Anyone who loves classical music knows it could use a public relations makeover. The problem lies not with the essence, the music itself, but with the way classical music is often perceived. Its most devout supporters frequently have to deal with such off-putting myths as: Only old people listen to Mozart or You need a PhD to understand Beethoven.
Sarah and Charles Colmark know these misperceptions firsthand and they mean to enlighten the people who perpetuate them. If the Colmarks have their way, Bach and Copeland will be as wildly popular, and appreciated, as Sparx and Tim McGraw.
This may seem like a lofty goal, but Sarah and Charles are uniquely positioned to turn their dreams into reality. Sarah's family owns American General Media (AGM) which, in turn, owns New Mexico's renowned classical music radio station KHFM (95.5 FM). Her title is "customer service representative" for the corporation. Her job, however, includes far more than those words imply. Charles is the executive director of KHFM Performance Live and is also involved with the AGM Foundation.
Just as the ill-conceived images of classical music abound, so one might draw erroneous conclusions about the Colmarks themselves. After all, they're corporate folks, suits. Everyone knows that these people only care about bottom lines and money. Right?
In their hearts, Sarah and Charles are musicians. From childhood they've contended with misconceptions about classical music and have faced the challenges of committing to a passion their peers didn't value or respect.
This morning, the couple sits at a large conference table in a windowless room in their office building. They're dressed in understated black suits, white shirts. Only Sarah's eyeglasses, with their mod red frames, hint at her innate playfulness. The interview is filled with laughter amid the careful, considered responses. Both Colmarks finish each other's sentences regularly and look to the other to confirm an idea or help with a thought.
Charles was born in Sterling, Illinois. It's a small town, known for manufacturing and the steel industry, located in the northern part of the state. To hear Charles tell it, Sterling wasn't exactly a hotbed of Handel.
"My father couldn't stand music and my mother believed more in education-though she's changed." Charles's green eyes light with impishness. "When I was in 4th grade, I only knew the names of three instruments-tuba, sax and drums. So I begged to play each one for about two weeks. When I got to the tuba, my parents finally gave in."
Sarah hails from Shreveport, Louisiana, and began playing the piano at three years old. Unlike her husband's family, Sarah's parents were committed to the arts. Even so, many of her contemporaries didn't understand her devotion to the instrument. "Once, when I was in high school, I told someone I wanted to go to the Conservatory," she says with an incredulous smile. "One of my classmates said, "Why do you want to be a nun?' "
All kidding aside, both Sarah and Charles dedicated long hours to practicing their instruments while other teens went to the mall, cheered at football games and hung out at hamburger joints. The Colmarks' high school years paid off-personally and professionally. They met each other at the prestigious University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Though their education there was first-rate, their relationship had a few bumps.
"We met at orientation, the day we picked our classes," says Charles, waiting for Sarah to chime in.
"He carried his tuba in his backpack. He was so loud and obnoxious. He went around asking all of the girls out," she says. "In October of that year, he came to my practice room and asked me." She grins. "I told him I had better things to do."
It's good Charles didn't give up easily. Sarah continued her refusals until they were both juniors.
After earning their Bachelors of Music in 2001, they married and continued their studies for three years at the Conservatoire National de Région Perpignan in France. As if that weren't enough, they then went to Hannover, Germany to pursue their musical education and careers.
In 2006, the couple moved to New Mexico from Germany to work for AGM. One of the main reasons they came was for KHFM. With their international experience, breadth of professional musical studies and symphonic work, the Colmarks were the perfect choice. They loved classical music. They also understood how its often high-brow image gets in the way of reaching the most people it can. Young and enthusiastic, they decided to use their considerable energy to make a real difference in our state.
Founded in 1954, KHFM is one of the nation's oldest and most successful stations in its format group. It was just honored in May, along with seven other recipients, with the 2008 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. Things haven't always been so rosy for New Mexico's classical music station. In the early years of this decade, KHFM's format was at risk. American General Media recognized the station's importance to the artistic life of our state and bought it to ensure that this critical cultural asset wouldn't be lost.
With its reputation for excellence, and those silly assumptions about classical music, visitors to KHFM often expect a certain amount of glitz, a chandelier or two. The station, however, is located in an unassuming building on a busy street in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. Drivers speed past its brown stucco walls and graveled landscaping, unaware of the magic within.
The Colmarks know well that outer trappings are less important than serving their current listeners and bringing classical music to new audiences through community outreach. Sarah serves on the board of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. In her day job, she actively seeks out opportunities for KHFM to partner with arts organizations and other groups to promote classical music and its appreciation. Already, there are many examples of these efforts, including, the locally-produced "New Mexico Symphony Concert Hour" on Sundays from noon to 1 p.m. In addition, KHFM has worked with the Friends of Music to hold instrument drives in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. As a result, school children who otherwise might not be able to rent or buy an instrument are able to pursue their interest in music. The chances of these children growing into adults who understand and cherish classical music increases with each note they play.
Charles Colmark runs the new concert series KHFM Performance Live. He says, "Its purpose is to bring "fun, energetic, world class performances to downtown Albuquerque." This summer, the American General Media Foundation is partnering with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival to host three of their concerts in the Duke City. Albuquerqueans will have the pleasure of seeing the Shanghai, Orion and Miami string quartets on their own turf at the Kimo Theater.
In addition to their work with AGM and KHFM, Sarah and Charles have embraced their new home. It's quite a journey from the lush green terrain and castles of Hannover, Germany to the junipered mountains and Indian ruins of New Mexico. Yet the couple has an unabashed fondness for the Land of Enchantment. "We love the culture here," says Sarah. "It reminds us of the South of France, which we enjoy also. There's so much art and culture here and we like the laid back feel."
The two of them exchange a glance before she continues, "Maybe it's because we're both small town people . . . To have all of this culture here is wonderful."
"It's in the eye of the beholder," says Charles. "When we talk about it at home, we think New Mexico and all of its cities are so very special." He pauses and Sarah nods. "New Mexico is a different kind of center for the arts than, say, Vienna," he says. "It's more rustic and has a different aesthetic, but there's still a tremendous amount going on."
And New Mexicans can be assured that with the Colmarks at the helm of KHFM, classical music and its appreciation will only thrive in the years to come.
Pari Noskin Taichert is the two-time Agatha-Award-nominated author of the Sasha Solomon mystery series from the University of New Mexico Press. Her newest book, The Socorro Blast, is now available.