Start a new classical music series and play the concerts in a barn in the heat of the summer. It seemed an improbable idea 15 years ago.
Chamber Music at the Barn was created by Wichita-area musicians tired of traveling to far-away summer festivals just to perform chamber music. The concerts have grown into a showpiece of Wichita's cultural scene.
This Wednesday through Friday, Chamber Music at the Barn returns to the Barn at Prairie Pines for its 15th summer season.
The first program, repeated nightly, features a quintet by Prokofiev, a piano quartet by Brahms and a trio for clarinet, viola and piano, "Scarlattiana," composed last year by Walter Mays of Wichita State University.
The roster of musicians — John Harrison, violin; Catherine Consiglio, viola; Andrew Kolb, cello; Mark Foley, bass; Amy Goeser Kolb, oboe; Suzanne Tirk, clarinet; and James Knight, piano— recreates the formula that has guided Chamber Music at the Barn from the start: Performers are almost always the top classical musicians in Wichita, are from Wichita, or once lived and worked in Wichita and have maintained close ties here.
This summer's Chamber Music at the Barn season includes four programs — this week's; string quartets by Mozart and Beethoven (June 29-July 1); the Quebe Sisters Band from Texas playing Western Swing (July 13-15); and the Pro Arte String Quartet from Madison, Wis. playing Mozart, Barber and Schubert (July 27-29).
A special one-night-only performance by mandolin virtuosos Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg will be added on Aug. 6.
"I have an outlet to play great music with my friends, and that is personally and professionally incredibly rewarding," said Consiglio, the group's co-founder and artistic director.
"And people love it. I get stopped in the grocery store or in the mall, and people are like, Hey, aren't you that lady out at the Barn? Every time people stop me and say they appreciate our efforts, I'm like, OK. I can do it for another year."
Economy takes its toll
Chamber Music at the Barn began in 1997 almost on a whim. Bob Scott, owner of Prairie Pines Christmas Tree Farm and a Wichita-based insurance agent, invited Consiglio to play concerts in his farm barn normally used as the gift shop and check-out area for Christmas tree sales.
"Bob said, 'If you do all the work, you can have the place free,' " Consiglio recalled. "So that's what happened."
Consiglio knew the chamber music repertoire and had connections to musicians around the country who would play it. Scott lent his business expertise to the enterprise as the group and its board of directors expanded the concert schedule, hosted summer music education camps and orchestrated fund-raising campaigns.
And then the economy took a nose dive.
"We had to transform our business pattern to survive," Scott said. "And we are surviving."
The past three years have been tough financially for Chamber Music at the Barn.
Since 2009, the group's annual budget was slashed from $325,000 to $206,000 this year, Scott said. The concert schedule has returned to four concerts (each repeated three times) from a high of six programs in 2004. Lack of funds, especially for tuition scholarships, forced the group to reduce student summer music camps from three weeks to one. Eighty student string players are expected at this year's "Bows at the Barn" summer camp in July.
Because of hard work and positive attitudes, successes at Chamber Music at the Barn outweigh the challenges, Scott and Consiglio said.
The series finished in the black last year.
The introduction this year of reserved seating inside the barn — and the addition of a "premium," front row tickets costing $10 extra — has given incentive for music lovers to purchase tickets in advance this year. The group so far has banked $33,600 in ticket sales (on a season goal of $45,000 in sales) compared with only $700 banked by mid-May in 2010, Scott said.
"I would say we're in the best shape ever for a season, a magnificent season of great music and great musicians," Scott said. "I think we'll sell out every concert this year."
To keep the season financially stable, the urgency of fundraising has increased, Scott said.
This year, Chamber Music at the Barn received $16,000 from the City of Wichita's arts grant programs and anticipated $10,000 in support in 2012. The group also received grants from the Kansas Arts Commission.
About 40 individuals, families, foundations and businesses annually give $1,000 or more to Chamber Music at the Barn, Scott said.
"I refer to it as a user's tax," Scott said. "We have said to the people, If you want this to keep on going on, everyone has got to step up and do a little more. So far so good this year."
Consiglio keeps an eye on the business and financial challenges facing Chamber Music at the Barn.
"It still amazes me that in a community of almost half a million how many people have no idea this festival is going on," she said.
But her main focus is on music.
In planning seasons year after year, Consiglio said she works hard to keep concert programs fresh and varied while not neglecting the core classics — by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and the like — that musicians and chamber music fans love.
"One of the best-received concerts we ever played was on our 10-anniversary opening concert (in 2006), the five Brandenburg concertos (by Bach)," Consiglio said. "We have never sold tickets so crazy; every corner was filled. People just can't get enough of those Brandenburg concertos. When we make it to 20 years, I'll probably do it again."
She says she rigorously calculates the length of concerts so people can enjoy the performance without the pressures of life intruding.
"I generally try to stay right around 60 to 70 minutes of music," Consiglio said. "People are tired late at night. People have jobs. And frankly, I think attention span is different than it was. People are busy; they have a lot to do."
The concert experience will remain essentially unchanged this season at Chamber Music at the Barn. A buffet dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m., with folks taking plates and glasses to tables and chairs set around the well-shaded garden behind the barn. Folks can stroll in the amphitheater, over the bridge and around the lake before the concerts begin.
Folks still can enjoy the music facing the stage inside the barn or watch and hear the live performance as it unfolds on a big-screen TV set up outdoors in the garden. For garden seating, picnics and coolers are welcome.
And because all seats inside are now reserved, this year there will be no rush for prime front row spots upon the opening of the doors.
It's all part of the 15-year odyssey to make concerts at Chamber Music at the Barn as enjoyable for listeners as they are for the performers.
"If there's one thing I could ask of our audiences this year, it's, 'Tell five people about whatever it is you love at Chamber Music at the Barn and get more people out there,' " Consiglio said. "If there's something about it that keeps you coming back, tell people about it."
If you go: Chamber Music at the Barn
What: Music by Prokofiev, Brahms and Walter Mays with John Harrison, violin; Catherine Consiglio, viola; Andrew Kolb, cello; Mark Foley, bass; Amy Goeser Kolb, oboe; Suzanne Tirk, clarinet; James Knight, piano
Where: The Barn at Prairie Pines, 4055 N. Tyler Road
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, doors open 7:45 p.m. Dinner at 6:30 p.m.
How much: Concert and dinner $37-$47 barn, $27 garden. Concert only $22-$32 barn, $12 garden. All barn seats reserved.
For more information, visit www.cmatb.org or call 316-721-7666.