A couple of ensembles — usually a piano trio and a string quartet — would come to town each week. One night each they’d perform by themselves. The next couple nights they’d mix and match for variety. That’s how the Rockport Chamber Music Festival was born.
Three decades later, the popular summer series had outgrown its quaint roots in the Rockport Art Association. The 1800s barn-converted-to-gallery was picturesque enough, but creature comforts were at a minimum — to say the least.
That’s how the Shalin Liu Performance Center was born.
The transformation from a summer chamber music festival to a year-round entertainment center — featuring performers like Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, Judy Collins, and others — took guts. And around $20 million. But the Shalin Liu Performance Center [SLPC] has made Rockport a destination for devotees of all kinds of music, raised its international profile, and contributed to a optimistic upsurge in what Cape Ann looks and feels like.
Now called Rockport Music, the organization is led by executive director Tony Beadle, who previously directed the Boston Pops, the Columbus Symphony, and other large music presenters. Beadle, who joined Rockport Music in February 2010, just months before the Shalin Liu Performance Center opened, had a complex task: to grow a chamber music audience into a multiple audiences, and to convince a skeptical public that Rockport could be a suitable destination for an evening’s entertainment.
The glittering performance center helped. Designed by Epstein Joslin Architects, its gorgeous full-length window, backing the stage and looking northward out to sea, defines the interior. Majestic iron beams support the ceiling, and the engineered stone interior provides a unique visual experience.
The acoustics are incredible. Carefully conceived by Lawrence Kirkegaard, perhaps the foremost acoustician in the world, it was designed for chamber players.
Designed so a singer could produce the most delicate pianissimo tones, and still be heard in the balcony. So that a string player could play a single pizzicato note, and reach everyone. So that everything could be heard, even unamplified, with utmost clarity.
Building the SLPC required ingenuity. Around 2005 the Rockport Music board began searching for alternatives to the charming but impossibly uncomfortable Art Association. Many options were considered, but it became apparent that creating a new space would be the best one.
Raising the money would prove hard enough, but finding a site — and convincing the notoriously staid Rockport community that a year-round concert hall would be a plus — were even more daunting.
The Haskins Building provided one answer. The 1860s Second Empire structure on Main Street was torn down, but — ceding to town planners — the architects created an almost exact replica of the street-side façade. It was the interior, and the inner-workings of the original Rockport Chamber Music Festival [RCMF] as well, that changed completely.
“We had to create a destination,” says Beadle of the transformation. “We had a new hall, and Rockport had always been a summer destination for tourists. We did have the summer festival, and by then a week of jazz artists. But we had to get people’s attention.
“It started slowly,” he says, “but not that slowly.”
Beadle, with what soon became a full-time, professional staff — as box office personnel, development staff, and marketing professionals replaced a small group of volunteers — went to work.
The chamber music audience grew — RCMF is one of the most high profile festivals in the world, along with Ojai, and Salzburg, and Aspen, and other tucked-away venues that dot the seasonal landscape. The jazz audience — “about ten or fifteen percent of the total,” Beadle says — was a pleasant surprise.
And pop artists — the “legacy category,” Beadle calls them, were a big surprise. “Livingston Taylor, Judy Collins, Tom Rush — they are audience pleasers, and they still sound great. We blend them in with American roots music, and younger singer/songwriters.”
Other special events, like the hugely popular Metropolitan Opera live simulcasts, as well as similar broadcasts from the National Theatre of London and the Bolshoi Ballet, filled out the schedule. Community-based educational events, almost all of them free, are another piece of the puzzle.
“The performance center was built to please the chamber music audience,” he says. “But once we got going, we knew we had to cast our net wider, and present music that other people like as well. And it’s happened. Many of our largest supporters don’t even like chamber music.
“All along we’ve kept the hall itself in the picture,” he says. “Our brand is not Rockport Music. It’s the Shalin Liu Performance Center. When artists come here, they love the intimacy. (Trumpeter) Chris Botti said to me that it was great to be able to see people’s faces instead of an ocean of black.
“The arts are no longer relegated to the large cities,” Beadle insists. “People want to support the quality of life where they reside.”
► The Shalin Liu Performance Center presents hundreds of live performances, educational events and simulcasts each year. For a complete listing visit Rockport Music or call (978) 546 7391.