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The concert had already started at Emmanuel Church in Newport, and people were still pouring inside, seeking seats on the crowded pews. Toward the front of the nave, in the glow of the church’s purple stained-glass windows, a quartet of saxophones resounded.
This group, The Sinta Quartet, is an award-winning ensemble that tours across the country and overseas to venues where tickets can be quite expensive. This weekend in April, however, the concert was completely free to the public, hosted by local organization Newport Classical.
Among those present were older seniors, couples who appeared to be on afternoon dates and parents cradling young children. For many listeners, it was the first time they had heard saxophones playing classical music.
“I was like, ‘Woah, what’s this guy doing?’ said Newport resident Peter Bartram. “The acoustics of the church, when the bass and tenor were hitting those low notes – Oh my god, it just resonates inside. And I love it when it vibrates all your body.
Gillian Friedman Fox, executive director of Newport Classical, says those kinds of moments are what free concerts are all about. They aim to bring the community together and help people discover new forms of classical music, or introduce them to the genre for the first time. Fox says they are aware that listening to classical music can be intimidating.
“Classical music – and it’s everywhere – is plagued with this stigma of being for an educated audience, or that it’s something that can only be enjoyed if you’re an expert,” she said. declared. “We are really trying to change that.”
The organization was founded in 1969 and spearheaded over three decades by artistic director Mark Malkovich III, who made it a point to bring in international musicians for their American debuts. During these years, the organization was largely built around an annual summer festival which attracted many visitors with concerts at Newport’s iconic Gilded Age mansions.
Fox says photos from the 1970s and 80s show people at the festival wearing black tie outfits, such as tuxedos and dresses.
“And I think it’s very charming, looking back,” she said, but noted, “It’s not contemporary.”
Since Fox took the helm last year, Newport Classical has broken with its past and undergone a complete overhaul and name change. Until 2021 it was called the Newport Music Festival, which was easy to confuse with the city’s folk and jazz festivals. Fox says the organization is also reinventing its relationship with the surrounding community, aiming to be more relevant to Newport residents.
Last September, Newport Classical launched a year-round chamber music series with monthly concerts throughout the winter. These concerts are shorter than usual, limited to around an hour and fifteen minutes, so that young children and people with busy schedules can attend. While in town, professional musicians also visit local public schools to meet students and give workshops.
Trevor Neal, director of artistic planning and engagement at Newport Classical, says these initiatives are important for reaching members of the community who have often not been included in the past.
“Music knows no discrimination of color or socio-economic background,” he said. “And there are a lot of people who express a desire to know more or to know more about this art form, but feel that there is this barrier that tells them that it is not for them. .”
Neal’s current work is partly influenced by his own experience in the world of classical music. He is an opera singer, and prior to joining Newport Classical, he performed as a baritone in an opera company in San Jose. Neal says that as a music student, he saw a lot of diversity at the high school and college levels. After graduating, however, he often experienced being one of the few people of color in professional art spaces.
“So part of when I came here was also this piece – seeing how then Newport Music Festival, now Newport Classical, could find a way to bridge that gap between classical music and artists of color,” said Neal, “in a way that wasn’t, for lack of a better word, minstrel-like, but it was a true dedication to the craft of these artists.
Newport Classical is now investing in expanding the classical canon, with a focus on supporting composers and musicians from underrepresented backgrounds. Last year, the organization announced that it would begin commissioning a new work from a composer of color each year. This year, composer Shawn Okpebholo will debut a piece inspired by 19th-century composer Newport Gardner, who was once a slave and later established a music school in Newport.
It’s all part of a growing movement to make classical music a more equitable and accessible genre. Since 2012, Newport has already been home to the Newport String Project, a group that organizes free concerts and chamber music lessons for local students. Throughout the country, older institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic also offer free community concerts and educational programs. Newport Classical and its counterparts hope the projects will change the future of classical music and expand its audience.
“So I would say it’s becoming more and more common, but it’s important that presenting organizations [like Newport Classical] who are of this high level are committed to it,” said Dan Graser, a member of the Sinta Quartet, the classical saxophone group that performed the free community concert. “Because other presenters see it and then they’ll start to follow suit.”
During their performances, the Graser ensemble tries to keep things relaxed. The quartet pauses between tracks and takes turns explaining what they’re playing, as well as what people can listen to. They even tell jokes.
Graser says the concert experience isn’t about giving the audience an education. Too often, listening to classical music almost feels like eating your vegetables. It’s something that many people believe is good for them, but they shouldn’t necessarily like it. But the Sinta Quartet – and Newport Classical’s latest efforts more broadly – try to encourage people to listen for pure pleasure.
“People worry about not obtain classical music,” Graser said. “They start listening to it like they’re supposed to to have her – as opposed to just, like with any other music, enjoy her or not.
That’s what it means to have taste in music, says Graser. Audience members should be given the chance to get out and engage with classical music in the first place. Then they can decide for themselves.
Antonia Ayres-Brown is a Newport reporter for The Public’s Radio and a member of the Report for America corps. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org