Where Even the Insects Make Music [Marlboro Music School and 2011 Festival]

Written by: Tully Potter

Tully Potter reports on the final week of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, held in Vermont from 26 June to 14 August…

Rudolf Serkin (1903-91)

As I walked down the hill to breakfast in the dining hall on my first morning and heard the cicadas and crickets singing and sawing, I felt I had really arrived at the famous summer school (an earlier generation of these insects can clearly be heard on Rudolf Serkin’s 1957 record of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, made at Marlboro). In this secluded spot, where white clapboard buildings nestle among trees, you feel that even the natural world sympathises with the ideals of those who gather for seven weeks each year to study and play chamber music, and to perform selected works for the public.

Several planets came into alignment for this year’s event: it was the sixtieth summer school (not counting an experimental season in 1950) and the 120th-birthday of Adolf Busch, the German-born violinist, composer and humanitarian whose vision inspired the original concept. Sadly, it was the first Marlboro without the late violinist Philipp Naegele, who had been heavily involved since 1950. And the last co-founder, violinist and conductor Blanche Honegger Moyse, died earlier this year aged 101.

I heard five concerts including 18 works, of which 16 were outstandingly performed (the two exceptions had simply got ‘overcooked’). I was also able to sit in on a number of reading sessions, at which pieces in varying states of preparedness were played for the participants’ edification or education.
Under Marlboro’s system, a mature musician acts as mentor to a group of up-and-coming artists (youngsters are invited for several summers, so competition for vacancies is fierce at the annual New York auditions). Co-founders Rudolf Serkin and Marcel Moyse were key figures after Busch’s untimely death in 1952, alongside violinists Felix Galimir and Alexander Schneider, so piano, strings and winds were the basis of the repertoire. A vocal programme was added later. Serkin became especially identified with what many people still think of as the Marlboro Festival – nowadays the snappier title Marlboro Music usually obtains.

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard Avedon

In recent years pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode, both firmly grounded in the Austro-German tradition espoused by the founders, have been co-directors (Uchida had come and gone by the time I arrived but Goode was a constant quiet presence, showing a ready sense of humour to offset his normal gravitas). Under them the repertoire embraces music that would have seemed outlandish in the early years – on the Monday I could choose among Ralph Vaughan Williams, Elliott Carter, Britten, Musgrave and Shostakovich as well as Dvořák, Viennese classics and Poulenc (Moyse territory).

The young talents clearly loved working with such mentors as Goode, fellow-pianist Cynthia Raim, violinists Arnold Steinhardt (Guarneri Quartet) and Lucy Chapman (New England Conservatory), violists Sally Chisholm (Pro Arte Quartet) and Hsin-Yun Huang (Borromeo Quartet), cellists Peter Wiley (Beaux Arts Trio, Guarneri Quartet) and Bonnie Hampton (Francesco Trio), oboist Nathan Hughes (Metropolitan Opera) and bassoonist Steven Dibner (San Francisco Symphony). It was interesting to observe how much democracy was encouraged at rehearsal – in Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds only one or two of the younger generation had nothing to say. Steinhardt was courteous but quite firm in his demands, while Chisholm and Hampton preferred to work by osmosis, letting the youngsters think that any changes were their idea!

Benjamin Jaber. Photograph: www.sdsomusicians.org

Monday evening was International Night, when participants cooked their national dishes for dinner. We then had a programme of skits, some of them very funny (I caught at least a few of the in-jokes). Most amazing was horn-player Benjamin Jaber playing his Uilleann pipes, with oboist Mary Lynch giving an exhibition of Irish dancing. My own contribution, on Tuesday evening, an illustrated talk about Adolf Busch, was followed by a late-night viewing in the coffee shop of the new film God’s Fiddler, profiling Jascha Heifetz. Could there have been a greater contrast in violin-playing (although Busch certainly admired Heifetz)?

