Friday, May 21, 2010

Water music

The New York Times’ Allan Kozinn profiles Bargemusic, the floating venue under the Brooklyn Bridge that is home to a thriving, increasingly multi-stylistic concert scene:

The Bargemusic story is another reminder that, in the arts as much as in retailing and home-buying, location matters. And it leads me to wonder whether Richmond's performing-arts groups will ever find a useable venue within sight of the city's most obvious scenic asset: the James River.

For all the property development along the James in recent years, I’m not aware of any that includes, or might accommodate, an indoor or semi-enclosed space in which classical music, dance or theater could be staged for an audience of 500 people, let alone 1,000 or more.

There's plenty of music along the James. The Richmond Folk Festival, staged each fall around Gamble’s Hill and Brown’s Island, draws the largest crowds of any musical event in the city’s history. Pop-music concerts regularly play to thousands on Brown’s and Mayo islands.

But those are outdoor, amplified events on impermanent stages; their spaces and their atmospherics aren't welcoming to Mozart or Shakespeare or Ballanchine. And since they aren't, and since warm weather draws people out of confined spaces such as theaters, Richmond's high-end performing-arts scene more or less shuts down from late May until mid-September.

It may be that Greater Richmond, which according to a recent Brookings Institution study has a population of more than 1.2 million, cannot muster a year-round audience for classical music, ballet and serious theater. But really now, do their audiences scatter to summer homes and resorts for three months out of the year? They're more affluent than the population at large, but not that affluent. They're here for most of the summer.

And if the art forms that those audiences patronize in the winter were accessible in the summer, in spaces and with repertory that suit the season, I think they would turn out.

There aren't many models for fine-arts performance in and around Richmond in summertime, but the few we can look at – the chamber music and jazz series formerly staged at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center, the Richmond Chamber Players' Interlude series, Richmond Shakespeare's performances at Agecroft Hall, the chamber-music festivals at Hampden-Sydney and in Fredericksburg – suggest that a summer audience is not necessarily averse to substantive or challenging programming. (The Chamber Players played Bartók's Sonata for two pianos and percussion to a standing-room-only audience last summer, and Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" has proved to be a crowd-pleaser at Hampden-Sydney.)

I suspect that lighter repertory – a Mozart serenade, not a Mozart Requiem; a "Midsummer Night’s Dream," not a "King Lear" – generally would sit better with a summertime audience. But I could imagine a Mahler First or Bruckner Fourth or Copland Third with the falls of the James as a backdrop, or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" or Michael Daugherty's "Metropolis" Symphony with the downtown skyline in view, playing to delighted and diverse crowds.

If only there were a place to draw such crowds.