Organizers of Three Recent Arts Festivals Pass on Lessons Learned

Daniel Johnson & Wendy Brockett,

Mid-Winter Festival of Music

If the phrase "early music" suggests to you the noise from your clock radio when it jolts you awake in the morning, then you're part of the target audience for the Texas Early Music Project's Mid-Winter Festival of Music. Before launching the event two years ago, project artistic director Daniel Johnson and administrative coordinator Wendy Brockett knew that their chosen form of music wasn't quite familiar to John and Jane Q. Public. "We wanted to raise the public awareness of what was meant by the term 'early music,'" say the two, "that it actually entailed music from more than seven centuries -- and that this music is accessible to us in emotional and intellectual and spiritual connections. We wanted to raise the public awareness that quality period performances of early music were available in our community on a much bigger scale, that people didn't have to go elsewhere to hear this important and increasingly popular music. When we looked at all the people and types of music we wanted to include, a multiple-concert festival became the obvious vehicle."

Although both Texas Early Music Project (TEMP) and the UT Early Music Ensemble (EME) had been presenting concerts locally for years, Johnson wanted the new festival to represent "early music" in a new and distinctive way. "Our regular EME/TEMP performances, while they have a theme, are more of a survey," he says. The Mid-Winter Festival concerts would be much more specific in genre. "In a festival, entire programs can be devoted to Schubert songs or Hildegard chants or 17th-century Italian violin repertoire." Some of those programs might feature professionals in the field brought in from other parts of the country, a move that benefits the audience obviously, but also, Johnson says, "raises the bar artistically and inspires/mentors the local performers in much the same way that adding local professionals from TEMP inspires/mentors EME students."

Murphy's Law being a given where festivals are concerned, Johnson and Brockett knew that their carefully laid plans would inevitably suffer a few disruptions: "Acts of God, mostly ... bad weather, allergies, illness. Also, the inevitable scheduling conflicts, both for performers and other 'competing' concerts, though we did our best to minimize this by not going up against Austin Lyric Opera or the Austin Symphony. Also, it was very hard to 'guesstimate' the audience numbers, so budgeting issues were a worry. On the whole, though, we were 'innocent' enough not to expect anything to go wrong." And very little did, as it turned out. "The first festival," they say, "we had beginners' luck -- not too many unpleasant surprises except illnesses.

But if Fate smiled on the Mid-Winter Festival's debut season, it showed more of a frown the sophomore go-round. "This year," says Brockett, "everything seemed more problematic." Scheduling got tighter, personnel got spread a little thinner, and overall things just seemed a little more, as Brockett says, "intense." Probably the single factor contributing most to the complications of the second festival was the presence of a full-scale Baroque opera in the lineup -- G.F. Handel's Alcina, produced by UT Opera Theatre. The first fest had featured a concert performance of an opera, but it required only a fraction of the resources necessary for a fully staged show. And while the work was being produced by the university, it still added considerably to the workload of the fledgling festival, a challenge that its artistic director was unable to help shoulder; he was over at Alcina rehearsals conducting the TEMP Baroque Orchestra, which was accompanying the singers. "Though we knew that Danny would be involved with Alcina on a daily basis from the middle of January until March, we hadn't anticipated that impact on the delegation of other festival responsiblities," recalls Brockett. "And in general, we also didn't realize that scheduling a second opera would make the rest of the Festival programming more compressed and therefore very intense."

Despite the heightened intensity, however, Brockett and Johnson consider the second Mid-Winter Festival a success that built upon the first: "The administrative side of the Festival is totally volunteer and extraordinarily dedicated; the performers were patient, professional, and helpful beyond the call of duty. We improved attendance and saw a lot of new faces added to the 'regulars.' And we kept getting new subscribers who visited our Web site all the way through the end of the festival."

With a second festival under their belts, what are the lessons Johnson and Brockett have learned about this peculiar enterprise? "Have patience, perseverance, a sense of humor, willingness to work through the obstacles, try to be very organized, maintain personal balance, have a dedicated group of helpers, and keep your eye on the prize -- always reminding yourself why you are doing this in the first place. Putting on a festival is not for the faint of heart! Do remember: Don't panic and do have fun and do enjoy the company of your colleagues. In 60 years, we'll be sitting out on the porch remembering the 'good old days' of the TEMP Festivals and we'll be wishing we could still be doing them."

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