JWC: My name is James Curtin, I’m here with Joshua Wilson, and we have the great pleasure of interviewing Valerie Stains on Tuesday, July 9th, about her relationship with the Dumbarton Oaks Friends of Music program over the years. Thank you for being here with us.
VS: It’s my great pleasure.
JWC: So, when did you first start working for Dumbarton Oaks? We have in the record that you started in the ’93-’94 year, but there’s also correspondence to you as the Music Advisor in ’89. Is that correct?
VS: Yes, I was actually engaged as the Music Advisor in October, officially – the letter came in October 1989. The season for ’89-’90 was already in place. I believe Robert Thomson was responsible for that, but then I took over after that, ’90-’91 and so on.
JWC: And when you first came here, what did you understand was the mission of the Friends of Music program in the past?
VS: Well, when I think about that, it’s very interesting in the sense that I came to Washington as a radio producer. I worked at National Public Radio for a long time, but I came initially as a Fellow, courtesy of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And because of that – many people, even here in Washington, don’t know about Dumbarton Oaks. And because I had dropped in from Mars essentially, which is Berkeley, California, I didn’t know that much about it. I’d heard of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto by Stravinsky, and I didn’t know that much about it. Consequently, the reason I even came to Dumbarton Oaks to interview for this position was that a message had been sent to NPR, National Public Radio, to find out if there was someone in their Performance Today classical music program department who would be interested or able to curate a concert series. And the person they approached had no idea how to do that and wasn’t interested in doing that. But I had just arrived, and he knew that I had been doing something akin to that in Seattle where I had been living. So, he said, “Go over and talk to them.” So, that’s what I did, not really being sure what I was getting into. I had no idea of the – how venerable this place was at the time. All I knew was that there was a nice concert series that was offered, and could I do it? And I interviewed with Angeliki Laiou, and I assured her that I could produce a stunning series for her, not really knowing if I could or not at that point. But, because, you know, my whole career has been steeped, well, in many things, but one of them is classical music and music in general, world music, that sort of thing, so I thought I could do a pretty good job.
JWC: You mentioned that the previous year Thomson had lined up all of the performers. Was there a reason for that? Was there a break between individuals who were in charge of the Friends of Music and he was filling in a gap, or –?
VS: Yes, I believe that was – again, I wasn’t terribly sure about any of this, but I’ve been learning the job for a very long time now, so I’m slowly, slowly – my appreciation for the whole place and everything, the wonderful history of it, has been growing steadily. I believe that Joan Southcote-Aston was the person who was in charge of the music before Mr. Thomson took over, but then she had an accident and was unable to continue in that position. And so I think he just filled in temporarily. That’s my understanding of it. I never had the pleasure of meeting Joan Southcote-Aston, although I’ve heard so many stories about her, and I don’t believe I’ve actually met Robert Thomson either. I may have just, you know, very briefly met him, but not ever in the context of talking about the music program. So, I’ve just been sort of taking it from scratch, essentially.
JWC: So, before you had come, there were a number of big-name performers who had come to the Music Room to give a performance. You had mentioned Leontyne Price, for example, before the recording started. What do you know about them through correspondence that you’ve been able to look over from the past, or what people have told you in conversation about those previous performers?
VS: Well, the most information I’ve received has come from a book that John Thacher put together – he wrote, he didn’t put it together. He wrote the book about performers at Dumbarton Oaks. I happen to have it here too. It’s kind of my Bible if I want to look into the history of Dumbarton Oaks music. What he says in the foreword to that book is that he had a friendship, or he ultimately developed a friendship, with Alexander “Sasha” Schneider and Ralph Kirkpatrick, who were notable musicians at the time. Schneider was a conductor and a violinist; Kirkpatrick, a harpsichordist. And he actually worked with them to develop the Friends of Music – I think I’m going in the wrong direction. What was your question exactly? Oh, the people who’ve performed here before, yes. And so, in his book, he does talk about just amazing performances by amazing musicians. It’s sort of like a Who’s Who of great performers of the first half of the twentieth century, Leontyne Price being one of them, and also Eileen Farrell, Jennie Tourel, Gérard Souzay – I don’t know if he’s as well known – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of them, Joan Sutherland. There are so many amazing singers, and then instrumentalists such as Rudolph Serkin and Leon Fleisher and Murray Perahia who are still, you know, very well known today; the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who’s the pioneer in bringing back harpsichord performance in the world, actually; and Gustav Leonhardt, who is sort of the grandfather of the new early music movement, historically informed performances. He played here also, and who else? And of course Ralph Kirkpatrick himself did, but he was sort of part of the Landowska old school, I think. We also had Christopher Hogwood, who was another one of the early music keyboard performers there. Leonard Rose, a very beautiful well-known cellist at the time, who was a wonderful teacher. He taught Lynn Harrell, who actually came here to perform several times on my watch. So, yes, those were – Pinchas Zukerman was another violinist, Charles Wadsworth, who for years ran the Spoleto USA Festival and was a very well-known pianist. I could just go on and on, and I would refer anyone who’s interested to this book. I don’t know if it’s generally available, but it certainly would be available to look at at Dumbarton Oaks.
