by Steve MacQueen, Artistic Director
I arrived in Vermont for the first time on March 13, 2012 to interview for the job of artistic director at the Flynn. The temperature was 60 degrees. My rarely used winter coat spent the day slung over my shoulder. Locals, I noted, were walking around with a slightly dazed look.
I got the job—which was a pretty great day—and when I next arrived in Burlington it was June 1, 2012, the first day of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. The opening headliner was my friend Marcus Roberts, a fellow Tallahasseean. The festival itself was a glorious way to start the job—the entire community was alive with music and good feeling. Good omens abounded. And they’ve held true.
The trade-offs from Florida to Vermont are pretty obvious—brutal summers/brutal winters, fern-bar/farm-to-table, swamps/mountains, red state/blue state, citrus/maple syrup, etc. I could go on and on. I prefer Vermont’s take on things. A lifelong itinerant, I was raised an Air Force brat and have moved quite a bit as an adult. The best part about Burlington is it feels like home.
As for me, being artistic director at the Flynn—as many informed me when I was in the hunt for it—is a dream job. People seem to like it—when I took over in the Flynn’s 31styear, I became only the 4th artistic director ever. In the performing arts world, the Flynn’s reputation is unimpeachable, known nationwide for presenting the best and supporting the newest. Rather than being sequestered on a college campus, the Flynn is in the heart of downtown, anchoring Church Street and managing the neat trick of both reflecting and defining the community.
I have been repeatedly blown away by the passion and professionalism of every aspect of the Flynn’s staff—the production crew brings the shows to life onstage; marketing gets the word out in creative ways, particularly with social media; development mines the deep support of the community; finance makes sure that the Flynn is healthy now and in the future; and education offers amazing performances, classes, and programs, bringing in an incredible 40,000 students for matinees each year. And that just scrapes the surface.
In my first year here, I’ve seen a number of remarkable performances programmed by my predecessor, Arnie Malina. These include Craig Taborn’s majestic solo piano performance in FlynnSpace during the jazz festival; Nora Chipaumire’s harrowing dance performance Miriam; Chick Corea and Gary Burton’s sublime interplay and improvisational genius; Brooklyn Rider’s “new” chamber music, effortlessly mixing 19th, 20th, and 21st-century music; Kidd Pivot’s staggeringly inventive The Tempest Replica; Paco Pena’s explosive Flamenco Vivo, which alternated peerless musicianship with impossible footwork; the Bad Plus’ revelatory multimedia take on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; and the Joffrey Ballet’s first Flynn performance, presenting new works alongside the rarely seen The Green Table in a thrilling evening.
There were non-performance moments too, like watching the Improvised Shakespeare Company, exhausted after a day of travel and three performances, stick around to discuss improvisation with UVM theater students. Or listening to Wynton Marsalis’ motivational post-show speech to donors, a moving and hilarious talk that featured this brilliant line: “Musicians who just play for applause . . . that’s all they get.” And finally, eating breakfast at Mirabelle’s with guitarist David Hidalgo after his flight was canceled, being regaled with stories about Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan, occasionally realizing, “Oh yeah, this is a guy whose music I have been listening to and revering for years.”
The 2013 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival (which I put together with new BDJF Managing Director Linda Little) will be my first public piece of extended programming in Burlington. I am particularly excited about a number of FlynnSpace shows, such as the virtuoso jazz harpist (no, really) Edmar Castaneda, who will blow your mind; the 20-piece Saturn People’s Sound Collective, conducted by Vermonter Brian Boyes, reflecting a fascinating Sun Ra-meets-world music esthetic; vocalist Gretchen Parlato, whose concept of the ‘new songbook’ features interesting song choices across the musical spectrum, all beautifully sung. And on the big stage I am thrilled to finally see a performance by Brazilian jazz/bossa goddess Eliane Elias, whom I’ve almost seen many times but never been able to close the deal.
The first year of programming is always challenging for a new artistic director, since it takes a while to really become integrated into a community and an organization, but it’s a process I’m enjoying. I’m already looking forward to the next season and the one after that, working on ways to deepen our audience experience while keeping alive the traditions that have made the Flynn such a strong force for the arts.
Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that when winter finally broke this year and we had our first warm days, my wife and I were among the locals wandering the streets with dazed looks on our faces.