Taking a summer festival apart: Colorado Music Festival

Home hosts and more than 125 visiting artists add to the complications

By Peter Alexander May 10 at 1:40 p.m.

Putting together a six-week festival of concerts is complicated. So is taking one apart.

In the case of the Colorado Music Festival, which recently joined summer festivals worldwide in announcing the cancellation of the 2020 season, that decision came down to an issue of safety.

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Elizabeth McGuire

“In terms of social distancing backstage at Chautauqua, it’s very tight,” says Elizabeth McGuire, the executive director of CMF. “That’s part of what’s charming about Chautauqua, it’s not a traditional concert hall. The musicians are standing outside, but when you’re inside you’re inches from each other.

“Even with our chamber orchestras, even with the smallest version of the orchestra that we could present, we couldn’t space people apart.”

The audience is an important consideration, too. “Our audience is typically over the age of 65,” McGuire says. “We thought [if we held concerts] we were putting them at risk.”

She also pointed out the difference between a resident orchestra and a festival orchestra. “You’re bringing in probably 125 artists—orchestra musicians and guest artists,” McGuire says. “They’re coming from all over north America, a couple form Europe. Guest artists, depending on their contract, are either housed with a local host, or they’re in a hotel. Orchestra musicians are mixed between host homes and one apartment complex that houses up to 75 musicians that come and go during the summer.

“The proximity of our housing hosts to people coming in from outside” was definitely a concern she says. “It got to the point that we realized that it just wouldn’t be possible to do [the festival] safely. Not with what we know today, and assuming that not much was going to change between now and the last week of June, so far as vaccines or treatments.”

The timing of the decision and announcement of the cancellation was based largely on one issue: tickets. “It was mostly administrative and how much time did we need to sell this number of tickets” if the festival went ahead, McGuire explained.

“A couple of our marketing contracts were going to come to fruition on May 1. We could have canceled them and then like re-upped them two weeks later if we wanted to have the festival. The contracts with the players didn’t have that kind of timeline.

“We considered all of that in our timing, but the health and safety piece was much more in the forefront. We didn’t think [going ahead with the season] was the right thing to do.”

This year’s cancellation will inevitably affect future programming, but it’s too soon to know how. “There are so many artists that we want to invite back,” McGuire says. “The first thing that’s happening is that we’re trying to re-engage people. It may not work out with everyone’s schedule, because the musicians that we’re bringing in are booked out years in advance. I think you’ll probably see them at some point in the coming years.

“What remains to be seen is what the repertoire will be. There may be some duplications, but not every artist is going to have the same repertoire ready to go next summer. A violinist might have the repertoire under his fingers this summer, because he’s playing it in a few other places in the world, and then next year is a different story.”

There was one way that McGuire and the CMF staff was ahead of the game when the Coronavirus struck: They were already moving to do more work from home. “We have our network set up to offer remote access to our shared files,” she says.

“Our office space is limited, and we have a couple of people who share desk space. A lot of people were able to focus on certain kinds of tasks at home, and so we had already adopted a modern philosophy on work hours. We think about productivity and result. We have a lot of conversations, so on the virtual work front we were prepared.”

online-piano-lessons-1The other side of the CMF organization is the Center for Musical Arts, the music school in Lafayette that merged with the festival several years ago. Coincidentally, they had already started offering online lessons.

“We had people who wanted makeup lessons—parents like me. My child was available for a lesson, but I couldn’t get him there physically. I wanted to be able to offer people the option to have an online makeup lesson We did not see [the pandemic] coming, of course, but we responded quickly.”

McGuire has one more thing she wants to say. Many of the CMF patrons who already bought tickets for the 2020 festival have willingly donated the value of their tickets back to the CMF musician fund. While not everyone can afford to make that donation, McGuire is grateful to those who can.

“Our festival musicians and some of our season staff have been hit very, very hard,” she says. “I appreciate that people are, to the extent that they are capable, willing to donate back their tickets for the musician fund.

“I would just say how much I appreciate their thoughtfulness.”

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Colorado Music Festival Orchestra on the crowded Chautauqua stage

COMING NEXT: Pelham (Pat) Pearce on the cancellation of the Central City Opera season.