JWC: Now, I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that a lot of those names that you mentioned, when they came to perform with Dumbarton Oaks, they weren’t the world-class celebrities at the time. They had yet to be discovered. Now what do you think makes that the case? What attracted these up-and-comers to Dumbarton Oaks? Did Joan Southcote-Aston just have a talent for seeing things in people that others didn’t at the time? or was there something about Dumbarton Oaks that attracted these types of people?
VS: Well, first of all, I don’t – I believe it was not Joan Southcote-Aston who was primarily responsible for these initial contacts. She arrived in the fifties, and I think it was Mr. Thacher who really had the contacts, because he was friends with Kirkpatrick and Schneider, and they were the ones who – they would, you know, get into a huddle and say, “What should we do for the next season?” and they were very enthusiastic about it. And of course they had wonderful connections. They knew a lot of people and invited the musicians, and so I think that’s how it got started, and it is true that so many of these people were well-known as excellent, excellent musicians but had not quite made their mark yet. They were rising musicians at the time.
JWC: And have you, I guess in your earlier years here – did you ever have a chance to meet any of these people? Did they ever come back?
VS: Well, the musicians themselves?
JWC: Any of these players in the early music phase.
VS: Well, I have not met any of the people associated with Dumbarton Oaks. I’ve heard Ralph Kirkpatrick play. I heard him in Paris actually. He was virtually blind at the time, he’d lost most of his eyesight actually, and I went back to speak to him afterwards, but at that point of course I had no idea that I was going to be at Dumbarton Oaks, ever. Many of the musicians I have encountered, but not always at Dumbarton Oaks, you know. I’ve invited Paula Robeson, who was one of the musicians who came, before she became Robeson – I forget what her maiden name was – and I’ve met a lot of the musicians in the other contexts, like when I worked for NPR, for Performance Today. Many of them would come and do performances in our studio. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I feel like I know – I’m quite will informed about who’s performing today and the quality of the performances and so on, because of that involvement. And that was my day job. I mean, this was just something extra, actually. So, I’ve met them but not necessarily here.
JWC: And one of the other major facets of the Dumbarton Oaks music program is its history of having pieces commissioned for Dumbarton Oaks. So, the first was Stravinsky, right?
VS: Yeah, the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.
JWC: And then after that was Copland, and then Joan Tower, correct?
VS: Yes, Joan Tower, yeah.
JWC: Now, if I’m not mistaken, you played an important role in the most recent piece that was commissioned for Dumbarton Oaks, is that correct?
VS: Well, I wouldn’t say it quite like that. I would say that, in terms of the commission, I really had nothing at all to do with the actual commission. That was Ned Keenan, and I believe James Carder did some research to identify someone to write the music, but I did help organize the concert. I put all the pieces – I found the performers, I worked on what program we should have, you know, the Copland and the Stravinsky, of course. I organized all of that.
JWC: Can you tell us a little bit more about that particular endeavor?
VS: Sure. Well, I found – one of my old friends is Christopher Kendall, who has an ensemble called the – it used to be called the 20th Century Consort, now it’s the 21st Century Consort – but it’s a small chamber orchestra, and I thought immediately of that group as a group that contains excellent musicians and who could, you know, do something on rather short notice. And also the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto is quite well known. So, I engaged that group. Unfortunately, Christopher was not available to conduct himself, so I asked Ken Slowik, from the Library of Congress? Gosh, wait. No, he is at the Smithsonian in the musical instruments collection. He’s head of all the music at the Smithsonian essentially. He’s also a performer, wonderful cellist, harpsichordist; does all sorts of different types of performances. And so he came over to conduct. The string players for the Nonet for Strings by Copland were – I think that came through the 21st Century Consort as well. And then Joan Tower – she had a string quartet in mind for this particular performance. It’s called the Dumbarton Quintet. It’s a string quartet and piano. She herself played the piano – she wanted to play the piano in this world-premier performance, and the string quartet – I think it was the Enso, but that’s something I am going to have to look up
JWC: When Joan Tower was writing this piece, did you ever have contact with her?
