We catch up with one of the founders of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival
Karen Fuller credits a public-school band program for igniting her love of the flute. Since relocating to South Florida in 1988, Fuller has shared that love and her talent as a member of numerous orchestras, including the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra, The Symphonia Boca Raton, and the Miami City Ballet in The Palm Beaches’ Opus One Orchestra.
In 1992, in response to the dearth of summer performance opportunities, Fuller, bassoonist Michael Ellert, and clarinetist Michael Forte founded the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival. Now in its thirty-first season, the festival takes place every July in intimate venues across the county. Here, A&C chats with Fuller about the festival, its programming, and how to be an attentive audience member. pbcmf.org, 561.547.1070
A&C: How does the fact that musicians are deciding the programming impact what the festival presents?
Fuller: We survey our musicians and say, “Send us your wish list.” We take all of that and then try to make sure that our programming is audience-friendly. Usually, we choose a big anchor piece for each program that we know is going to be something our audiences [will] enjoy—either an important string quartet by Beethoven, a Brahms piano trio, or a Dvorak quintet, something like that. We always try to have music that classical music fans are going be excited to hear, but we also try to incorporate things that are a little off the beaten path. It’s funny because a number of times we’ve had audience members come up to us and say, “Well, I really came to the concert to hear the Beethoven string quartet, but my favorite piece was [the] unusual piece.” Our audiences have come to trust us. We always try to have a balance between repertoire that we know our audience wants to hear and repertoire that we’re interested in playing.
Is there a composer you wish was more well-known?
We did a focus on women composers, and there are a couple of female composers [whom] I particularly like. There’s a quintet for flute and strings by Amy Beach that’s an absolutely wonderful piece, and that’s actually on one of our albums. There’s another woman, Louise Farrenc, who also wrote in this very beautiful and romantic style. She wrote beautiful, beautiful pieces, and I have a list of some that I’d like to do.
If someone has never attended a chamber music performance before, what would you say to try to convince them to go to one?
One of the things that I love about chamber music and about the format that we use is that it’s very intimate. We do it in small venues, and we don’t have written program notes. For each piece, one of the musicians will announce what the piece is and give some background on the composer. You get a very up-close view of the musicians and what they’re doing because of the small size of our venues. We always have a little reception after, so you have an opportunity to speak to the musicians and ask them questions. If you’ve never been to a classical music concert, there’s nothing intimidating about it at all. It’s very warm, welcoming, and personal.
What tips would you give an audience member to help them enhance their listening experience?
The first thing is that if you know what the program is ahead of time, listen to the music before you go to the concert. One of the things that I think is so enjoyable about listening to music is when you have some familiarity with it. I just played a Beatles pops concert in Sarasota, and I knew every single one of those tunes. I could sing along, and it was just so fun because it was so familiar. You can have that experience with classical music as well. So, if there is one piece on the program that you can choose to listen to before you go to the concert, then when you get to hear the live performance, it just gives you a little extra appreciation.
[Also,] I know from non-musician friends and audience members, one of the things that they enjoy so much is being able to not only listen to the music, but the experience of watching the musicians and watching what they’re doing during the performance, how they’re interacting with each other. Make sure that you choose a seat where you can really see because that is part of the experience of live music. It’s not just listening but watching and experiencing the musicians actually making the music.
A&C:How did you come to choose the flute as your instrument?
Karen Fuller: I actually started on the piano when I was 6 years old. I loved it, but honestly, I just was not the most gifted pianist. I had to work pretty hard for an average result. When I was around 10, I had the opportunity to try a wind instrument and I started on the clarinet. I liked the mellow sound of the clarinet, and I played the clarinet for about three months and realized that it was not for me. Fortunately, my parents were very flexible. So, when I said, “I actually don’t want to play the clarinet after all, I want to try the flute,” they said sure. I started playing the flute and just fell in love and have been doing that ever since. It was definitely the result of a wonderful public school band program that got me started. I did go back to the piano when I was in high school because I knew that I wanted to go to music school for college and I needed to have some piano proficiency. So, I did go back to the piano, but the flute was always a more natural fit for me.
What was the original inspiration behind starting the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival?
We were all working orchestra musicians and there was nothing happening in the summer. Every year, our summers just stretched before us as this big, empty void. A couple of colleagues from the Palm Beach Opera and I decided that if we were going to keep performing in the summer, we were going to have to figure it out for ourselves. That first summer, we tapped a number of our colleagues and just said, “We don’t have any money, but do you want to get together and play some chamber music?” We had a friend, Lee Bell, who was at the Kravis Center for many years, but before that he was at the Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth. He allowed us to use their little recital hall for free, and we advertised in the free calendar listings in the Palm Beach Post. We laugh when we look back now [because] when we were backstage before our first concert, we were imagining that the only people in the audience were going to be Michael Forte’s, our clarinetist, parents. But, it had about a hundred seats, and when we came out, it was packed.
Do you have a personal favorite composer or style of music?
I love the French repertoire, and we’ve done a lot of wonderful pieces by French composers. It’s funny, I always discover that as soon as I start delving into a piece by either a familiar or unfamiliar composer, I always end up loving it. Just through the act of studying, practicing, and rehearsing it, you come to really appreciate it on such a level [that] it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.
What insight or tips would you share with young aspiring professional musicians looking to work in South Florida?
It’s very challenging. Young musicians these days, there is a lot more pressure on them to be entrepreneurial. We did do that with the Chamber Music Festival 30 years ago; we created our little summer concert series, but none of us have gotten rich off of doing that. Ever since our second season, we have paid our musicians, but it really is a labor of love on all of our parts. To actually make a living here in South Florida, where there’s no full-time orchestra, you really have to have that entrepreneurial spirit. You’ve got to find teaching opportunities. You’ve got to contact everyone you know in order to find performance opportunities. You’ve got to create your own performance opportunities. You have to be prepared to maybe do some other things on the side while you’re getting things up and running for yourself. But if you’re really, really determined, you can definitely make a way for yourself.