Seattle Arts in a New Key: Amid Hard Times, Some Bold Reinventions


Those who are hoping that stressed times for Seattle arts groups will prompt bold new directions should be encouraged by recent steps taken by the Early Music Seattle organization, dramatically shifting from largely importing European players to a richer and more varied festival format.

A year of tumult and change has definitely reached Seattle arts organizations. Many are searching for new artistic and administrative leadership (Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, ACT, 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Shakespeare Company). Others are digesting new leaders (Town Hall, Seattle Center, Henry Art Gallery, PACE, Seattle Arts & Lectures, On the Boards, and Early Music Seattle).

Money for the arts is short now that Covid-relief funds have dried up or been used. Searches for good managing directors are exceedingly difficult, as many depart from these hot seats. Audiences have been slow to return to in-person performances. The state of downtown deters attendance. Staffs and boards are burned out and restive, and some groups are on a fiscal precipice. Diversity principles can outweigh artistic goals in government and foundation funding.

One indication of the imperative for change is Seattle’s theater world, historically a zone of national excellence. A highly visible sign was the cut of 15 employees last month at Seattle Repertory Theatre. As Managing Director Jeff Herrmann explained, “we are making some painful but strategic changes and cuts now to avoid a true crisis down the road.” These shifts also reflect a new strategic plan that the Rep’s new artistic director, Damzso Rodriguez has formulated together with Herrmann.

Another bold move is the announced merger of Seattle Shakespeare Company with A Contemporary Theatre, now being explored. If the merger takes place, one of the major issues will be union contracts, as Seattle Shakes moves to ACT, an expensive union house for actors and stagehands, a “complex matter,” the companies admit via a joint public relations firm. The usual problem with mergers is blending the boards and sorting out staff redundancies, and this merger will hope to create a new combined entity and a single board “with two distinct brands and theatrical visions.”

The Shakes folks have tried for years to escape from the awkward confines of Seattle Center’s Center House basement. Earlier they tried to purchase one of the stages at the three-stage ACT, an overture that got the merger talks started. Both companies are inconveniently in search of new artistic directors.

Two mainstays of the region’s once-thriving music scene will no longer be with us. Seattle Baroque Orchestra, founded in 1994 by violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman, struggled for years and then was absorbed by the Early Music Guild. The SBO would perform four concerts a year (not enough to form a real orchestra) and was costing Early Music Seattle $250,000 a year to support. Likewise, lutenist Stephen Stubbs’ ambitious Pacific Music Works since 2007 has presented largely vocal works in Seattle. No more PMW: the California-based group will now tour nationally with a small instrumental ensemble and singers, after years of trying to find financial support for its Seattle ambitions. The lead violinist for PMW, Tekla Cunningham, is currently exploring a new series with a focus on Bach.

Early Music Seattle, meanwhile, has embarked on a bold new direction, shifting from importing artists from Europe to a new four-festival format for next season. Seattle has long been a leading city (along with Boston and the Bay Area) for early music (defined as before 1850), helped by highly knowledgeable local audiences and local amateur recorder players. EMS had reached the point where change was imperative, with costs rising and audiences diminishing and the board uncertain about a new direction.

Early Music Seattle (formerly Early Music Guild) will shift next year from one-a-month touring artists, mostly at Town Hall, to a four-festival format with a headline performer (such as Jordi Savall and Trio Medieval), joined for the weekend with smaller, related ensembles in various locations.

The new series is called Beyond Baroque, and will feature performances, open rehearsals, and extensions to Persian and Latin American music, plus a Christmas concert of Bach. The new format may attract tourists, open up new venues and audiences, and provide many performances by smaller groups. EMS is now exploring many traditions of ancient and roots music, broadening the audience and broadening funding. 

The old formula for the early music movement, which arose in the 1960s and was very rooted in Holland, England, and Germany, was running thin. European state support diminished, Covid interrupted international touring, and there were not enough cities with good audiences to support American tours. It may be that “historically-informed performance practice” (gut strings, faster tempos, emphatic playing) has lost its distinctiveness and been absorbed into the classical mainstream.

A key development was when Juilliard School decided to embrace these techniques and train (tuition-free) a new generation of baroque players. New York and Houston now join the Seattle/Boston/Berkeley trio of centers for early music and festivals, along with the Quebec Province-supported scene in Montreal

Faced with these factors, the change-embracing new executive director at EMS, Ludovica Punzi, helped orchestrate the new festival format. Among the downsides for the traditional audience for early music, finding ways to park and dine with the multiple venues, and the diminished marketing opportunities from fewer concert dates, higher costs for marketing and programming. Another worry is the absence of playing opportunities for early musicians, some of whom have already decamped from Seattle. The presence of paying opportunities for such musicians is now threatened by the loss of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Pacific Music Works.

The upsides: fresh music, concerts in new neighborhoods and venues, opportunities for free and reduced-cost performances, and the exploration of connections in the festival format. Also, Early Music America is strongly supportive of this kind of experimentation to develop new funding, new audiences, and new players, and Seattle is leading the nation in experimenting with the venture. Seattle will join Boston and the Bay Area in putting on worth-a-trip early music festivals, so tourists might be a new part of the audience.

Longtime executive director of EMS, Gus Denhard, now shifted to artistic director, is thrilled at these new directions. A fine lutenist, Denhard is a member of Trio Guadalevin, which explores Spanish, Arabic, Zapotec, and Ladino traditions. Early Music is clearly stepping into the world-music and roots-music zone. Another interesting aspect of the change will be an early-music ensemble-in-residence by Twelfth Night Ensemble, based in New York.

 Mergers, demises, and new formats will likely be the new scenario for struggling arts groups in Seattle. That an organization as traditional as Early Music Seattle is leading the way in reinvention is a notable sign of arts in a new key.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. Thank you for this post. As a long-time subscriber to the Early Music Guild/Early Music Seattle and an attendee at other performances, I applaud the upcoming season of ‘Beyond Baroque.’ It remains to be seen how it will be received. I hope for a positive reception since I had grown weary of the previous model. That said, I’ll miss those musicians who’ve departed for what they hope are greener pastures. May they do well. I look forward to a wider variety of what’s called ‘early music,’ though to me, it’s more music learn about and to come to love.

  2. I think it’s important to distinguish between Performing Arts and generative arts like studio painters. Headlines with the singular Arts label blur the distinction between types of art and comingle administration functions. In the main gallery artists have no administration save for the gallery crew. Any confusion could be cleared up by adding Performing to Arts when discussing Opera and the like. Other than another well researched and written article. Thank you.

  3. We are blessed David Brewster continues to shine his journalistic spotlight on the realities of live “classical” music and performance art in our city and region. Contributions to the culture of our community and humankind in the broadest sense can transform us. The gifts from the artists among us, with their study, practice, and performances should never be underestimated and under-appreciated by Seattle, the Pacific Northwest’s economic force and cultural center. Now, as never before, folks with plump wallets need to refocus distracted attention spans. Listen to troubadours like Brewster. Talent and dedication surround us. It’s past time for more scholarships, underwriting, and other money magic (supporting reinvigorated management, public and private) to enrich our world.


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