.Russian River Chamber Music Faces Uncertain Future

Bad News from the Bad Economy Files: Russian River Chamber Music, which for 18 years has done an excellent job of presenting mostly free classical music concerts, is being forced to consider either canceling their upcoming 2010-2011 season or “significantly curtailing” their activities.
“I’ve got these artist contracts on my desk right now,” RRCM artistic director Gary McLaughlin said this morning, “but I’m unsure if I can sign them.”
I know times are tough for everybody, and every classical-music organization knows what McLaughlin is talking about. And yet when I first heard about Russian River Chamber Music by stumbling into a concert at the Raven Theater by Ethel, I knew they were a special case—all of their concerts were absolutely free to the public.
“It counters that old elitist image of chamber music,” McLaughlin told me for a Bohemian article in 2008 of their free admission policy. “It makes it so it’s not just for wealthy people or snooty people. With the economy going the way it is, it becomes even more attractive. We have wine and food receptions after every concert, and the artists come, and people can actually talk to the artists—and that’s all free, too! So, it’s a cheap date. No tickets, free wine. What’s not to like?”
I agree. Last year, the group experimented with charging admission, but found that ticket sales were “definitely in the ballpark” of the previous season’s donations. That’s a good sign there’s plenty of voluntary support for free chamber concerts from world-class traveling quartets visiting Sonoma County. In fact, McLaughlin says the five-member board is seriously considering making concerts free again, with the benefit of exposure to larger audiences who might not otherwise hear chamber music.
But some key backers have curtailed their financial support, and the future is uncertain.
“Everyone’s making very painful cuts, and for the next year or two, I don’t think things are going to change a lot,” McLaughlin says. “How do you weather this and stay in the game? Or do you just close your doors and call it quits? I’m not ready to do that. I didn’t put 18 years of my life into it just to see it do that.”
It’d be especially sad, since the upcoming season would focus on music and literature. Scheduled programs include a song cycle by three Bay Area composers based on the poetry of Gary Snyder, as well as the Cypress String Quartet’s performance of an author-approved composition based on Anne Patchett’s bestseller Bel Canto. As ever, the string quartets would visit area schools for free educational programs for kids—last year, the visiting groups from Shanghai, Paris and Tel Aviv all played to packed schoolrooms.
How can you help make it work? Right now,  Russian River Chamber Music could use any support, whether in the form of financial donations or in the form of energetic souls who can offer fresh ideas and help “save the ship,” as McLaughlin says. You can email him here, or call 707.524.8700.
Believe me, it’s a ship worth saving.


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