​Behind the Scenes at the SSMF

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

For festival-goers, the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (SSMF) doesn’t begin until June each year. But for those who work to put on the festival, planning and organization begins months in advance.
Evelyn Loehrlein, who came to Sewanee as a student in the late ’80s, serves as the director of the festival, overseeing everything that goes into making the month-long event a success. She spends months working with others behind the scenes of the festival, recruiting students, managing all artistic aspects, deciding on the conductors for each year and the pieces they conduct and hiring and supervising all faculty and music teachers.
“I’ve already started preparing now for next year’s festival,” said Loehrlein. “I’m in the process of setting our dates now. I have to work with summer conferences to make sure all the spaces will be available. There’s about 250 of us so where everybody lives is a big piece of the puzzle. I actually started talking last year to summer conferences about 2018. I sent a message to the dean proposing dates and I’ve already started working with admissions to design a postcard for next year.”
Loehrlein said things are slow for a couple months after the festival, but soon things pick up as the recruitment and hiring processes begin again. Recruitment is one of the biggest and most important processes that occurs behind the scenes.
“When you recruit for a musical festival like ours, you basically have to get the exact right instruments for an orchestra. It’s not like band where anyone who showed up got to play. Recruitment is a big jigsaw puzzle. You have to get exactly the right number for two orchestras. That is very complicated and a lot of work,” said Loehrlein. “My goal is to have a few more violins and violas than we have, but I’m happy to say we’re really close to our target numbers. In 2014, we had 162 students. We have 200 students this year, so we have grown a lot since then.”
César Leal, assistant professor of musicology at the University and artistic director of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra, began working with the festival last year.
Leal also serves as a member of the Artistic Advisory Committee for the festival, helping to decide what direction the program will go in each year.
“We start to talk about programs, which is a very delicate process, and that takes about a month. When the conductors suggest what pieces they want to conduct with the orchestras, we get together and analyze the pieces. We see the program from an artistic, narrative standard, and we must decide whether adding that piece to the program is cohesive and makes sense,” said Leal.
Leal said because each of the students have different needs and come to the festival at varying levels, the preparation begins early enough to consider all the students.
“The needs are different so we strive to give them the opportunity to play pieces they will find later in their careers. We coordinate with our music librarian who gets all the music prepared to challenge the students to the max of their abilities while understanding their preparation, artistic level, and music maturity,” said Leal.
Both Loehrlein and Leal say the aim of the festival is to provide the students with a professional-level experience.
“The format of the festival very much mimics the professional experience, with four or five rehearsals before the students must perform the piece in concert, change conductors and repeat the process. The festival aims to get the students the opportunity to experience the real life of a professional orchestral musician,” said Leal. “When I lived in Paris, I would often get a last-minute phone call—‘Somebody gave us your name. Can you be here at 7:30?’”
“They learn repertoire here that will allow them to say yes when those calls come,” said Loehrlein. “We’re really focused on training them in things that they need to know when they go to college or when they become a professional.”
In addition to gaining professional-level training and performance experience, students of the SSMF learn discipline and how to overcome limitations both in their musical ventures and in life in general.
“Students know from an early age what it’s like to be a professional musician. Performance can be very unfair—you’re measured only by the results, not the process. A five-minute audition in which you put years and years and years of work can be decisive, so we help them understand how that process affects their professional life. A lot of the students come from different states and countries, bringing with them different experiences, different teachers and styles. They get the experience of comradery and of learning from their peers, and they get good exposure to the future leaders of musical ensembles,” said Leal.
For Loehrlein, the 11 months of work that goes into executing the festival is absolutely worth it.
“I love getting to know the kids and their families. I feel like I’m part of their family when they get here. They’re so happy to see me because they understand all the work I’ve done to get them to come. That part is a lot of fun. It’s just off the charts rewarding when it’s going on. I just have goosebumps for four weeks,” said Loehrlein. “Sewanee is a magical place. When you add the special things about the music festival to what’s already special about this place, it just becomes magical.”
That Sewanee magic is not lost on Leal either.
“Getting to work with young musicians is one of the most rewarding experiences. When you see these kids playing a piece of music at the level we have here, their eyes just sparkle. They are blossoming in a month,” said Leal. “Small things like a passage they have not been able to play for the last year, they play and practice and all of a sudden, they experience what music can do for them and have a feeling of accomplishment and being able to express themselves and getting to put themselves in the music. Getting to witness that is a privilege.”