VS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I did. But she actually had written it quite a ways back and tweaked it a bit, and played it in sort of a different version before it was performed here. Enso, yeah. It’s the Enso String Quartet. You know what that is right? Enso?
JWC: I’m not familiar, no.
VS: It’s used a lot in Zen, because in calligraphy it’s like an empty circle with the brush stroke: it’s enso, for empty mind and so on, emptiness. Anyway, they performed it with her. I’m not sure if I answered your question sufficiently.
JWC: No, yeah. I’m actually kind of curious, though, about the process of commissioning a work, and you mentioned that James Carder –
VS: James Carder and Ned – I think James did, because I’ve spoken with James a little about it after the fact. He said that – he just got online. There are all kinds of things online that talk about commissioning works and so on. But I might add at this point that Jan and I are looking into commissioning a work – and I can’t say more about it right now – from a young composer. Whether or not that will pan out, we don’t know, but we’re looking forward to 2015, 2016, which will be the years – 2015 is the year that the gift was made to Dumbarton Oaks – to Harvard, Dumbarton Oaks was conveyed to Harvard University – and then in the year 2016, if we miss the ’15 target, that is the year that the Friends of Music will turn seventy. The anniversary of the commission would be the 75th – I mean of the gift – would be the 75th anniversary. So, we’re looking to that year. I don’t know what will come of it, but we’re hoping that we might be able to do that.
JWC: And one of the other, I guess, credits to your name is that the series has been very well reviewed in the time that you’ve been here. You mentioned earlier a piece about your time at NPR and how that sort of exposed you to a lot of these current-day performers, but what else can you say about why people enjoy the Dumbarton Oaks music series so much, and why they keep coming back?
VS: Well, I really can’t say why people enjoy it. All I can say is what my aspiration is when I put together a season. I actually have engaged several musicians throughout the years who have risen to prominence now, but who had not achieved that at the time, like Anonymous 4 is a very, you know, well-known group of four women who sing medieval music, and they came. There’s quite a well-known violinist, Gil Shaham, now who performed with us before he even made his debut at Carnegie Hall. He told me that he was sort of using the concerts here at Dumbarton Oaks as rehearsal for his debut at Carnegie Hall. And there are quite a few others, I could go through my notes and take a look, but I don’t remember off the top of my head. But, over the years, a thing that was so interesting to me was that, when I read Thacher’s book, in the foreword to that book, there was sort of a mission statement in the sense that they wanted – because back in the days when Friends of Music was about to coalesce into something, there were very few chamber music series in Washington; in fact, very few classical music series in Washington. One of them was at the Library of Congress, one of them was at the Phillips, there’s the National Symphony – am I forgetting something? Maybe at the National Gallery of Art as well, the NGA. So, they decided to look at what those groups were doing, or those organizations were doing, and try to do something a little bit different. So, at the beginning they said, “Well, we want to avoid all of the nineteenth-century music, you know, all of the Romantic music” – not avoid it entirely but play it down and spend more time in the eighteenth-century and the twentieth-century, and that of course would also involve some occasional commissions from young composers. So, over the years, of course, that changed quite a bit. Again, since I didn’t know that when I first took over the series, I just was trying to create something that would be balanced and interesting and represent a lot of different eras and also go for the highest quality of performances I could find and so on. So, I didn’t really stick to that, because I didn’t even know about it, and now over the years I think audiences’ tastes have evolved from what they were initially. My understanding of the Friends of Music is that, early on, it was a very sort of closed organization, and people were invited to join, and they actually joined, and it tended to be people mostly in the neighborhood and close friends of the Blisses. So – oh dear, I don’t want to do that. So, now it’s, you know, just generally open to anyone who knows about it. We don’t ever advertise, and so it’s just by word-of-mouth that people find out about the series, but they’re very happy to come. Over the years, I think, since the audience is changing, their tastes are changing, what’s going on in the world is changing, and also the way people listen to music and consume music is changing. And so I’ve taken some risks, I guess you could say, made some bold steps in terms of introducing groups that are a little more cutting-edge, perhaps, such as Brooklyn Rider, which is a string quartet that does very new and interesting work. They also perform with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. There’s world music influence in what they do. Also, Time for Three, which is this wonderful young trio – not so young anymore – but they were young when they graduated from Curtis, just trained in classical music to an inch of their lives, yet in their downtime would go and play bluegrass and jazz, and they do wonderful little – they would tweak classical compositions and so on, and the audience loved it! I mean these are really musically conservative people, and they loved it, most of them did. There are probably a few grumpy people in the batch, but for the most part they liked it a lot, same with Brooklyn Rider. And then, I mentioned world music: one season not so long ago, a couple of seasons ago, I engaged – I lined up the season, and then I realized that the undercurrent of that particular season was world music, and what that was about. The reason I say that is because I engaged an early music group from Canada called Ensemble Caprice, and they had a program called “Vivaldi and the Gypsies,” which is a politically incorrect term, but that’s what they called it. It should have been Roma or Romani people, I suppose. But they had a Baroque manuscript with melodies from the Romani people – the Roma people – oh gosh, I don’t know which it is. Which is it, do you know?
