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Article

Michael Rossi creates opportunities for young musicians with Miami Summer Music Festival

July 02, 2015
By Sarah Hucal
Conductor Michael Rossi is the founder and executive director of the Miami Summer Music Festival, which opens July 5.

Conductor Michael Rossi is the founder and executive director of the Miami Summer Music Festival, which opens July 5. Photo: Margarita Rentis

Michael Rossi is no stranger to the music business.

The sole musician in a family of New York City stockbrokers, at age 15 he was teaching trumpet and piano to a roster of younger classmates. Later, while studying at the Manhattan School of Music, Rossi turned to production to pay rent, putting on concerts with limited means. Short on funds, he even convinced a Brooklyn funeral home to sponsor a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

“I had a small budget,” said the tenacious 35-year-old. “So, I got a yellow school bus to take my friends to Brooklyn. I sold tickets, I put together a chorus, soloists and full orchestra. There weren’t opportunities to conduct, so I made them.”

Now, with a successful conducting career and having worked with colleagues like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Kurt Masur, and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, to name a few, Rossi hasn’t lost his entrepreneurial drive.

In fact, he’s creating new opportunities for promising music students and Miami audiences alike. The founder and artistic director of the Miami Summer Music Festival will open the project’s second season July 5 in Miami Shores. The festival’s first week culminates in a concert featuring celebrated soprano Deborah Voigt July 11.

The Miami Summer Music Festival brings performance opportunities to 225 college students and preprofessional musicians from the U.S. and abroad. Amid coachings, lessons and masterclasses, the festival will present four fully staged operas, orchestral, chamber and piano performances, and premiere original works in performances through August 2, primarily on the Barry University campus in Miami Shores. Somewhat similar to the New World Symphony’s mission—though in a much more concentrated span—the festival is also providing a boon for the Miami concert-going public at a time when most local classical presenters go on hiatus.

The lack of classical tunes wafting on the summer breeze initially prompted Rossi to galvanize Miami’s music scene. Two years ago, on an August visit to his local in-laws, Rossi and his wife, Leticia Rivera, were hoping for a musical night out while their son was being looked after. Instead, they found an empty calendar of events.

“We wanted to put on a program in the U.S. to give the same education to students for significantly less cost,” said Rossi. “So it hit us: ‘Why don’t we do a program right here in Miami? Who wouldn’t want to come here?”

And come they did last summer. Although the pair envisioned a small turnout, the first year saw several hundred applicants—talented students from the country’s top universities. This year, the numbers doubled, says Rossi.

So too has the festival budget, which, Rossi says has quickly jumped from $325,000 in 2014 to $725,000 this year.

Aside from the allure of sunny beaches and Miami Beach hotspots, part of the success lies in the program’s relatively low costs for participants. Young music professionals are often encouraged to attend festivals for performance experience and the opportunity to train with leading coaches and teachers. Many cost upwards of several thousand dollars after tuition and living costs—a hefty sum for students already struggling to pay pricy tuition at leading music schools.

For Rossi, affordability was paramount. MSMF tuition ranges from $1,500 to $3,000. Rossi says they have also given out more than $100,000 in grants this year.

“I wanted to put as much money back into the program and into the student’s education as possible,” he said. “So many of these kids go through college, have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and never get to perform with an orchestra, which is what they really need to be doing.”

This even includes the opportunity to share the stage with renown industry stars. On July 11 at Broad Performing Arts Center on the Barry University campus, the starry festival opener features soprano Deborah Voigt, singing works by Strauss and Wagner. Also on the bill is Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with Rossi leading the 95-member orchestra, composed of students from the Juilliard School, London’s Royal College of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and other leading institutions.

Opera buffs can cheer on singers in one of four fully staged productions with orchestra. Works include Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Benjamin Britten’s lighthearted Albert Herring, Massenet’s fairytale Cendrillon and a family presentation of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel— a selection diverse enough to attract both cognoscenti and neophytes.

And for those who prefer a more orchestral experience, a gala performance at New World Center on July 25th will feature the festival orchestra in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and performances from top students of the Opera, Composition and Piano Institutes with tickets starting at a mere $10.

To keep both tuition and ticket prices low is a team effort, according to Rossi. He and Rivera do the bulk of the work themselves until shortly before the festival kicks off when they are joined by a staff of ten. They also rely on facilities donated by Barry University, contributions by private donors and The Betsy Hotel, which hosts a series of concerts that will be free to the public

Beyond the excitement and professional opportunities of performing live concerts, the program also gives students the chance to prepare for the arduous professional path they’ve chosen.

MSMF will presents a series of career classes to teach students arts administration, marketing and digital skills necessary to survive in the music industry—skills, according to Rossi, most students aren’t learning during the school year.

Rossi will ask students to create their own potential pie charts, a concept he hopes will help them long after they’ve left Miami.“If they’re not happy with how their careers are going, they shouldn’t be sitting around upset about it,” he shared. “You can take your career into your own hands and make something of it if you have the drive.”

Admittedly, Rossi has had some big breaks, like being discovered by Placido Domingo and selected for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Yet despite the success, at points, Rossi has found himself having to teach lessons or coach to make ends meet. “Everything I’ve gotten, I’ve had to work 200 percent for,” said Rossi. “There’s no safety in this business.”

Michael Heaston, who will give audition masterclasses and discuss strategies for career success with students, agrees in the value of wearing many musical hats. As director of young artist programs at Washington National Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival, Heaston hears thousands of operatic hopefuls each year. Inevitably, few will be able to sustain careers on singing alone. To make it, he believes artists must be “nimble and self-sufficient.”

“Business skills are crucial in today’s world, where working artists truly must have a more diversified portfolio of experiences and often must create some of those opportunities independently,” he says.

Soprano Elizabeth Zito, for example, took a leap of faith after playing Papagena in Mozart’s The Magic Flute during last year’s festival.

Stuck in a string of waitressing jobs that paid the bills but left little time to attend lessons or coachings, Rossi and Heaston’s courses helped her take her career into her own hands.

“The things they talked about—treating yourself as a consistently produced product, marketing yourself in a cohesive package and having a diversified portfolio, really changed my way of thinking about singing.”

The idea of cobbling together a career as a freelancer suddenly began to look more attractive to the 26-year-old. She began teaching lessons at a private academy, before signing on her own roster of piano and voice students. Now, she can easily schedule time for audition preparation, or the program itself.

This year, she returns to play the First Spirit in Massenet’s Cendrillon.

“It really boiled down to coming to the program, being fully immersed in it and seeing you can craft a career very successfully, even if it’s not conventional,” she said.

Rossi hopes for more success stories after this year’s program, when he will ask students to set concrete goals, such as raising money for a new instrument, or creating a personal website.

“To see someone being able to change their life to work in the music industry is a huge accomplishment for me. That’s why I really wanted to create this program. “

The Miami Summer Music Festival runs from July 5 to August 2. For a complete schedule of events and ticket information, visit miamisummermusicfestival.com or call 1-800-838-3006.

Sarah Hucal is an international freelance journalist who writes about topics from classical music to European politics. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahHucal

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