Mission Blue's Small-Town Values

Jonathan Rhodes Lee on October 7, 2008
The Bay Area must be one of the few places where fledgling classical music presenters can find support in an already teeming marketplace. Now you can add another newcomer to the list of those you’ve heard of: Live at Mission Blue, a relatively young chamber music series, which opens its fifth season this Saturday evening. The concerts take place in the Mission Blue Center, perched high in the city of Brisbane's San Bruno Hills, a 15-minute drive from downtown San Francisco. A new chamber music series. That phrase evokes all kinds of associations. You might imagine wonderful music, performed by devoted, expert musicians, for a highly appreciative (if small) audience. You conjure up intimate spaces, and audience communication with the artists. And then you might imagine reading the back of the program, with its obligatory mantra: “Our ticket sales only cover a small portion of our operating costs. Whatever you can contribute would be much appreciated.” Live at Mission Blue, named after the endangered butterfly in that area, is a different creature altogether. It is the brainchild of harpsichord builder Kevin Fryer, and it has hosted such well-known local and internationally renowned talent as Kitka, the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet, and lutenist Hopkinson Smith. On the upcoming fifth season, they will feature the men’s a cappela choir Clerestory, harpist Cheryl Ann Fulton, the New Esterházy String Quartet, and others.
Kevin Fryer
Fryer has worked hard to put together an organization that is fully funded each year before a single note is played, and one that also manages to contribute in more than only musical ways to the town that supports it. Fryer sees his project as far more than just a chamber music series. It’s an integral part of a vital community network. “Here we are in the rarified classical music world,” he mused in a recent interview, “and we don’t usually think, ‘Can a concert series do this? ... Are the arts an important part of community-building efforts?’ The answer is absolutely. Absolutely.”

Linking Music to Civics

Brisbane Mayor Michael Barnes agrees. Live at Mission Blue, he says, is “a tangible benefit of city government for the citizens of Brisbane. ... I’ve talked to some Brisbane residents who have been transformed by the experience of listening to a concert of Kitka, for instance. People are transported out of Brisbane. ... They’re taken to a different place. It’s a public benefit, and I hope that they understand that it’s a benefit that is partially supplied by their local government.” Indeed, Brisbane's support for this series is exemplary for any town, large or small. It’s a testament to the far-sighted city officials and the civic pride of the 3,900 people who live there that the city itself funds the Mission Blue Center, which doubles as an arts performance space and a community center. The city also offers generous support to this particular concert series. City Manager Clay Holstein has referred to Live at Mission Blue as “the marquee event at the facility.” Like everyone else I talked to about Fryer’s series, Holstein is passionate about the music, but equally so about the benefits for the community at large: “Live at Mission Blue has given the facility a bit of a name and a bit of panache. It’s a rallying cry for this community to get around. ... That’s not to be underestimated. It’s an important contribution to our community.”
The Mission Blue Center
So what, in tangible terms, has this chamber music series done for this little town? To begin with, it’s helped quell a controversy. The Mission Blue Center sits in the middle of a large housing development built by the Brookfield Homes corporation. Some town residents contested the development for often-heard reasons — everything from changing the city’s aesthetic to worries about harm to the San Bruno mountains’ natural environment. The latest controversy involves protecting the habitat of the rare Callippe Silverspot butterfly while still trying to expand the existing housing. Says Holstein, “The Center and the concert series have in some ways been a site of healing.” Mayor Barnes stresses that point as well: “[The concerts] take people out of central Brisbane. They have to go over to the northeast ridge to enjoy this public benefit that was a result of some very controversial housing. And maybe it makes them think differently about new housing. Maybe it makes them think differently about development, that development is not all about spoiling the natural environment, but also has cultural benefits that a number of people in Brisbane get to enjoy. I do believe the concert series has brought both of the residential districts of the town together. There is no denying that; [it’s] absolutely true. And the performing arts center would not have been possible without the Brookfield Homes development.”

High-Concept, Grand Design

To mend some of the hard feelings that arose around this expansion, Brookfield Homes worked hand in hand with Carol Nelson, former director of community development for the city, to provide the town with a state-of-the-art community center. From the beginning, however, Nelson and her colleagues envisioned something more than the typical multipurpose building. They wanted, as she put it, a community center that “did not go down to the lowest common denominator, as so many of them do. [We didn’t want] something you could hose off.” Nelson put together a team for planning the facility that included the architect for the Brookfield Homes townhouses, who ensured that the Center's visual style matched that of the surrounding hillside homes, as well as Nancy Johnson, a consultant with a distinguished resume. Johnson has worked at the San Francisco Ballet School for many years (she was once a dancer with the company), and has also served as the executive director of the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and as the director of operations for the San Francisco Symphony. Armed with such an experienced arts advocate for a partner, Nelson was able to design a center that is a dream come true for chamber music and performing arts fans. The space seats approximately 200 people, and boasts such fancy accoutrements as technology for advanced lighting design, sprung floors designed by a specialist in dance floors (to prevent injury to dancers' bodies), a proper “green room” for the performers, and a fully equipped kitchen for catered receptions. And then, of course, there are the acoustics, of which Nelson is very proud: “If you appreciate acoustic music, and you love the intimacy of it, that’s what we achieved. I remember going to a lute concert there, and I felt as if I’d never really heard a lute before, because [there] you can hear every single note.” The experience is a unique one in this area. “There’s nothing else like it,” Nelson raves. “I’ve been a subscriber to early music for a long time; I mean, the [San Francisco Early] Music Society. They use different venues, and none of them has the acoustic that Mission Blue has.” Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock agrees, having publicly deemed the acoustics at the Center “the best in the state of California for chamber music.” The Center also enjoys extremely quiet surroundings that complement the acoustics inside. Unlike many other concert venues, this one will never be interrupted by sirens or street arguments. Concerts there may even lead people to forget that the site is so close to the center of San Francisco.

