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Interview: Charles Letourneau

Charles Letourneau has been Executive Producer of Festival Napa Valley since its start in 2006. With over two decades of experience as a manager and presenter, Charles has helped build an institution in Napa Valley that has seen incredible names in classical music and supports young artists who are just making their mark. 

With 13 years of Festival Napa Valley programmed, what can festival attendees expect this year?

We’re bringing many familiar faces, as well as surprises and new concepts. For example, this year we are presenting a semi-staged opera, a contemporary piece by John Musto entitled Bastianello. I can guarantee people are going to enjoy it because it’s about a wedding that runs out of wine! This summer is also the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and we built the program around that theme.

What was the inception of celebrating Apollo 11 and how do you explore this notable anniversary?

We plan far ahead as that is the reality of programming in the performing arts. About three years ago as we were looking at the 2019 dates and realized it was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11; while not everything is moon or stars-related, it’s the overarching theme of the whole festival.

Every year we present a great variety of music, including symphonic concerts, recitals, vocal repertoire, jazz and dance. This year, DIAVOLO, a contemporary dance group from L.A., is doing a piece about a voyage to the moon. 

Do you have a particular vision for which artists you want to bring to Festival Napa?

Our guiding principle has always been excellence. Many performers are famous, but it is always a thrill to introduce the next generation of stars.  And I have to say, our track record in that area is pretty extraordinary; so whatever people attend, I always know they will walk away enchanted and inspired.

We are constantly researching, networking, scouting, listening and going to concerts. Right now, we are wrapping up our 2020 season, but we’re also planning 2021 and beyond especially for the bigger names who get booked far in advance.

How do you go about selecting the best compilation of performers?

Simply put, we want to present the greatest and the best. Other than that, I’m very much a proponent of letting artists go the direction they want. We have often acted as an “incubator” for new projects, and love giving artists that opportunity.

The venues of Festival Napa are unique, does this play a factor in your programming?

We have both an opportunity and a challenge in Napa because we don’t present only one venue. Most festivals take place in one concert hall. In Napa, there are 30 miles of over 100 potential venues from performing arts centers to wineries!

Of course, some things work better in certain conditions. If you’re outdoors like at Castello di Amorosa (a castle!), you might hear birds, which is part of the charm. If we present a program that needs an incredibly quiet environment, a wine cave can be perfect, as long as we can shut off the ventilation system…

The sizes of the stage also a key consideration. Our biggest stage is at the Lincoln Theater, which also has a pit. We also have beautiful small venues like the Jarvis Conservatory and Napa Valley College, or we can build outdoor stages as needed. It’s a fun challenge but we make it work!

What are you most looking forward to this summer?

It’s a difficult question, but one thing I’m always excited about is presenting young artists who have never been heard before; in many cases it is their big break and such a discovery for the audience. And these concerts are very popular: our Bouchaine Young Artist Series is usually the first to sell out. This summer we are presenting cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who performed at The Royal Wedding last year, as well as Russian percussionist Mitya Nilov who won the Concert Artists Guild competition, and iSing Silicon Valley, a girls’ choir from Palo Alto that just won first prize at the Robert Schumann International Competition in Germany.

Do you have any favorite moments from past summers?

Again, a difficult question, but I will give you a couple of personal favorites … from my playlist, Conrad Tao, who filled in for a cancellation for us at age 12 in 2007 playing Prokofiev’s Third Concerto with the Russian National Orchestra; he has gone on to become a major figure on today’s music scene.

Also, last summer’s premiere performance of The Red Violin film with live orchestra, with Joshua Bell, Michael Stern, John Corigliano and Niv Fichman reunited for the first time since the Academy Awards. It was an incredibly moving experience.

What is next for Festival Napa Valley from an artistic perspective?

For one thing, we are expanding in the area of education and community outreach.  Two years ago, we created a full-fledged academy for young pre-professional musicians, with a 2-week chamber music and full symphony orchestra program.  We are also now presenting mini-festivals in the spring and fall.  Our education program takes place year-round in Napa County public schools and we are running summer camps for kids from underserved communities, who are often getting exposed to the arts for the first time.  I am so proud that we are doing all this, and we are always looking to do more.

What do you think the future of classical music looks like?

I’m incredibly positive about the future of classical music and the arts in general. It’s not just alive and well; it’s thriving. After 25 years as a manager, agent, producer, and presenter, I firmly believe that there has never been a better time to be working in the performing arts. The big shift of course has been the internet and how we can now reach our audience efficiently.

And one thing that is clear from our success is that people still want to listen to live performing arts in the presence of other people, maybe more than ever.

To get a sense of what Festival Napa Valley means to its community, Charles shared a story about how the festival has impacted the life of a young musician. 

A few years ago, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music wrote us a letter. He said, “I’m here because of you guys.” When he was in elementary school, his mom forced him to take violin lessons and he hated it.  One year we had a concert with Joshua Bell at the Castello di Amorosa and his mom bought one ticket because that’s all they could afford. She dropped him off and circled the block while the concert was happening. He told us that moment changed his life and he decided to become a violinist! Just one example of the true transformative power of the arts, and I am grateful that we can play our part.

Listen to Festival Napa Valley's playlist on Primephonic.