Essay for the Festival’s 31st season (2011), the first following Dr. Karson’s retirement
It still seems hard to believe that this year’s Baroque Music Festival, Corona del Mar, isn’t being overseen by Barton Karson. It’s also hard to believe that it has now been a full 30 years since he cofounded the Festival, together with art historian Irmeli Desenberg and her husband Bud. And it’s just as astounding to realize that, for every one of those 30 years, he served as its artistic director, conductor, organizer, champion, muse and creative force.
Yet, after guiding the Festival from strength to strength through three decades of steady growth, Karson announced this past winter that he felt the time had come to retire. And so the first chapter of the Festival’s remarkable history ends, even as a new one is beginning.
The original concept of the Festival evolved from a dinner conversation one evening in 1980 at the Desenbergs’ home. Karson and the other classical music-lovers present were lamenting the dearth of local concerts, especially during the summer. As they talked, they began to brainstorm the idea of organizing a small series of musical events the following June (“when,” as Karson later quipped, “our academic and social calendars would be empty”). The concept grew; planning committees were formed; venues were found; and the Baroque Music Festival, Corona del Mar, was inaugurated in June 1981 under Karson’s able artistic directorship.
That first Festival, consisting of three concerts and a lecture, was a hit. As critic Daniel Cariaga wrote afterward in the Los Angeles Times, “The no-man’s land between the winter and summer seasons raises some strange one-time-only blooms, but the little Baroque Festival that emerged in Corona del Mar last week deserves to blossom annually.” From that point on, there was no doubt that the Festival would become a yearly event.
Nor was there any doubt that Karson had the enthusiasm and experience to make it happen. As a Professor of Music at California State University, Fullerton, he was well known and respected in the local music community, writing regularly in a variety of publications. And in the years to come he would become even more beloved for his engaging lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Carmel Bach Festival, the San Diego Opera and Symphony Orchestra, the Long Beach Symphony and other groups. (He continues today as a regular pre-concert speaker for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.)
Throughout each of the following 29 summers, Karson consistently produced a crowd-pleasing and critically acclaimed series of concerts. His Festivals brought together distinguished Baroque musicians, from both the local region and the broader national scene, for a week in June to perform in a series of concerts and recitals. Karson conducted the choral and orchestral ensembles himself, and in many instances also accompanied the performers on piano, organ, or harpsichord.
Each season, he worked tirelessly to select musical works from both well-known and less familiar Baroque composers. Thanks to his meticulous research and study of unpublished manuscripts in European musical archives, Corona del Mar had the distinction of hosting the first modern performances of long-forgotten pieces of historical importance. He also broadened our focus to include neo-Baroque pieces by Romantic and contemporary composers, and commissioned several works especially for the Festival.
Karson often developed concerts or entire Festivals around significant musical themes or events. He frequently transcribed and arranged music to suit particular instruments or vocalists. He insisted that period instruments be utilized in performances whenever possible, to achieve an authentically Baroque style and sound. In addition, he sought to explain the musical selections through insightful program notes and concert commentary, so that audiences could gain a fuller appreciation of the works themselves and the cultural context in which they were created. From the beginning, he undertook to link the music with literature, history and visual arts from the period.
One of the primary objectives that Karson established for the Festival early on was to recapture the feel of musical experiences from the Baroque era by holding events in small churches, gardens, even private homes. It was largely through his personal associations that the initial venues for the Baroque Music Festival emerged the Sherman Library and Gardens, and Saint Michael & All Angel’s Church. The fine reputation of the Festival made it welcome in a number of other settings as well: hence, in 2009 and 2010, the Festival Finale was performed in St. Mark Presbyterian Church and Newport Harbor Lutheran Church, respectively. Other features of the Festival were designed to evoke the intimacy of Baroque-era performance: intermission and post-concert refreshments were provided, and audience members were encouraged to mingle with the performing artists.
Beyond his artistic direction, Karson handled much of the administrative responsibilities of the Festival since its inception, ranging from planning events and raising funds to drafting press releases and locating accommodations for out-of-area musicians. He worked collaboratively with the volunteer Board of Directors and many others who helped make the Festival a reality each year. And it was all a labor of love for him: he never received any payment for his work as artistic director, administrator, conductor or performer.
One annual fundraising event he introduced was a Winter Musicale, which provided an occasion to reach beyond the Baroque epoch and showcase talented soloists in a lively program. The Musicale this past February also served as an opportunity for the Board of Directors and others to celebrate his long-standing contribution to the Festival, as it coincided with his well-deserved “retirement.” The Board is commissioning a piece of neo-Baroque music in his honor, which will be performed at a future Festival concert.
To all who appreciate the extraordinary dedication Dr. Karson has shown in his stewardship of this organization, he is and always will be the esteemed “Maestro.” His long-standing contributions to the musical culture of our community are truly exceptional, and they have allowed the Baroque Music Festival to achieve its distinction as the oldest continuing performing arts organization in Newport Beach. The outstanding success of the thirtieth Festival season last year, as evidenced by sold-out performances, represented a fitting capstone to his illustrious career.
All of us on the Board of Directors of the Baroque Music Festival, Corona del Mar, owe Burton Karson our warmest thanks. And even as we still find it hard to believe that he has retired, we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.