Each year Marlboro marks Busch’s birthday with one of his works, as near as possible to the date of 8 August. This time it was the Saxophone Quintet (Opus 34), with the superb saxophonist Eliot Gattegno (playing a gold Selmer E flat alto instrument) and a string quartet of Robin Scott, Michelle Ross, Chisholm and Busch’s grand-daughter Judith Serkin. I heard two rehearsals and the performance led off Wednesday evening’s concert in the dining hall. The Quintet, which has had two recordings, is in three movements including a lively scherzo and a set of variations. Busch played it en famille (Serkin was reasonably skilled on the alto sax) but kept revising it; and the 1973 Marlboro airing with Sigurd Rascher was the world première. The current reading was eloquent and witty by turns: especially beautiful was the statement of the variation theme, by Gattegno unaccompanied and then the strings.

Karim Sulayman

The Marlboro première of Vaughan Williams’s Merciless Beauty featured the lyrical, expressive tenor of Karim Sulayman with Nikki Chooi and Ross, violins, and Bronwyn Banerdt, cello. It was followed by an equally marvellous Poulenc Sextet, with pianist-composer Matan Porat and Brook Schoenwald, flute, Hassan Anderson, oboe, Alicia Lee, clarinet, Steven Dibner, bassoon, and David Cooper, horn. Given the best tune, a typical slow Poulenc melody, Anderson played it with bel canto grace. Finally we heard an account of Britten’s Third String Quartet (Danbi Um, Bella Hristova, Hsin-Yun Huang, Angela Park) that respected its unusual form but particularly brought out the beauty of the writing. After the concert we were treated to a fascinating and amusing illustrated talk on Mars exploration by Banerdt’s father Bruce, a leading space scientist, who included two pictures taken that very day. Fatigue forced me to miss the performance of Matan Porat’s Requiem for two pianists and three instrumentalists, given after midnight.

Paul Wiancko. Photograph: Rock Kendall

Thursday’s concert began with Vaughan Williams’s Four Hymns, very well sung for the most part by tenor Joshua Stewart with Emily Deans, viola, and Lydia Brown, piano. Like Sulayman, Stewart is tall (soprano partners will be grateful), but he has a dramatic, almost spinto voice. Big voices need a lot of lungpower, but even so I felt he showed too little faith in his breath control: every line of the third hymn – the one with the viola muted – was broken midway by a breath. Shostakovich’s Fifth String Quartet was well done by Viviane Hagner, Steinhardt, Vicki Powell (a young violist with a lovely tone) and Paul Wiancko. I feel that this quartet portrays its creators, the Beethoven Quartet – the four parts are so individual. Thea Musgrave’s Impromptu was cleverly dovetailed by Emi Ferguson, flute, and Mary Lynch, oboe. And finally we heard a delightful Ernö von Dohnányi Second Piano Quintet by pianist Pallavi Mahidhara with Ying Fu, Hristova, Huang and Wiancko.

Andrew Janss. Photograph: Otto Piron

For the last three concerts we moved to the 1962 Persons Auditorium, which looks like an aircraft hangar from the outside but inside is a cross between a church and a vintage barn, with beautiful wood everywhere. A canopy over the stage helps to project the sound forward and movable wooden baffles behind the players assist the engineers with the many live recordings that are made there. Haydn’s G major Flute Trio (Emi Ferguson, flute, Andrew Janss, cello, Anna Polonsky, piano) was a delectable Friday-evening opener. Mendelssohn’s Second Quintet (Ying Fu, Lucy Chapman, Mary Sang-Hyun Yong, Kyle Armbrust and Banerdt) had an unusual seating plan: violins front left and right, violas left and right, cello rear centre. It worked well and might be even more effective in Mozart or Michael Haydn. An irreproachable performance was suitably intense. Brahms’s A major Piano Quartet offset heroics from Porat with refined string tone from Emilie-Anne Gendron, Huang and Gabriel Cabezas. The finale was fast but they got away with it.

