Michelle Schumann works to keep the Austin Chamber Musical Festival fresh
"There's a reason they call it the seven-year itch," says Michelle Schumann, laughing. Having run the Austin Chamber Music Festival since 2007, the award-winning pianist really feels the rhythm and routine of the summer concert series now, and it has her wondering if the choices she made when she became the Austin Chamber Music Center artistic director are as stimulating, as surprising, as novel as they once were. Is she still offering a sense of "That was unexpected," or has the event settled onto the cozy couch of predictability? "How," she asks, "do you keep a festival fresh?"
It's a valid question, one that's increasingly relevant as more and more festivals take root in our city and develop into institutions. That Schumann is asking it shows a real sensitivity to both the larger creative landscape and the need to keep her part of it fertile – and to be clear, it doesn't spring from Schumann feeling any less enthused about ACMF. She's as animated over the 2014 lineup as any in her tenure. "It is the best of the best," she says, "the Emerson String Quartet; Richard Stoltzman, who is arguably the greatest clarinetist in the world; Raul Jaurena, who Astor Piazzolla called the greatest bandoneonist ever; Sara Sant'Ambrogio from the Eroica Piano Trio. For me, it's impressive to look at the roster and to see how fantastic these artists are and to have that compressed into a short time in Austin is always terrifically exciting for me. But the thing is, how can I be excited? I mean, I am excited every year, but how do you keep saying, 'I'm so excited' without it sounding like that's just the tagline? It's not disingenuous, but how can you be excited again and again and again with these new experiences which seem similar to experiences that we've had? Honestly, it's sort of a struggle in that way."
That struggle to find new ways to express her own exhilaration over the fest she runs – which, if you think about it, is a wonderful problem to have – shows the extent to which Schumann is a victim of her own success. As she tells it, "When I took over the festival, I made a massive change. Before, there was a sense that it was always very good, but ACMC always brought in friends of the festival – not a lot of big touring artists. That's not a bad thing, but since we did a lot of that during the year, in the summertime I really wanted to get the blockbusters. But at the time, honestly we didn't have as much access to the blockbusters, either through not having the personal relationships or the funding or even the guts: 'Oh, that group's never gonna want to come here.' I think about a group like the Emerson Quartet: I did not have the guts to reach out to them to see if they would play the Austin Chamber Music Festival. Now, the festival has grown in presence and in reputation nationally so that when I make an ask, there is no pushback at all anymore. So there are artists like the Emerson Quartet who are just the best of the best who I never thought would come here. Five years ago, it just wouldn't have been a possibility. And people like Richard Stoltzman. Three years ago, when I invited him, I was like, 'Should I really invite a clarinetist like that? Even if we can afford him, is he going to want to play with me?' And he comes, and we have this great experience together. And inviting him back, it's just so easy, you know? You can count on it: You can count on a great experience and a great show."
But counting on it doesn't mean you get a rerun of the previous concert. Part of what has artists of Stoltzman's caliber wanting to return is that Schumann doesn't have them repeat themselves. She'll offer new experiences: "For instance, this year Richard is playing with his wife, so it's clarinet and marimba, which is totally bizarre, but they have this incredible energy together. It feels like you're watching them in their bedroom or something, but they're playing music together in this amazing way."
So even if the lineup looks similar to an earlier one, it won't be the same-old, same-old. Schumann may have familiar players change partners or program two ensembles of different sensibilities, as with the Calder and Emerson string quartets this year. The latter boasts a precision and musical insight borne of 40 years playing chamber music as a group. The former is a fiery younger quartet with as much interest in new work as in the standard repertoire. Hearing them is hearing how remarkably different a couple of string quartets can be.
For Schumann, the evolving nature of the lineup is one of ACMF's great strengths. "Our possibilities of who we can invite, who's going to say yes, who's going to be excited to be here, who's going to tell everyone else that they're coming to our festival, that grows every year. And that's what's" – here's that word again – "exciting for me. Again, could I have envisioned this lineup five years ago? No. I don't think I could've dreamed it at all. And I don't want to know what it's going to be in two years. I want that to bubble up inside me and find its way, organically or through inspiration. I tend to miss deadlines a lot because I wait for inspiration. And that's important because part of our jobs tend to become easy. Can I program concerts? I can do that lickety-split. If I do it quick and meet that deadline someone else has created for me, it's usually an okay program. If I wait, though, I'll throw away everything that was and something magical will happen. You have to be willing to throw away that first try. That happens to me often, and it only gets scary when I'm not willing to throw away that first try."
Schumann may be feeling an urge to scratch some part of this festival she's been running for so long, but anybody who's willing to toss aside a solid plan in favor of a spark of inspiration, who's so intent on providing new experiences for her artists and audiences, who can't stop being, you know, excited about what she's doing doesn't really need to worry about keeping things fresh. That part's in the bag.
The Austin Chamber Music Festival runs July 10-27. For a full schedule, visit www.austinchambermusic.org.