JW: I think Roma.
VS: Roma. And what’s “Romani”? Is that an adjective perhaps? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. So, from the Roma – and then they arranged the melodies, and then they arranged the harmonies and instruments – how they perform it. And what they did was that the played a Vivaldi concerto, and then they would play a Roma concerto, Romani concerto, “gypsy” concerto – not a concerto, just the gypsy piece, it wasn’t a concerto. I’m really glad you don’t have to edit this, because it would be a nightmare. Anyway, so we had world influence in that concert. We also had – I engaged a Mexican string quartet, the quartet of Latinoamericano, who came to play. The first half of the concert was all music from the New World, essentially, for string quartet, and then the second half they were joined by a player of the bandoneón, which is a tango instrument, and this is a person who played in Ástor Piazzolla’s tango band in Argentina. His music is very popular now. It’s very well known in classical concerts. I mean, he’s just been embraced by the classical world as well as the world music community. So, we had that, and then the other sort of strange concert for that season was in December. It was called Music of Three Faiths, by the Boston Camerata. They were the performers. The Boston Camerata has performed many times at Dumbarton Oaks, and this time they performed – it was essentially medieval music from the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition, and the Muslim tradition. And we had an Arabic ensemble. They called it the – I can’t remember what it was called, but anyway, it was a trio of Arabic musicians from different Arabic-speaking countries actually. So, that was a little bit interesting too. We added a new dimension, I think, to our music series with that. And coming up this next season we’re going to have a Persian santur.
JWC: Now, I was curious to know – you talked about the audience a lot – who is your audience nowadays? Do you have a lot of the same types of people who may have been involved in an earlier era of the music series, or do you have professionals, families? Who likes to come?
VS: We have a core audience that I think has been coming to these concerts – forever! A few seasons ago, maybe ten seasons ago, actually, I remember a man and his wife were telling me, as they were welcomed to the first concert of the season – he said, “I believe this is the fiftieth” – the fiftieth! – “year that we have been coming.” I was really surprised to hear that, because that’s a long time. But they looked like it was possible. So, what I’m saying is, I think there are quite a few people like that. We had – unfortunately, many of them have passed away – but early on, after I first arrived, I remember that J. Carter Brown, who was the Director of the National Gallery of Art, would come faithfully with his family, and he would tell me that he was – his aunt brought him to Dumbarton Oaks when he was a child, and that she would gesture to the stairway that comes down into the Music Room and say, “And then Mrs. Bliss would come down the stairway!” That was rather nice, to have that connection, that he was there and that he had heard about Mrs. Bliss. I don’t know if he actually met her or not, but he would hear stories about her from his aunt. The widow of Abe Fortas, who was on the Supreme Court, used to attend faithfully. Her name was – oh gosh, Carolyn, I think? A-G-G-E-R was her last name, and she would come every season. She would subscribe every season to our concerts and was very happy to be there, I think. And actually I believe that that is the Fortas that has given the name to the Fortas Chamber Music Series at the Kennedy Center. So, we were very fortunate to have her as well. Again – I’m just trying to think of any other people who – actually, I think that’s probably the only connection I had to the people who came who might have been connected to the Blisses in any way.
JWC: Do you find that the type of audience you have influences how you put together a season?
