From Arcade Fire to Annapolis Chamber Music Festival: How 2 friends put on an upcoming show
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Aug 02, 2019 | 5:00 AM
As a teenager, double bassist Zachary Hobin couldn’t get enough of the band Arcade Fire. But not just their music — he became fascinated with the story behind the making of their sophomore album, “Neon Bible.” The band bought a church and converted it into a recording space, spending their days working and creating music together.
“It sounded like this idyllic kind of existence,” said Hobin. “I thought, ‘I want this for my life, at some point.’”
Roughly a decade later, Hobin has realized that dream by founding the Annapolis Chamber Music Festival with his friend, bassoonist Rémy Taghavi.
For a week each August since the summer of 2016, the pair has organized a series of concerts in Maryland’s capital, performed by a collective of musician friends and colleagues. However, nearly all of the festival musicians are from out of state, so they have relied on the generosity of locals to house them for the duration of the event.
The result is a music festival that is as much about building and celebrating its community as it is about the music.
“During the first year of ACMF, I realized that without even meaning to, I’d created the thing I’d been striving towards as a teenager,” said Hobin. “We’re staying in these houses with wonderful hosts, having a great time together, spending all day playing music [and] meeting a lot of new people along the way.”
But Hobin grew up in Chicago, Taghavi in Saint Paul. When they founded the festival, both were living in New York. Why Annapolis?
A year before the festival’s debut, Hobin and Taghavi toured Japan with the New York Symphonic Ensemble. Both were pursuing doctorates in music at Stony Brook University, but it was the tour that brought them closer together.
They had a lot in common. Besides “bonding over our love of basketball and puns,” according to Taghavi, both had been relative late-comers to classical music. Hobin played in rock bands until deciding to focus on double bass at the age of 16; at the same age, Taghavi switched from saxophone and jazz to classical bassoon.
They expected to repeat the tour the following season, but positions with the ensemble are re-auditioned every year. When they learned that neither would be returning, they were at a loss of what to do with themselves over the coming summer.
Their shared backgrounds in non-classical music proved helpful in letting them think outside the box when it came to building a career. Landing a full-time position with an orchestra is not the only way to support oneself as a classical musician, and throughout college Hobin frequently “investigated schemes that were off the beaten path of orchestral performance.”
With the summer stretching before them, they asked, “Why not try and create something?”
Moreover, why not create something in a place where their work would feel unique? New York, flush with artistic organizations and initiatives, seemed too obvious.
“We had a demographic idea of what the [host] city should be like,” said Taghavi. “Asheville, North Carolina, was a possibility and a few other small-scale cities.” They wanted a place whose residents would likely have an appetite for classical music — but might lack an abundance of opportunities to satisfy it.
Hobin thought that Annapolis “seemed ripe” for a chamber music festival. Taghavi added, “There’s this demand for arts, but it’s sandwiched between D.C. and Baltimore.” The two wanted to create something that Annapolis could call “authentically [its] own.”
“It seemed like there was a large community of people who’d be excited by what we were doing and come out to support us,” said Hobin. “That was a guess on our part, but luckily it’s borne out.”
It was an educated guess: Hobin had visited the city several times before through an important connection: Mark Conrad, who lived just outside Annapolis in Crownsville. A Juilliard-trained pianist and organist turned I.T. professional, he had sponsored Hobin’s undergraduate scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory. (Conrad created the scholarship in honor of his late partner, Donald Paul Havas, who was a double bassist with the National Symphony Orchestra.)
Conrad was an involved sponsor, who kept in touch with Hobin and even flew him out to Annapolis to participate in fundraising parties for the scholarship. Over the years, Hobin said, the two “became pretty close.”
“He understands performers from a performer’s perspective,” said Hobin. “I knew from those parties that he loved having people around.” To Hobin, Conrad was “the perfect person to help us get our foot in the door in the community.”
Still, to have an idea for a summer festival is one thing; to pull it off is another. Neither Hobin nor Taghavi had any experience with organizing a project of this scale, and they only began planning for it in March of the year they intended to launch.
“In retrospect, it’s a laughably short period of time,” said Hobin.
Conrad came through, recruiting his business partner to help him house Hobin, Taghavi and eight other musicians. That’s a model they’ve kept returning to even as the number of participating musicians has grown: Conrad reported that friends and neighbors have mostly come to him, asking if they can help provide space.
With a logistical model in place, Hobin and Taghavi have been able to focus on fine-tuning their programming for the festival.
“We were a little trepidatious at first,” said Taghavi. Pieces that appeal to professional musicians may not always be the ones to pull in new listeners. But as the two got to know their audience better, they realized they could program more eclectically, planning concerts featuring contemporary composers and lesser-known pieces along with the standard Mozart and Bach.
The most popular event of the festival has been the “Fine Wine and Finer Music” concerts, in which the musicians serve wine paired with the pieces on the program.
“It’s a chance to have face-to-face interactions with the audience, which you don’t always have at classical music concerts,” said Hobin.
That program will return this year, featuring wine and music from France, along with four other carefully curated performances.
Notable this year is the addition of Maryland locals and vocal music: Soprano Melissa Wimbish and Grammy-nominated baritone Randall Scarlata, both based in Baltimore, will join the ACMF lineup. Wimbish performs a recital on August 6 of music pairing solo voice with solo instruments. On August 9, in honor of the centenary of the end of World War I, the two collaborate on a concert tracing the evolution of songs from that era.
Hobin and Taghavi are invigorated by the growth of the festival, along with the fact that it’s happened organically, maintaining all the while a familial atmosphere. “Our primary source of growth has been word of mouth,” said Hobin. “Maybe it’s a little slower, but it’s more sustainable. We have people coming back year after year and bringing other people.”
That commitment is shared by the founders. According to Hobin, they have no intention of leaving or relocating: “I want this to be something that exists in Annapolis in the long term, that people can take pride in as a community.”
If you go
The Annapolis Chamber Music Festival runs from August 3-10 at various locations throughout Annapolis. General admission tickets start at $28; concerts are free to those under 18 years of age. For more information, visitchambermusicannapolis.org.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.