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Eighteen years of classical excellence:
Northern Arizona’s Finest Music Lives in Sedona
by Dennis Sigman

Back in the farthest reaches of the sanctuary, Bert Harclerode bites his nails nervously, and one knee beats out a quick rhythm, hoping to hurry the mass along. At the pulpit, the priest senses the urgency. Finally the mass concludes, the parishioners stir, and Harclerode scuds down the aisle. “We pass like two ships in the night, “ says Father J.C. Oritz. “He’s headed for the microphone to ask if there are any strong men to help move the altar off and move the piano on.”

In the ensuing bustle, one emotionally stirring event makes way for another in the numinous setting of St. John Vianney Church with its huge windows embracing the red rocks of Sedona. Chamber Music Sedona, now in its 18th season, prepares to present one of its superlative concerts. By three o’clock, the church is a concert hall filled with music lovers. The ensemble strides down the aisle to vigorous applause, the music begins, and for two hours the audience basks in musical brilliance.

Humble beginnings

After a rather informal inception in 1982, with concerts by founder and pianist Judith Ginsberg and “friends,” the necessary non-profit status was acquired and chamber music commenced its struggle to prominence. Under the leadership of music-addicted board presidents like Hazel Wait and Caye Hill, Sedona Chamber Music Society, as it was then called, took on the formidable cultural acclivity, a fickle and fainŽant public.

The proceeding presidents, Thom Leenhouts, Hans Lampl, and Lelia Schoenberg, with deep musical backgrounds, and strengthened by the muscle of Sedona’s renowned volunteers, firmly affixed the organization to the cultural landscape of Sedona. With an ever-vigilant eye toward excellence, SCMS played its two-week festival to audiences in Sedona, Jerome, Flagstaff, and Prescott.

Of course, success in the arts is tenuous at best. Relentless shepherding is required to keep it viable. It needs to be nurtured, pushed, pulled, whipped, and inspired. Success in the arts needs to be innovative and provocative. Complacency and angst over change is the harbinger of an organization’s demise. And slipping into mediocrity in art is death.

Big Changes

In 1993, two notable events occurred; first, CMS received a coveted $30,000 grant from Chamber Music America, and second, they hired bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Bert Harclerode to be executive director. Harclerode, issuing from a musically oriented family, was trained as both a classical musician and as a music administrator. He even married a musician, Rita Borden who is currently with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra. Harclerode knows the inside track in the music world as well, if not better, than most. The result of these two events doubled the attendance at the 1994 chamber festival.

With this new kid on the block, CMS had its adjustments to make both strategically and emotionally. Organizational obligations and responsibilities had to be redefined. Keeping in mind their guiding principles of excellence and professionalism, CMS adapted well, if not easily, to this new dynamic and has prospered under the directorship of Harclerode. Chamber Music Sedona has grown from a two-week, eight-concert festival, to 18 concerts performed in a year-round season. The annual budget has grown from $35,000 to $225,000!

Although CMS has survived and flourished because of these principles, developing a symbiotic relationship with the community that spawned it is paramount. The organization interacts with the community by developing appreciation for chamber music with educational programs like the Sedona Library Music Education Series, Resident Artists Program, Sedona Youth Orchestra, and The Quick Memorial Competition, all of which are free.

“Each year for the last seven years we have presented in our season ensembles from Northern Arizona University, and we pay for their services,” said Harclerode. By incorporating regional musicians into the season’s programs, it helps bring recognition to the musicians and to NAU.

In 1998, CMS received a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Grant to partner up with two other key Sedona arts organizations to expand the role of performing arts in Northern Arizona. One is the Sedona Cultural Park “field of dreams.” The other is the Sedona Arts Center, which is somewhat confusing since performing arts seem to be anathema to the Art Center’s vision. Nevertheless, this broader based approach intends to pool resources to build audience levels.

By examining the attitudes and methodology of Chamber Music Sedona’s managing team, Harclerode and current Board President Jim Pease, the other arts organizations could readily find a model of stability and growth.

Changing Sedona for the Better

Sedona’s image of itself as an “arts community” is mostly illusory. Simply because there is a plethora of retail stores filled with statues and paintings, many in the community cloak themselves in aesthetic garb. In reality, the emperor has no clothes. There is minimal attention to art, music, theatre and dance in the schools. Theatre and dance are currently dead or moribund within the city limits. The city fathers have, to date, focused their efforts on quantitative growth and have largely ignored the quality of life.

“I’m not convinced that the collective political body, the Sedona City Council fully understands and appreciates what the arts can do, and indeed does, for Sedona. . . “ said Harclerode, his eyes focused somewhere in the future at Sedona’s cultural crossroads,  “unlike the city of Aspen or the city of Santa Fe, where there is support for their arts organizations to a major degree.” Acknowledging that Sedona is less than two-decades old, he continues, “this is something that the visionaries and leaders will serve our community well by taking into the larger pictureÉ for the better of the whole community.”

In spite of this cultural malaise, and given the size of our town, Chamber Music Sedona is a rara avis in the music world. It consistently brings to our community the greatest music ensembles from around the world that nourish us with the greatest music ever written. It presents renowned and diverse ensembles like the Amadeus Trio, Atlantic Brass Quintet, Dorian Woodwind Quintet, and The Saint Petersburg String Quartet. It surprises us with the new sounds from groups like the lovely Anonymous 4, the wild Trio Voronezh from Russia, Corkey Siegel’s Chamber Blues, and alternative music great Paul Winter’s Earth Band.

Wearing the mantle of fine art, as befits Chamber Music Sedona, does not necessitate elitism, although, that has been the plight of many an organization. Its roots are deep into the firmament of Sedona, even as it reaches national prominence. Its ticket prices are within reach of most of its citizens. It plays in a warm and accepting environment.

Most importantly, CMS serves up to us a feast of beautiful music. It is not an illusion; it is the paradigm that other arts organizations might well emulate.

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