The Future of Classical Music in Downeast Maine
June Gregory  Rosalie Woodward

A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) revealed that “significantly fewer American adults are attending cultural activities such as classical music concerts, theater productions and movies than they did before the coronavirus pandemic.” That is not surprising to those of us who live and breathe the arts in Downeast Maine. Not only is it reflected in reduced attendance, but also in reduced opportunities for participation. The impact is apparent in the dissolution of the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra in July 2023, the inability of the Washington County Children’s Chorus to regroup following a pandemic hiatus, and the possible pending closure of the SummerKeys music program in Lubec. The loss of these programs hurts local economies that benefit from those who visit our towns to participate in programs and attend performances. The SummerKeys program, for example, involves the entire community from living accommodations and places to eat to frequenting the laundromat. Grocery stores and gift shops benefit.

While it is impossible to determine all of the factors that have led to these circumstances, there are a few that are apparent. First, Covid fatigue caused many people to fear attending performances in enclosed spaces. The pandemic changed people’s lives and priorities. Second, we are aging out. Our area of Maine is one of the oldest in the state. Forty-one percent of Washington County residents are 55 years of age or older. That impacts not only participation in music but also leadership in music organizations. With the reduction or elimination of music programs in schools, a new generation is not being introduced to the benefits that music brings to both physical and emotional well-being. Third, because our area is remote and the population is widely distributed, many people cannot drive long distances in all kinds of weather to attend rehearsals and performances. Finally, many of the leaders and participants in our organizations are volunteers. Typically, in a year of PBSO, for example, board members and musicians donated more than 3000 hours of time with no compensation for mileage or other expenses. Those who are paid, receive far less than they would in more affluent areas. That takes a toll on willingness and ability to participate.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting our arts organizations is funding. Because we are sparsely populated, it is difficult to attract funding from larger foundations who believe that their contributions will not impact enough people. It is difficult to raise funds when we are “off the radar” to many foundations. In addition, our organizations strive to keep our programs and performances accessible to all by keeping prices low. While economizing, expenses continue even during forced shutdowns. SummerKeys, for example, lost income for two years during Covid but still had to pay mortgages, utilities, insurances, and maintenance of the properties, including necessary tuning of numerous pianos. And now that organizations are back in operation, they feel the same impacts from inflation that all citizens experience. Many people feel that organizations that rely heavily on volunteers do not require income. That is far from reality.

So, what can be done? One thing is to support the organizations that continue to exist through donations, participation, and performance attendance. Although PBSO disbanded, the non-profit is continuing as the Harald Saeverud Music Program (HSMP) and will present chamber concerts in Calais, Eastport, and Machias beginning in December 2023. While not the full orchestra that the community has come to love, the performances will bring inspiring classical music for all to experience. SummerKeys is planning for a robust program in the summer of 2024. Another action is to encourage schools to value visual and performing arts programs and provide opportunities for our youth to actively engage in those programs. For people who want to participate in music making, opportunities are available. A community band is just starting across the border in St. Andrews and welcomes all. Quoddy Voices in Eastport welcomes vocalists to join its ranks. Some former PBSO musicians are forming small ensembles – a string quartet, a woodwind quintet, duets, and trios. A venue in Calais is available for rehearsing. For more information about any of these opportunities or ideas of your own, please use the Contact/email form. Let’s keep classical music alive and well in Downeast Maine.