brunch programs of chamber music. Until this year, they were a festival trademark.
The Festival at Sandpoint offers something even more important to musicians and people who love great music-making: Gunther Schuller. His knowledge as a musician and teacher make many Spokane Symphony musicians crave the opportunity to work with him.
Schuller’s conducting of symphonic classics and challenging new music is always one of the festival’s glories. Those performances deserve better preparation. A more acoustically satisfying performance venue, one without the distractions of noise and the blur of amplification will, in fact, demand better preparation.
With each orchestral rehearsal costing about as much as a good used car, the festival ought to pursue corporate grants for extra rehearsal time. This would benefit not only Schuller’s own performances but also those of the Schweitzer Institute conductors, and it would provide for reading sessions for new orchestral music by Institute composers.
Sandpoint has a lot going for it. The area has a breathtaking scenic beauty, nearby mountains and lakes offer potential audience members opportunity for recreation, and (something really important to me) the town has several excellent restaurants.
The Festival at Sandpoint deserves a long, happy life, all the support we can give it and a run of good weather. But it’s up to the festival organizers to make the choices that will give their event the success its ideals merit.