As countless thousands of visitors know, the Lake Tahoe area has just about everything necessary for a vacation destination site - beautiful surroundings, accommodations, outdoor activities in plentiful supply.
Fine arts? Yeah, not so much.
A year and a half ago, Madylon Meiling, an educator and corporate coach in the region, set out to correct that oversight. She began with a wildly ambitious plan - a brand-new performing arts center near the lake - but soon scaled back to a more manageable undertaking, a summer arts festival featuring music, theater, the visual arts and more.
Now that vision is coming to fruition. Wednesday marked the beginning of Lake Tahoe Summerfest, a festival that organizers are hoping will draw patrons from Nevada, California and points both national and international.
The festival's centerpiece is a three-week series of orchestral and chamber concerts, organized and led by Music Director Joel Rezven. The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival has been subsumed under the umbrella of the new festival, and there are plans afoot for an exhibition devoted to contemporary American impressionist painters.
"Our goal is to make the Tahoe region a destination for arts and culture every summer," Meiling told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I believe the only reason we don't have something like this already - something like the Aspen Festival - is that no one has thought to do it. This is one of the most spectacular places on Earth, and we believe that bringing arts and culture to the region will help with economic development."
Rezven, whose résumé includes positions at the helm of the Arizona Opera and Berkshire Opera, was brought on board early to assemble an ensemble from among the members of some of the nation's leading orchestras (including the San Francisco Symphony). Headliners for the first summer's concerts include the trio of violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Sharon Robinson and pianist Joseph Kalichstein.
Rezven signed onto the project, he said, with the assurance that there would be funding in place for the first three years irrespective of ticket sales - a condition met when Meiling, with help from foundation backers and individual donors, amassed a $2 million budget for the inaugural seasons. Rezven also insisted on full control over programming, and over the hiring of the orchestra and soloists.
"The last thing I wanted," he said, "was to have people coming to me and saying, 'Why don't you hire my niece? She plays the flute.' "
The concerts will take place in a 500-seat acoustical tent on the campus of Sierra Nevada College, about two miles from the lake. Other events are distributed among nearby venues.
Rezven concedes that the orchestral programming for the first season - with an emphasis on popular favorites by Mozart, Vivaldi and Dvorák - is comparatively tame. It's all part of the festival's plan to build slowly and deliberately, he said.
"I didn't know the community, so I didn't want to start right out with too much crazy repertoire," he said. "But this is compelling music, and the chamber concerts have more variety, with pieces by Poulenc, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
"We'll have to see how the audience reacts. What I wanted this first season to be about is the quality of the playing, and to have people be inspired to make the festival part of their summer plans."
Rezven and Meiling both profess to have their eye on a gradual buildup in the festival's offerings over the coming seasons. The visual arts component will be beefed up next year, and there are plans afoot for a Summerfest Institute, a think tank-like project along the lines of the Aspen Institute.
And on the musical front, Rezven is hoping to beef up the orchestra - now a 38-player chamber group - to be able to take on the full symphonic repertoire.
"It's going to take time to do all of those things," he said. "But for now, I'm being given a musical Ferrari to drive for the summer. For me, this is not a steppingstone to anything - it's just an opportunity to make music with a great orchestra."