David Deveau had never played at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival when he became a candidate to become its artistic director in 1995. A pianist active in both solo and chamber music repertoire, Deveau had in fact never even been to a Rockport concert. So he was more than a bit surprised to be invited to throw his hat in the ring for the position.
Rockport was, at that time, a very different festival than today, he remembered during a recent phone conversation. It would regularly engage two groups per festival weekend, each of which would play works on their own. Then there would be collaborations between the two ensembles, even though their members sometimes didn’t know or hadn’t played with one another. “It was an interesting experiment,” Deveau said, “in the sense that if it worked, you would really get some wonderful sparks onstage.” It did not, however, “produce the most consistent results,” he said.
So when Deveau was hired as Rockport’s artistic director, he had a clear mandate to improve the festival’s performance standards. He also worked to renovate the programming, which until then had featured a lot of offbeat repertoire. “A lot of hors d’oeuvres and a lot of dessert,” Deveau called it. “I thought that the red meat was missing.” Beginning with his first festival in the summer of 1996, Deveau’s weekend programs were “anchored by one or two major blockbuster pieces, and [I could] build around those.”
The results speak for themselves. When the Rockport Chamber Music Festival opens with a gala performance featuring violinist Joshua Bell on June 2, it will be the 22nd festival under Deveau’s leadership. During that time he has transformed it from a quirky, provincial outpost into a major destination that regularly brings the world’s most prominent chamber music ensembles to its own stellar concert hall, nestled into the rocky shore of Cape Ann.
It will also be his last. Deveau announced in January 2016 that he would step down as artistic director at the end of this year’s festival.
Among his achievements, he’s especially proud of having engaged some of those elite groups — the Brentano, St. Lawrence, and Jupiter string quartets among them — before they reached national prominence. And his push to include more familiar works coexisted with a venturesomeness that’s resulted in a list of commissions, co-commissions, and premieres that have taken place during his tenure. The newest of these is “Dogtown Common,” a new piano quartet by Charles Shadle that Deveau and three colleagues will premiere at Rockport on June 3.
“One of the things I loved about Rockport was the audience’s willingness to be open,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been a success, because the diet has really been balanced.”
The most lasting result of Deveau’s tenure will undoubtedly be the Shalin Liu Performance Center, which opened in 2010 and has since become a prized chamber-music venue. Deveau says he realized after about three seasons that the festival needed another venue than the Rockport Art Association, which could get so hot during concerts that audience members passed out at more than one performance. From that realization to the opening of the hall was a decade-long process that Deveau cheekily called “a love of labor.
“There were some people who thought it would be insane for a smallish music organization to build a concert hall specifically for chamber music,” he said. “But then there were others who shared my vision, and fortunately they were people who were entrepreneurial, who realized that you don’t get a big reward without big risk.”
Asked why he decided to leave now, Deveau said that for some time he’s been anxious to return to his own artistic pursuits after so many years of planning other people’s. And, he added, “I wanted to make sure that I left on a very high note, so that nobody would show me the door.”
Chief among those pursuits is recording, to which Deveau returned a few years ago after having not recorded for about two decades. Back then he found the process deeply unpleasant: “I hated having just a microphone and a producer telling me what I’m doing wrong. I thought it was better to make live music.” But when he recorded a Schubert disc with violinist Andrés Cárdenes in 2014, he found the process far more agreeable. A solo recital he made for the Steinway & Sons label in 2015 was well received, and he recently recorded chamber versions of piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven for future release.
“I’m really thrilled about getting over my mike fright and starting to enjoy making recordings,” he said, “because it’s a very different process now, much more like making a movie than playing a concert.”
Deveau’s successor will be violinist Barry Shiffman, a former member of the St. Lawrence who currently holds positions at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival. Deveau was not part of the selection process but was nevertheless delighted when the board chose Shiffman.
He demurred when given the chance to offer advice to his successor: “Anybody who takes the reins of an organization wants to be able to rise or fall on their own merits without having their hand held by an old artistic director who’s hovering in the background.”
Rockport Chamber Music Festival
At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, June 2-July 9. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org