VS: Right, that was your question, wasn’t it. I think, actually, that we do probably have an audience that is hanging on as long as they can to this particular concert series, because they’re familiar with it and so on. The newer additions to the audience – well, I would say the youngest are probably in their mid-forties.
JWC: Oh, wow.
VS: I mean, there may be the occasional slightly younger person, a couple who comes, but I think it does tend to be an older audience. The youngest people in the audience, of course, are very often the Fellows who are here at Dumbarton Oaks, which is lovely. It’s wonderful to see them. But, no, I actually have to say that I do believe that there are some younger people coming, and that’s – maybe it’s because we’re doing some more interesting music. I mean, there are different audience categories, you know. There are people who are very enthusiastic; every time they leave a concert they say, “Oh that was wonderful, thank you so much, it was so interesting” – whatever, nice things. And then there are other people who I think might be a little grumpy about anything that’s new and challenging to them. But they came back, so, you know, I think it’s worth the risk.
JWC: And what for you makes an ideal concert? I know there’s a lot of variety in the types of pieces that you’re putting together and between seasons there are different themes, but is there some common thread that ties all the concerts together?
VS: Within a season? or just in general?
JWC: Well, both. Within a season, it seems to be more topical; there’s a musical common thread, and I’m thinking overall is there, you know, a spark or something that you’re looking for that, regardless of the genre or period that a piece is from or that a performer focuses on – that they all have in common?
VS: Well, I think – what I try to do or look to do, really – what it is I look for is excellence in performance – excellence, but not just musicians who have a lot of facility – not just musicians with chops, as we would say, but musicians who are deeply musical. I’d say that’s really important. I mean, sometimes I’m luckier than other times, but I will not engage anyone whom I have not heard either in person or, nowadays, on YouTube. That way, I can see how they present themselves and I can actually hear them directly in performance to see that they can deliver the goods. That’s probably not a very good way of putting it. But I want to just make sure they’re the real deal – really have accomplished artists who come here. That’s really the most important thing. The programming, of course, is the most fun in terms of when I’ve identified wonderful musicians. We can talk about what they want that might be a little different or more interesting, or whatever. I think its excellence – excellence of musicianship and performance.
JWC: When you’re finding these performers, how do you first encounter most of them? Do they have agents that are reaching out to you, or are you seeing in the community and reaching out to them? Or a little bit of both?
VS: I’d say it’s both. I’ve actually been in the business here, at Dumbarton Oaks, but before that many, many years. I know lots and lots of musicians and I know lots and lots of managers and agents, so we’ll sort of have a nice collegial relationship. I might write to them and ask them if they have this or that and ask them what so-and-so is doing this year. Or they might approach me and say, “we have this really interesting group that’s gotten together,” “this is a particularly interesting program,” and so on, and I consider it. So, it’s very fluid in that way. I just feel very comfortable moving on my own or taking things that are offered by the managers. If I trust them. You have to trust them in taste and so on.
JWC: What’s the number of performers you have in a series versus the number that you start to investigate at the beginning of the season? What’s the ratio of people –
VS: I’ve never kept track of that. I don’t know. I do – some seasons I have a very clear idea in my mind of what I want to do. Boom – just like that. Other seasons, I think, “Oh my gosh, it’s another season. I have to line up fourteen concerts.” And then I start thinking, I have to organize in my mind what I think might be a good season. And other times I’m so full of ideas and there are so many people I’d like to have come to Dumbarton Oaks that I can only have – there are only seven concerts, each one done twice. That’s where I got the fourteen. So, I have to be selective. It’s an odd process. I don’t actually think about something like that, now that you ask. No statistics.
JWC: How far in advance do you generally plan out a concert series?
VS: A season? Well, right now I’m working on in the summer of 2013 – of course we have the 2013-14 concert series, but I’m working on 2014-15 right now, and I have quite a number of ideas. I haven’t nailed down anything yet, but I’m sort of designing it now. I have these sort of maybe this or that, you know. It’s in process right now.
JWC: When you’re putting these things together, are you always trying to find something new and different, or are there always a few standbys that the audience really enjoys and makes reappearances through the years?
