If we didn't already have a feature on a summer music program - at Brevard - called "The Brevard Experience," the title of this much shorter commentary would be "The Marlboro Experience." That's because the Marlboro Music School and Festival (at http://www.marlboromusic.org/), like Brevard, in some respects, is much more than just a festival, although that word appears in the formal titles of both events. Now it's a fact that Marlboro, Vermont, is a bit off the customary beaten path for CVNC, but experience has shown that people who play there tend to have large careers in chamber music throughout our country and beyond, and that the best of them will show up, often repeatedly, in many of the leading chamber music ensembles here and abroad. This year's festival, the 52nd such, involved just a dozen formal concerts, spread across five weeks, following two weeks of intense preparations. The concept embraced by founders Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch and still held by the current leaders is simple: invite top young professional musicians to rural Vermont, team them up with senior players and mid-range artists, allow them a voice in the selection of the music they play, and provide for everyone far more rehearsal time than any of them are likely to enjoy during their everyday working lives as instrumentalists or singers. To the extent possible, shield them from the vagaries and pressures of the American concert business. (As a senior manager of the festival suggested, both critics and conductors - strange bedfellows, eh? - are kept at more than arms' reach.) One method for achieving the truly special quality of performances often encountered at Marlboro (which derives its name from the college based there) is in the development of the programs that are ultimately offered to the public: no work is presented until it is deemed truly ready for performance. (As a result, the works are generally not announced until a week or so before the concert dates.) Festival hounds and other traveling music lovers may wonder at this approach, for it involves a large measure of trust to book a trip without knowing who will be playing what. Our own admittedly limited experience in this very special environment has shown that it works brilliantly, for the ensembles are rich and richly varied, and the bills of fare are likewise often exceptional.
We were privileged to attend the last weekend of the festival and to hear three remarkable concerts. At the first, on August 16, Beethoven's String Trio No. 2 preceded Reger's Clarinet Quintet, which was capped by Schumann's Piano Quartet. Record (or, if you prefer, CD) collectors will know these works, of course, but it would be a rare thing to encounter any of them live, in concert, and to hear all three on the same program would take, well, a trip to Marlboro! In each case, too, the performers represented the best of the best from at least two and in some cases three generations of outstanding artists. In the Beethoven, the players were violinist Jesse Mills, violist Scott St. John, and cellist David Soyer. Charles Neidich performed the Reger, in company with violinists Timothy Fain and Sharon Roffman, violist Teng Li, and cellist Siegfried Palm. The Schumann was played by Jeremy Denk, with strong support from violinist St. John, violist Meng Wang, and cellist Yumi Kendall. We provide the names because our readers will doubtless recognize some of these musicians and will, we suspect, encounter the others soon enough on regional concert platforms and in broadcasts and on recordings. We provide the names, too, so our readers will realize that this is not your typical chamber music program. St. John appeared in two of the three works, but otherwise there were no overlaps among the eleven(!) artists involved.
Saturday's concert began with Haydn's Quartet in F, H.III:73, played by Frank Huang, Bradley Creswick, Teng Li, and Peter Stumpf. We heard this in rehearsal, before lunch, along with the final run-through of Janacek's "Mládí" ("Youth") Suite, for winds. Long-time Marlboro attendees know that rehearsals are open to the public and that these sessions can be - and often are - every bit as interesting and informative as the performances themselves, if not more so. It was a revelation to listen to the rehearsals, to note what commanded the players' attention (and what did not), and to observe the sheer hard work - and the give and take among and between the artists (irrespective of "seniority," by the way) - that went into shaping the final results, experienced during the evening concert. The Janacek sextet was played by flutist Paula Robison, oboist Rudolph Vrbsky, clarinetist Gregory Raden, bass-clarinetist Brian Hysong, bassoonist Shinyee Na, and hornist Gabriel Kovach, and the ensemble made it a work of unending delight, bringing out the great character of the score in truly exceptional ways. The grand finale was Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night," radiantly played by violinists Nicolas Kendall and Jesse Mills, violists Kim Kashkashian and Maurycy Banaszek, and cellists Joel Noyes and Efe Baltacigil. Again we call out all the names, but this time in the hope that this program will be taken on tour two seasons from now, under the "Musicians from Marlboro" banner. An earlier incarnation was presented in Raleigh and Pinehurst in the 2001-2 season, so it is not unreasonable to expect another visit, and this program was a real winner.
The festival ended with a matinee performance of music by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak on August 18. The barn-like auditorium was packed and more than a bit uncomfortable, due to unseasonably warm weather (that bore a striking resemblance to that which we'd hoped to leave behind, in North Carolina), as the concert got underway with three vocal quartets by Haydn, handsomely and sensitively sung by Arisa Kusumi, Katja Nicolai, Jon Humphrey, and James Martin, and accompanied by Luis Batlle. Texts and translations were provided (as was the case also for the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night"); we mention this because otherwise the Marlboro programs are pretty bare-boned affairs, devoid of biographies or notes. Beethoven's Octet, Op. 103, followed; it is rarely encountered in any form (there's a string quintet version, bearing opus number 4), so it was a special treat to hear it, and it was even more special, given the players: oboists Vrbsky and Ariana Ghez, clarinetists Neidich and Ana Victoria Luperi, bassoonists William Winstead and Shinyee Na, and hornists Kovach and Angela Cordell. As if this weren't enough for the first half, we were then treated to Schubert's Fantasia in F Minor, played by Anna Polonsky and Mitsuko Uchida; the latter and Richard Goode are Artistic Directors of the festival, and it is totally in keeping with Marlboro's mission that she took the second piano part. Following a longish intermission that allowed time for re-setting the stage, the concert (and the festival itself) ended with a crisp reading of Dvorak's Serenade, which involved practically the entire string contingent of this Marlboro season, led (but not formally conducted) by the distinguished Isidore Cohen. It probably goes against the grain of the operating principles that govern Marlboro to mention Cohen in such a way, but we'll buck the system by singling him out because the players, too, recognized his leadership and place in the pantheon of great chamber artists by insisting that he take a solo bow, when the concert ended. Bravo!
