Taking a bow: Artistic administrator Valerie Guy

Valerie Guy, photo Luke E. Montavon/The New Mexican

Valerie Guy, artistic administrator of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, got acquainted with New Mexico atop a Harley-Davidson on motorcycle camping trips about 20 years ago. The thought of it horrifies her today. “I look back and just can’t believe I did it,” she says. “All those years riding a Harley when it could have been a BMW. What was I thinking?”

Guy grew up in Glenview, a suburb north of Chicago, in a musically oriented family where she played violin, piano, and flute. After studying flute and dance at Butler University in Indianapolis, she flirted with the notion of a graduate degree in flute performance but dropped it in favor of a job as director of operations at the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras. Soon she realized that “there was an endless amount of artistic fun to be had off the stage.”

In 1995, she moved to New York to become “the everything person” for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. It’s a musician-run collective where she learned the skill of diplomacy, the importance of getting buy-in from the players for new initiatives at every step in the process, and how to manage international touring in the days before cell phones.

Seven years later, Guy joined the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the country’s largest chamber music organization, as its director of artistic planning and administration. For 15 years, she worked with artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel, overseeing an artistic budget of $1.5 million, organizing more than 150 performances annually, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall as well as on national and international tours.

She came to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2017. “It was the fastest decision I ever made,” she says, “and I’m having a blast.” In her position, Guy works with artistic director Marc Neikrug in planning each season’s budget, repertory, schedule, and personnel. “I love it that Marc programs like a composer. We don’t need to lean on extra-musical themes because the pieces themselves tell a musical story that makes sense.”

Neikrug says she’s a dream come true. “Valerie is a ‘five-tool player,’ to borrow a baseball term,” he says. “She’s fanatically organized; has an encyclopedic knowledge of the repertory; knows everybody in the music world; has an exuberant, positive attitude; and is a generous colleague. With her around, I feel like almost anybody could do my job!”

After the scheduling and repertory decisions are made, Guy negotiates the contracts with the performers and venues, secures visas for artists from outside the United States (her “most unnerving behind-the-scenes challenge”), arranges for performance rights with music publishers, manages the SFCMF broadcast program with Chicago’s WFMT radio station, rents or borrows unusual instruments the repertory requires (not as easy in Santa Fe as in New York), secures piano tuners and page turners, and schedules all the rehearsals.

Rehearsals? Don’t the musicians just fly in and play a program they already know? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The festival is a producer as well as a presenter, which means that many of its concerts are created on the spot, with specially assembled groups that may have never performed together before learning repertory that’s new to them.

Guy compares the process to throwing a dinner party. “It’s figuring out who to invite and what the menu should be and where should you seat everybody — who will bring out the best in the people they’re put together with. Also, the artistic development of younger, ‘ascending’ players is an important part of our mission. It’s lovely putting them together with more senior players they can learn from, especially because there are so many performing traditions that get passed along during rehearsals.”

“I’ve had the great pleasure of knowing and working with Valerie for many years,” says Anne-Marie McDermott, the renowned pianist and artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. “She is an absolute joy whose musical integrity is unquestionable, as well as a treasured friend. Valerie is brilliant in her knowledge of chamber music and has great empathy and insight into pairing the right musician with the right repertory.”

Chamber music performances can generate unique challenges, so Guy’s job doesn’t end when the concert begins. At that point, her biggest concern becomes silence rather than sound. “This is a delicate art form,” she explains, “and the silences in the music are just as important as the notes.

“A few years ago at the Chamber Music Society, we had a solo piano recital in an old building with no soundproofing, and I suddenly heard chanting outside, like the sound of a protest. An animal rights group was demonstrating right across the street, outside the apartment of a pharmaceutical company CEO.

“I ran into the middle of the protesters and started begging them all to stop. I literally got down on my knees and they got so embarrassed that they stopped shouting and promised to not start again until after the concert was over.”

Performing in Santa Fe adds layers of complexity not found in New York. The altitude affects wind and brass players just as much as it does singers, so Guy suggests that first-timers in particular arrive a couple of days earlier than they normally would, so they can adjust.

It doesn’t always help. Last summer, bass-baritone Philippe Sly sang the entire 80 minutes of Franz Schubert’s Winter Journey (Winterreise) with altitude sickness. The saving grace was that the symptoms played into the song cycle’s existential angst. The altitude’s impact even extends to the reed players’ reeds, which perform differently here than at lower elevations.

Even our summer monsoons have affected festival performances — not from wind and rain blowing across the stage, as at the Santa Fe Opera, but with downtown power failures. One of them hit the Lensic Performing Arts Center during a 2018 performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Guy zoomed backstage to grab as many music-stand lights and extension cords as she could find so the performance could continue in the gloaming.

When asked whether living in Santa Fe has changed her in any way, Guy replies, “It’s made me a much calmer person because I can go for a hike in the mountains right after work. Plus, now I could always ride a BMW, so my whole quality of life has improved immensely!” 

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