ArtsWatch News & Notes: Peter Bilotta dives into change at Chamber Music Northwest

The venerable chamber music organization has a new executive who want so speed up its evolution

OCTOBER 7, 2013—Because he grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first time he attended a chamber music concert, Peter Bilotta, the energetic new executive director of Chamber Music Northwest, naturally went to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Even in the early ‘90s, the SPCO programmed pretty adventurously, and this particular concert featured Nigel Kennedy, who had started as a straight-ahead classical violinist and then enthusiastically embraced other forms from klezmer to jazz.

That night Kennedy performed his jazzy, distinctive version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (still the best selling classical music recording of all time), and Bilotta, who had already begun to develop a taste for the more experimental side of music and theater added chamber music to his list.

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined  composer Andy Akiho  onstage at Mississippi Studio./Jim Leisy

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined composer Andy Akiho onstage at Mississippi Studio./Jim Leisy

Fast forward 20 some years later and stints at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the past eight years as the head of development at the Portland Opera, and Bilotta is in a position to accelerate the evolution of Chamber Music Northwest. And that’s exactly what he says he hopes to do.

“We can’t make any assumptions about our audience, our community, the work we do, or the conventions about how arts organizations should run,” Bilotta said toward the end of our conversation.

What that means is acknowledging that audiences for chamber music are more sophisticated, varied and open to experimentation than ever, and that the business of running an arts organization here is challenging, he said.

Chamber Music Northwest has done some experimenting in the past several years, under former executive director Linda Magee (who resigned from the job last after more than 30 years at the helm). The programming has expanded beyond the chamber music canon to include include new compositions (jazz composer Darrel Grant’s “The Territory” last year for example), more modern music, and younger visiting ensembles. And the Protege Project has projected the music of emerging classically trained musicians into area indie music clubs.

Peter Bilotta on a Portland Opera excursion to Chicago last year./Portland Opera

Peter Bilotta on a Portland Opera excursion to Chicago last year./Portland Opera

Bilotta points out, though, that the “rules” of classical music (no clapping between movements, say) have carried over to the new venues, and that the audiences have tended to be older, not 20-somethings trying out more classically inflected music. “We need to lower the barriers to inclusion and participation,” he said. “We need to do more out of the box, out of the theater. We have to keep trying to take it to a club, make it work, change the coloration of the hall.”

Bilotta wants to experiment, “as long as we aren’t throwing away existing audiences.” New work should be given its due, but he wants to give audiences a chance to learn about it, to invite them into the creative process, not just as passive audience members. The price of tickets, the traditional venues in the urban core, the conventions of the classical concert, the mixed messages on the behavior that is expected of the audience have all hurt the ability of classical music in general to attract larger audiences, Bilotta argued.

Bilotta’s eight years in development at the Portland Opera, where he was encouraged by executive director Christopher Mattaliano to prepare for positions beyond fundraising, have given him a realistic idea of how difficult the arts have it here. If you look around country, he said, “this is the toughest environment to raise funds for the arts,” even though a recent Pew study showed that Portland was second in the nation in attendance and listening to opera. (The same study put Portland and Oregon toward the top of attendance at a variety of arts forms.)

So, high attendance and low levels of support, which perhaps isn’t so surprising given the dearth of major corporate headquarters here, low levels of state support for the arts, and the lowest per capita income on the West Coast.
Bilotta said the demands of local foundations have also hurt the arts here, even as they channel money to the arts organizations. Those organizations can’t run a deficit or accumulate debt, which means they can’t take risks because they can’t afford to fail. So arts groups are reluctant to try new products, new forms, new strategies, because failure means they won’t receive grant money. “Foundations would never invest in [for profit] companies that took that approach,” Bilotta said.

Fortunately, Chamber Music Northwest’s budget has gradually increased over the years under Magee and artistic director David Shifrin (whose contract runs through 2016), and it hasn’t run deficits or built up any debt.

Still, Bilotta said, “The times will force you to change,” Bilotta said. And if you don’t? “Someone else will supplant us,” he shrugged.

Chamber music has proven to be a resilient form from its beginnings, a home for such sonic experiments as Nigel Kennedy’s. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to this position,” he continued. “This is where exciting things are happening. We have much greater flexibility to create and innovate.”

Bilotta will dig into into the job starting October 14, knowing both the challenges of our environment here and its possibilities.

Comments are closed.