Classical for the People

All this city planning has paid off in spades. The municipal support for this project, which amounts to about one third of the total operating costs each year, pays for use of the space, piano rentals, lighting and lightboard operators, insurance costs, sound technicians, and concert promotions. Fryer works hard throughout the months between seasons to put together a donor base to cover performer fees, and Brookfield Homes remains one of the principal underwriters. This generous funding base allows Fryer to charge low ticket prices: At just $12 to $20, Live at Mission Blue boasts one of the best cost-to-quality ratios for live musical performance in the Bay Area. I can think of no other space where music lovers can pay such low prices to hear both internationally and locally renowned musicians, such as the Netherlands-based trio that performed last season (Wilbert Hazelzet, Jacques Ogg, and Jaap ter Linden), the Four Cellos Ensemble, or harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. And Fryer, himself a longtime member of a small musical community, is careful not to stiff his players: “I aim to pay musicians a respectable amount, to treat them well, and to make available a beautiful acoustic that gives musicians one more opportunity to have public exposure,” he states.
Wilbert Hazelzet, Jacques Ogg, and Jaap ter Linden
Low ticket prices result in lots of sold-out concerts, with audiences consisting mainly of townspeople. Mayor Barnes stressed that, though Brisbane is close to the myriad cultural events available in San Francisco, residents are much more likely to attend something in their own backyard. “There’s actually a surprisingly high barrier to a large number of people to going to San Francisco to experience something that they may not expect to enjoy. ... [This chamber music series] is made so convenient and so accessible to the people of Brisbane ... and the cost is so low, that people take a flyer at it. They’re much more willing to experiment with something that is accessible physically — it’s very close to them — and is very inexpensive.” And they’ve got good company: “Their neighbors are attending this, as well. There are [other] people there who they’re comfortable with.” Those neighbors were precisely the people Fryer hoped to reach when he started this series five years ago. He adopted a philosophy he calls “removing the proscenium arch,” by refusing to have any type of a stage, and by flanking the musicians with intelligently arranged seating in the round. Meet-the-artists receptions and informal preconcert talks have also helped him avoid the “highbrow atmosphere where if you don’t know where to clap, you’re made to feel stupid.” Fryer realized, realistically, that many people just wouldn’t pay $50 for music that they didn’t know very much about. The financial support he received, and the inherent qualities of the Mission Blue Center itself, offered a new type of opportunity. “I believe that, where classical music is really well performed, in a space with good acoustics, without the pretensions that sometimes accompany arts events, it can speak to anybody. I love walking into the series and seeing local firemen sitting next to regular concertgoers.” By these accounts, the idealistic project seems to be working.

Sharing the Wealth

Yet the series contributes to the town in other ways (as if providing wonderful music in a beautiful space in a town of barely 4,000 people weren’t enough). Although the idea of a classical music organization generating money for a charitable group is a concept strange enough to make your head spin, that’s exactly what Live at Mission Blue does. While other presenters scramble after donations to keep themselves afloat, Live at Mission Blue actually gives every penny of its ticket sales to the Friends of the Brisbane Library. The library is a special place in Brisbane, characterized by Friends’ President Christie York as “the hub of activity” for the community. Last season, Live at Mission Blue generated some $6,000 for this organization, multiplying the Friends’ income tenfold compared to the year before the inception of the series. York stresses that the fund-raising is not the sole benefit of the concert series, but it is certainly a concrete one. Live at Mission Blue contributes more to its community than pie-in-the-sky aesthetic joys; it also supplies money for actual needs. Underwriters of the concert series are therefore assured that their investment is well spent, going to help a worthy community in many different ways. In exchange, the Friends help out as ushers, box office workers, and an entire support staff of volunteers. If any lesson can be taken from Live at Mission Blue, it’s this: Although this arrangement is unique in the Bay Area, as far as I know, there is little reason that the model it provides cannot be applied by other music organizations in other small towns. When you think of all the factors that would normally work against the existence of such a high-level music venue in Brisbane — the small population base, the out-of-the way location, the lack of reputation as a particularly distinguished artistic hub — the success that Fryer and his municipal colleagues have enjoyed might seem mystifying. Live at Mission Blue shows how the combination of volunteer effort, civic support, governmental wisdom, and artistic vision can combine to create something truly wonderful, and worthy of emulation. Live at Mission Blue starts its new concert season this Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with the men’s a cappella ensemble Clerestory. See the series Web site for more details, and to purchase tickets.