For the past 20 years, Russian River Chamber Music (RRCM) has brought world-renown classical musicians to Sonoma County. The chamber concerts have ranged from vocal performances and horn quartets to well-known string quartets often featured in the New York Times. This alone would make a substantial case for notice, but what’s most laudable—and the reason we honor them on their 20th anniversary with a Boho Award—is that Russian River Chamber Music concerts are absolutely free.
As an art form in ever-present danger of dying, classical music, and chamber music in particular, is perpetually in need of a broader audience. How better to broaden that audience than by presenting free performances?
“I think we do make converts,” says RRCM co-founder Gary McLaughlin, whose brief stint as a social worker in downtown Los Angeles in the 1950s might well have colored his populist viewpoint. “There are people living on the streets, and there are people who are living in poverty,” he says, “and the only way they’re going to be exposed to classical music is if it’s free.”
McLaughlin has seen that exact scenario play out time and again. Many of those who show up to one concert keep coming back. Some of them have eventually joined on as volunteers. At least one now serves on the board of directors. All of them are living proof that Russian River Chamber Music is successfully keeping classical music alive and well.
McLaughlin grew up near the Watts Towers in Los Angeles and was first exposed to classical music in the fifth grade, when he began playing violin in school. After college, he moved to Michigan, where he taught at the University of Michigan and toured in the resident string quartet there. In Oregon, while working for the Oregon Coast Music Festival, he met his future wife, Linda; the two relocated to Healdsburg and wasted no time putting on their first concert.
“We had standing ovations, got a good crowd,” McLaughlin recalls. “And we said, ‘I guess we’re gonna have to go ahead with this.’ The town had never had anything like this, and they responded so well.”
A board of directors was chosen, and one of them, Tom Barnett, suggested that all the organization’s concerts be free. “I didn’t buy it right away,” admits McLaughlin now. “It’s pretty counterintuitive. But he made a case for it, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s a pretty out-of-the-box idea, but it just might work. Let’s try it.’ And it seemed to be successful.”
So successful that it’s lasted 20 years, and spanned venues ranging from churches, bakeries, cafes, galleries, wineries and theaters. The RRCM still uses Healdsburg Community Church—the site of the very first concert, 20 years ago. “It’s a nice big space,” McLaughlin says, “there’s no pews in there, a little stage, backstage rooms, plenty of parking, fairly close to downtown, and the acoustics are great.”
Linda and Gary McLaughlin are no longer married, but the two still work side by side. Recently, they’ve expanded their emphasis on education, working with schools to provide instruments and teaching. That’s a natural pursuit for McLaughlin, who in addition to playing in the Glendeven String Quartet is part of the adjunct music faculty at the Santa Rosa Junior College.
Two seasons ago, RRCM experimented with charging for concerts. When receipts roughly equaled the donations from the free concerts, and for the sake of larger audiences, the concerts became free once again.
That’s just fine with McLaughlin, even while pointedly mentioning that donations are always needed. Still, he knows that despite the obstacles, RRCM is doing the right thing for chamber music. “I’ve always thought,” he says, “that the broadest audience possible is best for any art form.”