PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — The ice cream lady parked her truck in the usual spot outside the Peterborough Town House last Friday, but to Monadnock Music concertgoers there was clearly something different about opening night at the festival this year.
Out were Jonathan Bagg and Laura Gilbert, the artistic directors replaced last fall after decades performing with many other longtime Monadnock musicians. In was acclaimed conductor Gil Rose, the new artistic director who arrived with credentials including founder of Boston Modern Orchestra Project and artistic director of the now-defunct Opera Boston. Also in: a 15-member Sinfonietta made up of several Boston imports new to Monadnock.
“Phenomenal,” said Mike Petrovick, the festival’s board president, watching the crowd outside the Town House. “I’m seeing a lot of [audience] faces we haven’t seen in a while.”
Spirits were also high two weeks earlier at Cathedral of the Pines, a hilltop with a view of Mount Monadnock. Plume Giant, a harmony-laden trio, were appearing as part of a new concert series, Electric Earth, founded by Bagg, a violist, and Gilbert, who plays flute. The pair insist that their series is not meant to compete with the much-larger Monadnock Music, but not everybody’s convinced.
Next Tuesday, Electric Earth will present the esteemed Borromeo String Quartet at the Jaffrey Center Meeting House. The group has performed at Monadnock Music in the past.
And on Aug. 1, both organizations have concerts, with Electric Earth presenting the Chiara Quartet at the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, and Monadnock Music featuring a program performed by the newly minted Monadnock Players in nearby Hancock.
Some worry whether the region can support both ventures.
“It’s a small town and there are limited resources to support musical endeavors in the area,” said Pamela Worden, a Monadnock Music regular taking in the Plume Giant show. “I hope both can survive.”
“Refresh” — the word graces the cover of Monadnock Music’s 2012 program. That’s how Will Chapman, the executive director who took over last June, frames the changes he’s made. It’s how, he says, Monadnock will stay financially strong and artistically relevant in its 47th season and going forward.
The festival is hard to compare with others in the region. Though similarly small in scale, Monadnock Music differs from the Vermont-based Marlboro and Yellow Barn music festivals, both of which have permanent homes and chamber music programs. Monadnock’s performances are spread across the region and many of them are free. The festival also offers occasional orchestral works and opera.
Conductor and composer James Bolle, who grew up outside Chicago but married a Keene native, started the festival in 1966. That summer, he was looking for a proper spot to make a recording. He settled on the Nelson meetinghouse. The late poet May Sarton, in “Plant Dreaming Deep,” recounted the arrival of a group of musicians led by a “tall young man with a full black beard.”
“When I went out for the mail, I heard unmistakable sounds coming from the church,” she wrote, “flutes and oboes and cellos and violins, and the plucked strings of a harpsichord. Surely Mozart was being played!”
Over the years, Bolle ran the festival’s artistic side, producing 25 records related to the festival and even presenting a young Peter Sellars. Bolle’s wife, Jocelyn, balanced the checkbook.
“When we first started, people said, ‘Oh you’re going to have your own little Tanglewood,” said Jocelyn. “I said, ‘God forbid. That’s exactly not what we want to do,’ ” indicating they wanted to keep the festival small and locally grounded.
For the next four decades, the Bolles saw the festival mature, adding a board of directors, and an educational program, Lend an Ear! In recent years, a number of music and executive directors came and went. It wasn’t long after Bolle stepped down, in 2007, that a rift developed between him and Gilbert and Bagg. The duo had played at the festival for 28 years and 18 years respectively and began operating as artistic directors in 2007. Bolle said they disrespected him during a discussion about a concert featuring Tchaikovsky and knew little about orchestral music. The pair say Bolle grew angry over their decision not to record his compositions in recent years — a proposition they considered too costly.
Whatever the case, when the dust settled, Bolle emerged as the venerated pioneer embraced by the Monadnock board, they, the exiles.
Last summer, on the surface, started smoothly. The organization hired Chapman, the former marketing and development director at Opera Boston, and Bagg and Gilbert programmed a mix that ranged from chamber music to a piece that incorporated dance, music, and Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The formula seemed to work. During the summer, attendance increased by 3 percent over 2010 and an audience survey found Monadnock attendees were largely pleased with the eclectic offerings.
Behind the scenes, though, all was not harmonious. Bolle told board members that Bagg and Gilbert had to go. The board gave Chapman authority to make changes, and handed him a report compiling interviews with ticket holders, contributors, and former board members, detailing complaints about programming, and stating, among other suggestions, a wish that the music directors were local. (Chapman and the board declined to provide the names of the interviewees or release the document, instead providing a five-page summary.)
Also, Monadnock had been running a deficit for years on its approximately $400,000 budget, said Chapman. “Irrespective of how wonderful the music is, if you have mounting deficits, it’s not sustainable.”
Bagg and Gilbert were no longer included in board meetings. But they were discussed. At the Oct. 7 board meeting, new member Lou Casagrande, retired director of the Boston’s Children’s Museum, said he felt the pair did not understand Chapman’s role as a “transformational” leader not meant to “fund the old way of doing business,” according to board minutes.
Chapman himself reported that it was very difficult to work with Bagg and Gilbert. The board decided to “put our complete faith in [Chapman] and to keep our mouths shut at the Sunday concert in Hancock,” according to board minutes.
That day, Oct. 9, the duo were part of the group of musicians taking part in the season’s final performance, a mix of Bach, Haydn, and Boccherini.