VS: Well, I look for what – I try to pay attention, first of all, to what’s going on in the world of music. I do look for something that might be particularly interesting because it’s different in its approach. I think it’s really important to pay attention to that sort of thing. We’ve had a group here a few seasons back called “A Far Cry.” It’s just a chamber orchestra of young people who met at New England Conservatory. They were so amazing in their approach to the type of music they played and they listened to music and they listened to each other when they played and the variety they offered within one concert itself. To me, just something about them just struck me as being something very different and special, so I engaged them. And they were so fantastic, the night after the last concert, I went home and got their manager on the phone, who lives mercifully on the West Coast, so it wasn’t so early and I said, “I want them next year again.” So wonderful. That was the first time I did that. Normally I don’t do that, even if we have wonderful concerts. But these people were so compelling and so musical – so deeply musical and dedicated, and so wonderful – that I had them come back. But to answer your question about whether I’m always looking for something different or new, I think more than that – I think I am looking for something new. I always like to have one, what I would call to myself, a weird concert that might shake everybody up. I don’t always succeed in identifying a weird piece. Sometimes I have an entire season of rather tame concerts and then I’m disappointed in myself when it comes out to be a tame season. I try to balance. If I have the weird concert, I will try to have something that will wash gently over the ears of our audience, who might be more sensitive to that sort of thing and who might be reassured by that type of program. But, I do really think it’s important to pay attention and offer more of the sort of new approach to how people are playing music. Classical music. They – the serious intellectuals – are talking about the future of classical music is in jeopardy. And it can be in jeopardy, but what I know is that we have so many young people; something about it sparks interest. Lots of musicians are graduating from conservatories and universities and whatever all the time – that can continue. We just need to identify what that is and find an audience for them. And so they have to be as out there as we do in terms of having to think about a different way to how they deliver the music to people who listen.
JWC: Do you ever find that other people in either the Washington community or father afield come to consult with you when they’re trying to put together a concert series of their own?
VS: All the time. Yes, they do. I get phone calls from people who are about to start a series and they ask me basic nuts-and-bolts questions about it. It’s not so much artistic stuff. It’s more like – well, it sort of is, like, how do you go about lining people up, or how do you deal with getting people interested to come as an audience, or how do you do your contracts? – various things like that.
JWC: Is Dumbarton Oaks unique in the type of concert series it provides, or is it a somewhat common type of series when you look at other cities throughout the country?
VS: Well, I don’t know that much about all that which is happening around the country, but I’ve had people comment that this is one of the last places they can come to just to subscribe to a season knowing that they’ll get wonderful classical music. That said, I often try to give it a little classical music, but a little something else to broaden the horizons. We don’t have a mandate to do crossover music or a dumbing down music. I’m not saying those two are the same. I don’t try to provide concerts to the lowest common denominator. I try to provide concerts to intelligent – because out audience certainly is – and knowledgeable and musically literate. I have to say also that there is not a need to do that. I imagine that there are probably some presenters who have difficulty bringing audiences in, and they have to find things – play the Pachelbel Canon or have Vivaldi’s Four Seasons again and again, because that’s what people know and want to hear. There’s nothing wrong with that music, just not exactly adventuresome either. It’s a known quantity. We’re very fortunate here to be able to function here without being able to market what we do. The subscribers hear about us – its word of mouth. We’re virtually fully subscribed every season. We have to save a few seats for the people here at Dumbarton Oaks and comp tickets for the performers and so on, but for the most part we do have a pretty full audience and people keep coming back without having to attract them with – you know what I’m saying, I think.
JWC: What do performers tell you after they come here about the opportunity they have to perform the pieces that they like or the more adventurous pieces? What about the audience or things of that nature?
VS: Well, they invariably – I’ve never heard any of the musicians complain. They just love it here. They say, “Oh, this is the most beautiful place.” The ones from overseas – from Europe – will say, “It’s just like being in Europe.” – the Music Room and so on. They actually sometimes – our audience can be somewhat understated. Sometimes they fall asleep and drop their programs on the floor. But our musicians love them. They say, “This is just lovely.” And our audience gives them a warm welcome too, I think. They seem to like the audiences. Maybe it’s because they don’t actually have audiences like them often, and because they don’t have to play in a school gymnasium or basketball court, or something. It’s a real concert offering experience from their point of view, and a really positive one.
JWC: On the flip side, what does the audience say about the performers? I’m sure many of them have subscriptions to either the Kennedy Center or other performing arts venues –
VS: They do. They have that a lot too. What they do a lot – often they’ll ask me, “Do you know the dates of your concerts next season yet, because I don’t want to have a conflict between that and the Kennedy – chamber music concerts at the Kennedy Center,” or something like that. We really are on their radar screen. We are important to them – important enough that they want to schedule around what our dates are with what’s going on elsewhere. Does that answer your question?
