Newport Baroque Director Explains Decision to End Series
Paul Cienniwa says time commitment was a big factor.
With a full 2010-11 season lined up and the musicians' contracts ready to go out, Newport Baroque Artistic Director Paul Cienniwa had reservations about committing to another season. And he had a 10-day window to make up his mind.
"We had dates, personnel all set," Cienniwa said.
But the harpsichordist's own "crazy" upcoming performance schedule started to look daunting, with gigs at Jordan Hall in Boston and for Chicago Public Radio and with the New Bedford Symphony. In his personal career, he was feeling pressure to rise to ever-higher standards.
"It's become exponential in the importance and the quality of the musicians I'm working with," Cienniwa said, admitting he wasn't this busy when he started Newport Baroque, eight years ago, or even 18 months ago.
And so he met with the board of the not-for-profit ensemble, and together they decided after eight successful seasons funded by grants, a supportive fan base and even a bake sale or two, that Newport Baroque would close up shop. Cienniwa made the announcement the first week of August. Not many of the reasons had to do with money.
The insurmountable issue was time. Just one of Cienniwa's personal upcoming performances, for WFMT radio Chicago, has already started to carve hours out of his day, even though it's months away in his schedule.
"For example, I'm playing the complete Bach violin sonatas," he said. "We're talking two hours a day all the way up until November 1st. With classical music there's such a degree of maintenance, technical feats as well." Cienniwa also mentioned memorization, comparing the work to an actor's learning of lines.
In addition to showcase performances, the steady work that cobbles together an income for Classical musicians usually comes with a lot of travel. Cienniwa himself lives in Fall River (he left Newport in 2004), teaches at Framingham State College in central Massachusetts and at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, and holds the choir directorship at First Church in Boston.
In Newport Baroque's early days, Cienniwa made it a point to hire only Rhode Island musicians. That didn't pay off.
"Those Rhode Island musicians didn't seem to have this pride of place," he said.
Cienniwa also found that Classical musicians farther out were more than willing to travel for the chance to perform with Newport Baroque. So, he started bringing in musicians from Boston and other points.
But there was another reason for bringing ensemble members from farther afield.
"It was an issue of quality," Cienniwa explained. "As we tried to raise the quality of the ensemble, we realized that we had to let some people go–we stopped hiring people from Rhode Island."
Having set a standard of excellence for Newport Baroque, quality proved to be a constant challenge for Cienniwa in his role as artistic director as well as a factor in his decision to call it quits.
"I started to feel, after a couple of years, that we started to need more and more rehearsals," he said.
Downsizing the ensembles became a solution to the quality issue, even though it steered Newport Baroque from Cienniwa's original, 12-piece vision.
"We moved into presenting more and more chamber music because I could find a higher caliber of solo musicians who were willing to work," he said.
Cienniwa maintains that for him, "It was a work of love." But even he found it frustrating when budget restrictions impinged on the level of playing.
"It wasn't that we didn't have a budget to have an orchestra," he explained. "It was that we didn't have a budget to have an orchestra that had enough rehearsals for the quality I was hoping for."
Cienniwa felt that the persistent quality issue would present a prohibitive workload for any incoming musical director.
"It represented a lot more work than the organization could have funded for a new artistic director," he opined. "I don't think that Newport Baroque was prepared to offer a salary for someone to come in and take over and run the day-to-day operations."
Looking over Newport Baroque's successful years, Cienniwa praised the Board of Directors' enthusiasm and aggressive fundraising for keeping Newport Baroque in the black. And he listed off the many local churches that had accommodated the Newport Baroque to very successful results, like Emmanuel Church, St. John's on the Point and St. Columba's in Middletown. He was also grateful for the mansions as beautiful "adapted spaces" to perform in.
But Cienniwa couldn't help pointing out that Newport doesn't have a dedicated acoustic music space, mentioning with some envy the multi-million dollar concert hall in Rockport, MA, specifically designed for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.
"To some extent," he maintained, "it was hard to find audiences because there wasn't a true venue."
He observed that Newport's current concert halls are geared for amplification, not acoustic instruments.
"If the money were there in Newport County, imagine a really great concert hall for acoustic music, what that would do to the culture," he said.
Cienniwa does see a few bright signs for the future of baroque music on Aquidneck Island.
"In our first two years we had a summer music camp," he said. "Some of those kids are in college and are playing music."
He also suggested that he will find it much easier to put together isolated programs in local churches without the onus of Newport Baroque's long-term commitments, like membership drives.
When asked if Newport can look forward to these sporadic baroque concerts, Cienniwa said, "Oh, I'm still around."