As far as the chamber music presentations were concerned, it may be worth noting that all were remarkable, in their own ways. Perhaps the readings would have been more "seasoned" if the groups had been "fixed" for years or even decades, but these were all bracing, exciting and gorgeously played realizations. There was never a doubt about the technical proficiency of the musicians. That some of them may have been playing these works for the first time, or for the first time in public, may be assumed. That some of the seniors were playing "second fiddle," as it were, for the first time in years is likely, too. The results were stimulating for the audiences and - clearly - for the artists as well.
Marlboro is truly a special place. There are many festivals, but none have had greater impact on chamber music. Perhaps it's a myth, but one hears that no important chamber music ensemble can survive without at least one Marlboro grad in its ranks. And its influence extends far beyond chamber music. Many alumni members populate positions of leadership in our major orchestras. And even a few musicians who now work as (dare we say it?) conductors have had the Marlboro experience, too. One of these, now living and working in the Triangle, is Tonu Kalam, who was involved with the festival in various ways for 16 seasons, and whose father was a mainstay of Marlboro for 21 summers. Indeed, Endel Kalam was for many years the festival's chief scheduler, maintaining the schedule board that helped everyone show up at the right place at the right time. During a tour of the backstage facilities, graciously provided by administrator Frank Salomon, we were ushered into the mailroom, where the same amazing schedule board, a relic of pre-computer days, is still in service. It was somewhat akin to a visit to the holiest of holies, and seeing it was one of the highlights of our visit.
We didn't get over to Peterborough, New Hampshire, to check up on Duke's Ciompi Quartet, which spends part of each summer at the Monadnock Music festival (after a stint at the Highlands Chamber Music Festival in the NC mountains), but we did come home via Cape Cod, where Durham native Nicholas Kitchen serves as Artistic Director of the Cape & Islands Chamber Music Festival. As it happened, he and the Borromeo String Quartet were at the Ravinia Festival during our visit, but the concert we heard was played by some high-horsepower artists who are all in Kitchen's orbit. They included the brilliant young violinist Corey Cerovsek, the distinguished violist Paul Neubauer, and one of the world's leading classical couples, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. Cerovsek doesn't do much chamber music, so it was a special treat to hear him in the intimate environment of the Brewster Baptist Church. He and Neubauer made child's play of Mozart's Duo in B Flat, K.424, which was enlivened by supreme technical control and the sort of artistic wizardry that is rare, even among the leading, big-name ensembles.
Following the intermission, Cerovsek, Finckel and Han delivered a reading of Arensky's Trio that positively glowed from within, prompting more than a few attendees to hope that a recording by these artists will eventually grace ArtistLed, the independent label ( http://www.artistled.com/ ) created by Finckel and Han in the wake of their increasing frustration with the commercial CD companies (a discussion of which, led by WGBH's Richard Knisely, dominated the pre-concert talk). Between these large works came a "virtuoso soirée" that might have raised eyebrows among the more elite members of the classical music confraternity but which proved to be a real treat in this summer setting. Kreisler's "Syncopation" featured violist Neubauer (who cited the great richness of Kreisler's violin tone), supported by Finckel and Han; Neubauer and Han then cut up more than a smidgen with a Gypsy tune called "The Canary," in which the bird did a lot of slipping and sliding around its nest. A transcription for cello and piano of one of Rachmaninoff's preludes allowed Finckel to demonstrate his radiant sound, which may not be trademarked but could well be. The Kreisler-Rachmaninoff "Liebesfreud" gave Han (who was last heard in the Triangle in April, with the Ying Quartet) her moment or two in the solo sun, and the group ended with Cerovsek in his element, delivering a little set of Variations (on an Original Theme) by Wieniawski, whose Second Concerto he'd played with the NC Symphony last season.
The Cape & Islands Chamber Music Festival is somewhat closer to the Tar Heel State than Marlboro, and it is loaded with outstanding artists. This year there were six programs, each given twice, in various Cape Cod locations, three programs for young people, a special visit from the ensemble Music from China, a film with music by this year's composer-in-residence Osvaldo Golijov (who held the same post at Marlboro this summer), and a grand finale that featured Dawn Upshaw, Todd Palmer, Margo Garrett and the Borromeo String Quartet. Do the math and you will see that these add up to two more public events than Marlboro offers, and everything is packed into three weeks, which might make taking in the entire run possible for NC-based music lovers. (There's also an outstanding winter series of four concerts that may appeal to those who prefer the Cape when there are fewer people there....) For more information, call 800/229-5739 or check the Festival's website (at http://www.capecodchambermusic.org/).