JWC: Yeah. But what do they say about the performers themselves?
VS: Oh, the performers themselves. They love it.
JWC: How do they compare – going to the opera is much different than here, of course – but how would they compare the two –
VS: Compare the two?
JWC: Do they enjoy coming here more than they enjoy going to the Kennedy Center?
VS: You’d have to ask them. You would have to interview some of the audience members. Will you do that?
JWC: We might, if you have the names of some of the people who have been around for a very long time.
VS: Maybe we can find some of those.
JWC: Another thing which I was curious about that was mentioned is the Music Room itself, which is aesthetically wonderful. What about from an acoustic perspective or some of the other more technical aspects that you need to keep in mind when bringing these performance groups in?
VS: Well, I think the acoustics are decent acoustics. It’s not a really live room, and sometimes when we have the type of music that responds better in a live environment, we will open the drapes over the windows and that gives us more hard surface. I think the tapestries soak up a lot of sound, and you don’t want to be moving those around. The audience also will soak it up. The only time I notice it very much is when we do have groups such as Anonymous Four, the group I mentioned before, that’s four women’s voices singing medieval music. It’s very stark and high and wonderful in a cathedral, for example. In the Music Room, it sounds okay. It’s also – its dry. It’s a drier environment. As you may or may not know, the drier the environment, the more present every little thing will be, like the source of the sound. I mean a violinist, for example – you will hear every little screak happening on the string or bow, and so on. I think musicians prefer to have a more live environment. That said, that’s not that this is a dry Music Room. It’s pretty good. It’s pretty good, but it’s not ideal for certain types of music. Now, I’m trying to actually steer clear of some of those cathedral-like ensembles. We had a wonderful December concert this last season with a group called Cantus. It was a capella – nine men singing a capella. Somehow, that was just great. We didn’t need anything. And it was the nature of the music they sang as well. They weren’t singing medieval music. Actually, they did sing one thing that was medieval. It was a totally mixed program. They sang one thing that was from Sweet Honey in the Rock, they sang music – folk music. They sang Native American hymns, and they sing, well sung I should say – Russian choral music – that sort of thing. Just a variety that you didn’t need to have special acoustics. And it was good – so good. I listened over and over to the recording they did in the Music Room. It was so lovely. It took me weeks to stop listening to it. But that was just me. I don’t know if anyone else felt the same.
JW: Do you have any recommendations as to how you could equip the Music Room such that it could be more acoustically conducive to medieval choir music, for example?
VS: That’s a good question. Well, I’m not sure if just a shell would work. I’m not sure if that would do it, because my understanding of it is the entire surrounding surfaces should be the types of surfaces that create a more light environment and just a shell might help a little to project it out, but I don’t know we would need it that often. Part of the beauty of having it in the Music Room is that it’s the Music Room and it doesn’t have a lot of things that get between the musicians and that. We now have a platform, which the audience was begging for for years and years saying, “We can’t see the musicians,” because when we position the musicians there are two possible – well there are many possible ways, but we either put them lengthwise and everyone sits so we look at them up against the tapestry at the end of the room, and the other way is a sort of semicircle around the fireplace. Everyone prefers the semicircle because it is more intimate, but when they are in the long configuration, if you come in late and you are sitting in the back – because there are no assigned seating here – it’s really hard to see anything at all. I’ve sat in the back and it’s really looking for the – you don’t even know who’s playing. It was great that we could have a platform. It only goes up about a foot, but it is just enough extra that people can see. But then it creates other problems because whenever we have musicians – ensembles that have pianos, we can’t lift the piano.
JWC: You mentioned before a little about the Fellows. What type of addition do you think that they give to the music series? They aren’t here for the music; that’s a nice added perk of Dumbarton Oaks. What do they tell you about their thoughts on the music series? Do they say things similar to what the regular subscribers would?
VS: I don’t think I can answer that. No. There are some that come regularly. Most don’t come regularly, quite honestly. The ones that do come regularly clearly are music lovers and show up every time. But you’d have to talk to them about that too, I think.
JWC: I guess what I was trying to get from you – when you talk to audience members what types of conversations do you have with them? You’re saying they don’t tell you what they enjoyed?
JWC: When you talk to an audience member after a performance, what do they tell you?
