A Talk With Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach's Michael Finn
Serendipitous conversation can yield powerful results, and Michael Finn would know. Seated in his West Palm Beach home office with tranquil views of the sun-dappled swimming pool outside, the bespectacled, former Juilliard School administrator is musing over his years as the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach’s artistic and executive director, and the impetus that launched his chamber music series at the 45th president of the United State’s private residence, Mar-a-Lago.
“[Vicki Kellogg and] I had just formed the Chamber Music Society, and I was producing a concert in New York at Lincoln Center,” Finn says. “I arranged a special box for Donald Trump who was hosting ‘The Apprentice.’” Trump canceled unexpectedly, but he repaid Finn’s kindness with an invitation to fly back to Palm Beach with him on his personal jet. “His handler told me I’d get 10 courtesy minutes with him, but we spoke for 2.5 hours about many things.” One of those things was an agreement to showcase six chamber MUSIC MAN music performances at Mar-a-Lago.
While they were always well attended by members and their guests, Mar-a-Lago, which is a private club, restricted Finn from advertising the concerts to a broader demographic. After four years, the Society moved on to pursue more opportunities around the county.
As the Society celebrates its fifth season, Finn reports the number of performances have nearly doubled and visiting musicians, including the illustrious Emerson String Quartet and the Philadelphia Orchestra Brass Quintet, play to packed audiences at the Gold Room at The Breakers and, most recently, Rosarian Academy and The Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. On March 19 and 20, the Austin-based Miró Quartet will perform at the Boca Raton Museum and The Breakers as part of the Great Performers series.
When he’s not attending concerts in New York or booking rising talent like the Grammy Award-winning Harlem Quartet, Finn indulges his passion to make the wonders of chamber music accessible to children and their parents.
Born into a musical family, Finn attended The Juilliard School and played the bassoon. After graduating, he toured around the world for 20 years playing bassoon with music ensembles like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the grandest concert venues, including Carnegie Hall and Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón.
In October 2000, he returned to New York to become Juilliard’s associate dean and director of performance activities where he set the repertoire and mentored students. The father of a now-adult daughter, he took a paternal approach to pedagogy. He brought in a couch and an espresso machine and implemented an open-door policy so students would feel comfortable stopping by to talk about things they liked or didn’t. “I got so much information that way,” he says. “I would bring it up to the executive committees because student input led to changes in policy.”
Today, he’s teaming up with private and public arts institutions, like Bak Middle School of the Arts, to keep music in the classroom. Visiting musicians are contracted to give at least one school performance while they’re in town. “Typically, they’ll just play for the kids,” he says. “But some will sit and play with them. This is called a side-by-side performance, and it’s an amazing way for students to listen and see how something is meant to be played.”
While chamber music’s masterful melodies are often pegged as esoteric and highbrow, Finn believes children aren’t naturally biased. “Kids react to great performers, no matter what the medium,” he says. “If they hear people making music at a very high level, they’ll be engaged.”