- Matthew Thorsen
Imagine a reincarnated Mozart Festival but smaller, financially leaner, and without the weather problems. That’s the idea behind a new collaboration between Melvin Kaplan, founder of the iconic Vermont festival that ended in 2010 after 37 summers, and Michael Dabroski, who cofounded the Burlington Ensemble, now in its third year.
The pair is offering two consecutive weeks of nearly daily, high-quality classical-music concerts during the second half of July. Kaplan’s five-concert Vermont Summer Music Festival occurs during the third week of the month, and the seven concerts of Dabroski’s Burlington Ensemble Summer Serenades are packed into the fourth week. At most of the concerts, audiences will be able, once again, to picnic at venues long associated with the Mozart Fest, including Shelburne Farms and Stowe’s Trapp Meadow. Then they’ll move to the Coach Barn, Trapp Family Lodge and other indoor locales to hear the music.
At Kaplan’s rustic converted barn in Charlotte, the men explain how the collaboration came about. Dabroski, a violinist, began playing Mozart Fest concerts in 2006, a year after he moved to Vermont from a sparsely populated town in upstate New York. There he had run the Adirondack Ensemble for 10 years.
“When I played with Mel in these concerts,” Dabroski recalls, “I was just in awe of his idea. The audiences were so huge, and a lot of dollars were generated through tourism. I thought it was a brilliant idea.”
Dabroski also began touring with Kaplan’s New York Chamber Soloists Orchestra, the group that formed the core of the Mozart Festival performers, in which Kaplan has long played oboe.
When the festival ended in December 2010, it was difficult to attribute its financial demise to any one factor. Dabroski, who has “studied the tax filings,” has concluded that too much money went to administrative costs. Kaplan adds that the annual full-color brochure mailed to innumerable residences was an enormous cost in itself, and unusually wet weather during the festival’s last few years hurt ticket sales.
What both musicians say they worried about most was the cultural loss to Vermonters. In the fest’s wake, says Dabroski, he and Kaplan “started to talk a lot about how the community is really going to miss out.”
So last year, they each launched mini-festivals. The difference this year is that the men scheduled them back to back to create two continuous weeks of concerts — nearly the length of the three-week Mozart fests. And instead of spending on marketing and brochures, each emailed his constituency the full schedule of both weeks’ concerts.
“We could be competing with each other, and instead we’re trying to help each other,” says Kaplan. With ticket sales typically covering only 60 percent of artistic costs, and given Vermont’s small pool of classical-music donors, he adds, collaboration is crucial.
The men’s strengths complement each other. Dabroski, as impassioned about business as he is about music, already has an extensive email list from his work with BE that reaches far beyond classical-music regulars. The chamber group donates most of its profits to local charities, but advertises via the charities’ combined email lists and social-media sites — a path to financial sustainability that Dabroski hopes will become a new model for classical groups.
Kaplan’s strength is in his extensive music-world contacts. The oboist studied at Julliard and then taught there for three decades, after which he began representing other musicians through his agency, Melvin Kaplan, Inc. (His office moved fully to Vermont from New York City in 1980.) For the Vermont Summer Music Festival, he has secured both Rachel Barton Pine, a violinist whose Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center concert is the one Dabroski most looks forward to; and the renowned pianist Menahem Pressler.
“That’s one of the things I love about Mel: He finds and manages these amazing artists,” comments Dabroski.
Kaplan’s contacts outside the music world are impressive, too: His old friend Robert Haas, the longtime wine importer and vintner, will preface a Bach-Beethoven-Brahms concert at Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes with a talk about wine. Samples will be served along with picnic boxes prepared and sold by the Club.
Dabroski’s BE Summer Serenades draw more on local talent, says the violinist, including Kaplan’s own nephew’s son, pianist David Kaplan. That focus is part of BE’s effort to “make music with a social mission”: The summer festival raises money to fund the group’s 90/10 concerts during the year, which support local nonprofits and boost the local economy.
“Nobody’s getting to be a millionaire from this,” Dabroski says with a chuckle. But with his business acumen and Kaplan’s contacts, the new take on Vermont’s old Mozart Fest just might have staying power.