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At Summer Music Festivals, Soft Breezes Meet Winds of Change

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Here are some scenes from my festival life. Swimming in a Savonlinna lake after the opera, at 2 am in broad daylight. Declaiming A Survivor from Warsaw amid rolling Devon hills at Dartington. Being browbeaten by Evgeny Kissin on the vertiginous main street at Verbier. Getting lost at night down a Moroccan souk at Fez. Drinking Chardonnay on a picnic blanket at Glyndebourne. Losing a memory contest with Menahem Pressler in Ottawa.

The best summer festivals are outlets of escape from the rituals and formality of city life, places where artists can try new repertoire without fear and mingle without condescension. That was the dream when Salzburg was founded after the First World War and, if those ideals got a little trampled in the march of time, there are still plenty of festivals that are blessed havens of contentment. There are 600 music festivals in France alone; who knew?

For much of its modern history, the festival industry was divided by wealth and class. The upper crust – Bayreuth, Salzburg, Lucerne, Baden-Baden, Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne – were enclaves for the super-rich. The rest foraged for funding from state and private sponsors while proclaiming an ideal human unity in art.

The barriers between rich and poor, however, are tumbling in a blizzard of economic retrenchment. There is hardly a festival on earth that is not thinking about redefining what festivals ought to be in the 21st century.

Glyndebourne, for instance, a family estate on the Sussex Downs south of London, is building a wind turbine to generate its own electricity and broadcasting its operas on the website of a radical newspaper, the Guardian: so much for upper-class opera. Salzburg, once a haven for plutocrats, now fosters student tickets and contemporary music.

In 2009, Salzburg tripled its revenue from Chinese visitors and drew 60 percent more Russians. Others sat up and took note. This year, the Edinburgh Festival will seek to reverse a prolonged creative decline by staging a Chinese-language Hamlet, a Korean Tempest and a Taiwan production of King Lear. Scotland, itself inching towards national self-redefinition, is pitching its premier arts event more as a Far East tourist magnet than as a communal celebration of culture. Once a citadel of theatre and concerts, Edinburgh draws more business nowadays to film, comedy and book fests.

The tectonic plates are starting to shift in the US as well. At Glimmerglass (pictured), Francesca Zambello is moving away from opera-centricity towards a multi-disciplinary festival that organizes country hikes, collaborates with the Fennimore art museum and gets Met diva Deborah Voigt to strut it in a stage musical, Annie Get Your Gun.

At Ojai, this summer’s artistic director Dawn Upshaw has moved away from obvious festival fare to embrace a spectrum from Purcell to George Crumb. Marlboro, too, is in throes of generational renewal with pianists Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida introducing an improvisatory, spontaneous air to the programming -- much as Martha Argerich has done at Lugano -- to an extent that the audience never quite knows what to expect.

Elsewhere, the picture is less promising. Many of America’s summer festivals are little more than add-ons to its orchestral seasons. With orchestras in varying degrees of financial difficulty, the festivals are looking threadbare. Tanglewood, crushed by James Levine’s withdrawal this summer, needs to rethink its dependency on maestros and renew its Koussevitsky compact with young composers. Ravinia, Blossom and Aspen don’t look much livelier. There’s work to be done in renewing their purpose.

The best thing about festivals is that, like Web sites, anyone can launch one. I know a farmer’s wife in Devon who started a piano festival in the wake of a cattle crisis; it’s now in its tenth year, and thriving. A London cello student told me the other day how he and kids from his conservatory class were taking music in the summer vac to remote churches.

An Irish pianist, Cathal Breslin, founded a festival in Derry in 2008 with his American flautist wife Sabrina Hu inspired, he tells me, ‘by the Fulbright ideal – that each Fulbright scholar must return to his or her home country to apply experiences they had gained in the US.’

There may be pessimists in more sclerotic parts of the performing arts world, but this is no time to be down in the mouth about festivals. Brochures drop into my mailbox on an almost daily and there are signs of invention and reinvention wherever I go. A festival in my back garden – why not?

It may be that the most inspiring performances of my life were partaken in opera houses and concert halls of great cities, but by far the most enjoyable occasions were experienced in festival venues, where artists were under less pressure of perfection and audiences on a lower level of stress. That’s where transmission occurs. That’s where art begins.

Photo: Glimmerglass Opera: Alice Busch Opera Theater (Cory Weaver)

Audio: Norman Lebrecht speaks with Jeff Spurgeon:

Do you have a favorite festival memory? Please share it below in the comments box.