VS: Well, generally, they just say they really enjoy it. If they didn’t enjoy it – well mostly people just come out and say, “That was wonderful.” I remember sometimes, as I said, we have the occasional grumpy audience member. And it’s really occasional. I remember one person – and there’s one person who still faithfully comes to the concerts – but if there’s anything that is a little challenging or a little unusual or dissonant, or even not one hundred percent classical, she – it’s a woman – might storm out at the end and complain. My colleague Cindy Greene is the one who deals with the subscriptions and tickets now. And that’s sort of a new thing. I used to do everything. I don’t hear as much maybe as she hears about it, but mostly its very complimentary. And, oh!, the other thing that happens that’s quite charming is that sometimes throughout the year I’ll receive notes from audience members who will say, “I just heard this fabulous concert up in Maine,” or Chicago or whatever, and they’ll send me this program saying, “You might want to think about these wonderful musicians.” They’ll send me suggestions which I find quite charming. And I receive little thank you notes at the end of the season saying, “Thank you. I really appreciate what you’re doing,” which is so nice. Its one of the few benefits of doing this.
JWC: Are there any particularly salient memories that you have about your time here? – either stories about performers who have come through who have left an impression on you or anything in general that you will always remember about Dumbarton Oaks.
VS: I think the thing that I will always remember, actually, is a very personal thing and is something that just goes on inside of me, which is that when I first came here, as I intimated when we began speaking today, I didn’t really understand all that much about Dumbarton Oaks. Slowly, slowly over the years – I’ve almost been here for a quarter of a century now, twenty-five years next year, I’ve more and more began to realize what a treasure Dumbarton Oaks is and what a privilege being able to promote these concerts. When I first took it on, I took it on because I love music, I’m a performer as well, as well as someone who is a radio producer in the cultural arts, and so on. Slowly, slowly I began to realize this is such a gift and what fills me – I’m filled with gratitude for having this opportunity to be here and to work with musicians to actually identify young rising musicians and give them an opportunity to play in this very distinguished venue. I’ve discovered that this is a very prestigious venue [laughs]. People go, “Oh! Dumbarton Oaks. We’d love to play there.” So it’s about being able to give young people an opportunity to do that. And for years there was a policy of no reviews, no recordings. It was supposed to be an intimate soirée – nothing should come between the people, the audience, and the music. Now Jan has so heartily embraced the initiatives and new ways of doing things. To have that dimension is just – I feel like we’re continuing to grow and change in a good way. Gosh, I think one of my most favorite things was that Cantus, which I already mentioned. There was just something about the content – oh, I remember what it was. There was an encore that they sang that happened to be from the Methodist hymnbook. I know nothing about the Methodist hymnbook, but it was set to the tune of Sibelius’s Finlandia. The thing that struck me – we’ve been having such a difficult time these last few years in the world, and the words are something to the effect that “This is my native land and I love it deeply and dearly and the skies are so blue and pine and clover grow here and everything. But in other places, the sky is just as blue and the clover and pine grow. People have aspirations and hopes just as mine and love their country too.” And I was thinking, whoa, wouldn’t that be a great national anthem? Because I mean, well it’s not – I should be careful what I say – it’s not just like waving the flag and bombs bursting in air and it’s a prayer for peace, really, and understanding of all nations. That’s what really caught me in the Cantus concert and I remember that. And I learned about that hymn. I had never heard it before, so that was very special. But that’s not what you want to hear. You want to hear something “Dumbarton Oaksian” [laughs]. What can I say? Something I’ve always wanted to do – it’s not a memory – but something I’ve always wanted to do is to have some sort of an outdoor concert someday in the beautiful outdoor garden. I’m still hoping we’ll be able to figure out a time when its not a rainy season or too hot or too this or too that. It’s just magnificent and the ability to do something like that would be just tremendous.
JWC: Wonderful. Is there anything that we’ve neglected to ask you that you feel is particularly important to talk about?
VS: Let me think. Dumbarton Oaks – Friends of Music – well, I guess not. I could talk more about particular amazing performances that we’ve talked about here, but that’s researchable. One could look it up. “Look it up,” as they say. I don’t know. The thing about it is, as soon as we finish with this I’ll probably have all sorts of thoughts I should have said, but at this point I think I’m okay.
JW: Well thank you so much for speaking with us today.
VS: You’re quite welcome. It’s been a pleasure.