When someone doesn’t want to reveal why he or she is leaving a high-profile job, the polite explanation is usually “I want to spend more time with my family.” But after 23 years of heading the University of Vermont’s Lane Series, director Jane Ambrose, 70, really does want to hang out more with her growing grandkids. “Every Friday night during the school year is taken” with performing arts events, she says. “I’d like to be able to go to some of their stuff.”
The university recently announced that Ambrose is retiring at the end of the 2009-10 season, when current manager Natalie Neuert will take over as director. During Ambrose’s tenure, the Lane Series’ mission evolved. Making it “more audience friendly” has been a core goal, Ambrose reflects. As a “university presenter,” she found herself tasked with meeting the needs of both student and community concertgoers.
When Ambrose first took over, most Lane events were held at Memorial Auditorium in downtown Burlington. Programming focused on booking big names, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Leontyne Price. UVM’s president at the time, Lattie Coor, “wasn’t happy about that,” Ambrose recalls. Location, price and content kept students away. “What he said to me was, ‘Bring it home.’”
The university’s large Ira Allen Chapel was a logical venue, and Ambrose tried holding concerts there. But she found a huge problem: horrendous acoustics for intimate ensembles. “The dome perverts the sound of chamber music,” she explains. Meanwhile, an excellent option sat literally at the UVM music professor’s front door. The music building has its own 300-seat Recital Hall. “The acoustics are so fantastic,” she states. “It seemed like the obvious choice.”
With the exception of a few events held every year at the Flynn Center, the Recital Hall has become the Lane’s regular home. The modest number of seats presents a challenge, Ambrose admits — it “limits us in what we can pay” an artist. “Because my first commitment is to keeping the ticket price low enough so that anyone who wants to come to a Lane Series concert can come to a Lane Series concert.”
The advantages of “an acoustically superb hall,” however, far outweigh this slight downside. “Word gets around” among performers and agents, notes Ambrose, and helps the series continue to book top talent. The sound works beautifully for classical music, as well as the expanded range of folk and jazz offerings that she developed.
Ambrose recoils when asked to pick highlights from her tenure. But she does cite the importance of establishing a relationship with the Van Cliburn competition, whose winners now perform at the Lane Series, and the Piano Consortium, a group of local donors that sponsors keyboard concerts. “Piano activities are very healthy,” Ambrose asserts. “We’ve been lucky to bring, over time, the best pianists who were available.”
Ambrose, who plays the baroque flute, has also taken great joy in programming a diverse array of early music, “because that’s my first love,” she confesses. Careful selection of repertory has helped make Lane audiences enthusiastic about exposure to new artists and unfamiliar genres. “People go to music not so much to be entertained but to be enlightened,” avows Ambrose.
Retirement, for the outgoing director, is a relative term. Ambrose will continue as a classical music consultant to the Lane Series. Her frequent trips to attend concerts and festivals, both domestically and in Europe, introduce her to rising stars in the music biz. “Looking for new things will always be something that interests me,” she states. “And I hope that I’ll always be a part of bringing them to UVM.”
And memo to the grandkids: Ambrose will still turn up at the Recital Hall on many Friday nights. She credits loyal audience support for the Lane’s success and the enjoyment she’s had in her job. “The reason that I’ll continue to go to concerts is not only that I want to hear the music,” she explains, “but that I want to keep seeing the people that I have listened to music with for such a really long period of time.”