Afterward Gilbert pressed one of her allies on the board, Peter Bixby, for more information.
“Are we fired?” she asked.
In mid-October, Chapman, in a phone call, informed Bagg, a professor at Duke University who lives in North Carolina, and Gilbert, a New Yorker, that he was going to hire a single artistic director who lived in the region. They were welcome to apply for the post. Neither did.
These days, Chapman does not dwell on Bagg and Gilbert. “The past is the past,” he said. “Neither I nor the board have any regrets. We have done what we think is best for Monadnock Music.” He reflects on the Bolle years and the need to reclaim the spirit that drove the founder.
As for Bolle, he is forthright when asked about his former artistic directors starting Electric Earth. “I think it’s very hostile and out of spite,” Bolle said in an interview at his home in nearby Harrisville. “Either you’re so silly that you think this is not or you’re lying when you say this is not competitive. Of course, it’s competitive.”
Slowed by Parkinson’s disease and no longer conducting, Bolle is frequently in touch with Monadnock’s new leaders. Chapman and Rose twice met with him in recent months. There are plans to launch a recording label for Monadnock Music.
“A change was coming for sure,” said Chick Colony, a Monadnock board member. “Certainly, the board didn’t think it was going to be as rapid as it was. But our job was to put the responsibility onto Will’s shoulders and let him do it.”
The firing, Colony conceded, was high risk but necessary. “We couldn’t continue losing $30,000 or $40,000 a year,” he said. “The organization, to have a future, needed to take a radical shift.”
Chapman was no stranger to Monadnock Music when he took on his official role. He and his partner, Ricardo Barreto, have had a house in the area since 1998 and, from 2009 to 2011, Barreto served on the Monadnock Music board. He resigned just before the organization announced Chapman’s hiring.
The timing of the executive director offer, for Chapman, was perfect. Rose, his colleague for a decade at Opera Boston, applied for the new artistic director post. By Christmas, Opera Boston suddenly announced a shutdown because of budget woes. Suddenly, Rose’s schedule was open.
In January, Chapman announced Rose would take over. Not only that, Randolph Fuller, the mercurial millionaire at the center of Opera Boston, agreed to contribute $40,000 to Monadnock Music.
Newly hired, Rose has programmed opera, a tribute to Martha Graham, and the introduction of the newly formed Monadnock Quartet. There will also be fewer concerts — 18 down from 28 last summer — but the organization’s budget will rise from $400,000 to $500,000.
“I would rather become better based on not how many concerts we do but the quality,” says Rose.
Meanwhile, Bagg and Gilbert had begun talking as early as November with supporters like Miki Osgood, a longtime Monadnock Music volunteer.
“I said, ‘please, don’t leave,’ ” said Osgood.
She suggested organizing concerts throughout the year, not just summertime, so the region would have off-season options. In addition, that schedule would lessen conflicts. Electric Earth was hatched. “We’re not competing with them,” said Osgood. “I would hate to see Monadnock Music fail.”
Peter Bixby, the Monadnock Music board member pressed for information last October, also threw in his support. The retired high school math teacher resigned from Monadnock and joined Electric Earth.
“Laura and Jonathan were producing wonderful concerts,” he said. “How could [the Monadnock Music falling-out] have happened?”
On the Wednesday before the Plume Giant concert, Bagg talked of how much had changed since his Monadnock days. Instead of renting a house on a stipend — about $25,000 last summer, he said — Bagg is working for free and crashing at a friend’s home. In its first season, Electric Earth has raised about $30,000, an encouraging sum, he said, but well short of Monadnock Music’s budget.
And Bagg still smarts from his removal. “We had a good thing going and we’re going to keep it going,” he said. “We’re not going to be stopped because someone who took over the festival wanted to wipe the slate clean and bring in his people.”
Electric Earth’s programming, he says, will reflect the pair’s work from the past. The audience can expect lots of chamber music and genre-adventures such as a night that will juxtapose Beethoven with the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Plume Giant, which includes Bagg’s daughter, played mainly original songs with a John Lennon cover.
The concert — low-key, understated, and attended by about 40 people, some bringing picnic baskets — was much in the spirit of what Bagg and Gilbert say they want to bring to their programming.
“What we were doing at Monadnock was creating this gentle, humble place where people came together to play music,” she said.
From the stage on Monadnock Music’s opening night last Friday, Chapman invited the audience of 159 people to join the musicians and staff for a post-concert gathering at the nearby Waterhouse Restaurant.
Later that night, at a table, Jean Rosenthal and Mary Covington, two longtime Monadnock Music patrons, tried to make sense of the evening as Chapman mingled behind them. They were impressed by the performances. They still weren’t ready to forgive.
Rosenthal, who has lived in the region for 30 years, hasn’t given her usual contribution to Monadnock Music this year. She has donated to Electric Earth. On Aug. 1, she said she’ll be going to see the Chiara Quartet, not Monadnock’s offering. She worries about the changes.
“What broke Monadnock Music before were their operas,” she said. “This is a small region and to do operas and symphonies is expensive.”
Covington, for her part, said Chapman and Monadnock’s board had every right to make changes.
“It wasn’t as much what was done as the way it was done,” she said.
They hope both Monadnock Music and Electric Earth will succeed.
“I’m an opportunistic bottom-feeder when it comes to music,” Rosenthal said with a laugh. “This was a good beginning. I’m not going to boycott anything. I like all my music.”Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.