Saturday’s concert was a mixed experience. Selections from Haydn’s Aus des Ramlers Lyrischer Blumenlese – Goode accompanying soprano Sarah Shafer, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, Sulayman and baritone John Moore – were all new to me except ‘Der Greis’, I am ashamed to admit. They were unfailingly well done. But Schubert’s Quartettsatz (Robin Scott, Gendron, Yong, Matthew Zalkind) was finicky and flimsy, lacking the power for what is, after all, the first movement of a dramatic quartet which just happens to be unfinished. I was told it had been better in rehearsal. A great success was scored by Dvořák’s Wind Serenade (D minor), of which I had heard several absorbing rehearsals. I was glad that the players (Hughes & Anderson, oboes, Tibi Cziger & Lee, clarinets, Natalya Rose Vrbsky & Dibner, bassoons, Cooper, Rebekah Daley & Benjamin Jaber, horns, Janss, cello, and Tony Flynt, double bass) did not take the March too fast. I prefer a more mellow horn sound but otherwise it was terrific. Alas, Brahms’s G major String Quintet (Dina Nesterenko, Steinhardt, Yong, Hélène Clément and Banerdt), which had been magnificent in a recorded run-through on Friday, was disappointing. How could they rehearse it yet again at 10 on the Saturday morning and still play it well twelve hours later? Banerdt’s cello was solid as a rock but violin and viola intonation came and went, before going to pieces in the finale.

Itamar Zorman, winner of the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Photograph: www.itamarzorman.com

The traditional Sunday-afternoon closing concert, before a packed hall, was tremendous fun. It began on a small scale, with a lithe Mozart D major Flute Quartet (K285, with Schoenwald, Caroline Goulding, Chisholm and Cabezas). The platform was slightly fuller for Dvořák’s String Sextet (Scott, Itamar Zorman, Powell, Kyle Armbrust, Banerdt and Wiley), gorgeously played. After the interval came Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. This had allowed for some hilarity in rehearsal. Adolf Busch’s original concept was to have amateurs involved at Marlboro (Serkin, by contrast, wanted everyone to play with the joy of dilettanti but professional polish) and the one remaining vestige of this policy is to allow all and sundry to take part in the chorus. I declined the invitation and was glad I did, as the choir was of pretty fair standard. The soloists (Sarah Shafer, Susanna Phillips, Cano, Stewart, Sulayman and Moore) were placed in the back row, Toscanini-style, which helped to hold everyone together. Goode played with immense power and brio, Jaime Laredo conducted with unobtrusive persuasion, and the orchestra – for which two double-bassists besides Flynt were conjured up – played splendidly. It was a hugely enjoyable end to the summer school.

Of course, being cloistered for a week in such surroundings provided many fringe benefits, such as getting to know the distinguished mentors – Bonnie Hampton has a host of memories of Casals, the Griller Quartet, William Primrose and others – as well as Sally Chisholm’s husband, violinist and teacher Gene Purdue. Marlboro’s organising triumvirate – Frank Salomon, Anthony Checchia and Philip Maneval – were much in evidence: representing something like 130 years of experience, they are backed up by a well-practised team. Everyone seems to enjoy the long hours of work, even when the inevitable crises develop.

Visiting Busch’s grave in the cemetery at Guilford Center, I was bemused, like Alex Ross of The New Yorker before me, to find it totally obscured by the luxuriant lilac tree planted in front of the headstones commemorating him and Frieda Grüters, his first wife. Busch, a modest man, probably would not mind; but perhaps Marlboro could find an hour or two each year to clear the undergrowth and place wreaths on his grave and the nearby one of his beloved son-in-law Serkin. I was also able to see Busch’s house, kept in much of its original state by its present occupant Judith Serkin, and was amused to hear that the wonderful wooden beams were exposed because Busch, a big man, kept hitting the tip of his bow on the plasterboard which previously covered them.

Record enthusiasts will want to know that many classic Marlboro Columbia recordings are now released on compact disc by ArkivMusic, some for the first time. Personal favourites include the coupling of Brahms’s Second Sextet and Horn Trio, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Mendelssohn’s Octet. Among recent issues is an Archduke Trio with Uchida, Soovin Kim and the late David Soyer. The summer school uses the Marlboro College campus – I enjoyed visiting the bookstore, presided over by Rebecca Bartlett – and by now the academics will be reclaiming their territory. Music-making for the rest of the summer will be left to the insects and the birds (Vermont sparrows, smaller than the British variety, make a much more melodious noise). I wish I could have stayed to see the wooded hills in their autumn glory, but that will have to await another visit.

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