Marlboro: one of the special places on the musical earth

As one musician put it, you arrive at Marlboro and your fingers begin to itch. Thirty years ago, Adolf and Hermann Busch, Rudolf Serkin, Marcel and Louis and Blanche Moyse, all gathered on the college campus that bears the name of this little town to establish a summer music festival.

Did they really dream that 30 years later it still would be thriving, heralded by performer and concertgoer alike as one of the special places on this musical earth?

* Unique is the only word for the place, even though the college itself is typically rustic. New England gathering of white clapboard buildings sprinkled up a hill that is topped with a miniature forest. (When Felix Galimir first saw it in the wintertime so many years ago, he said it was like an enchanted village.)

At any time of the day or early evening, one hours music coming from everywhere. From 9 to 6, the Marlboro community is rehearsing (except for the hour break for lunch at 1 p.m.). And herein lies the essence of the place.

Unlike most music camps or summer festivals involving students, Marlboro is designed so the prefessional musician -- or student with professional experience -- can work with other professionals, refining chamber pieces of their own choosing.

There is no student-teacher relationship per se. Rather, young professionals can work with a Rudolf Serkin, a Felix Galimir, Pina Carmirelli, or Julius Levine, sharing ideas, learning from one another, finding the way to make a piece of work for the group assembled.

"It is a dream come true," notes violinist Mary Crowder Hess, at Marlboro for the first time. What surprised her the most was "the way they treat everybody specially, even the peons like me!" And that is the common attitude among newcomers.

There are, in fact, three "age groups" at Marlboro -- not necessarily related to the age of their members: the young newcomers, who come back for as many as four seasons, conditions (and volition) permitting; the "middle-aged," who have been Marlboro students in the past and are now returning to share their knowledge and eventually become members of the "senior" musicians, such as Serkin, Galimir, and Marcel Moyse, who are the artistic motivating force behind the institution.

Though there is one senior member in each rehearsing ensemble, it is a group effort, and often -- because of the intensity of the rehearsal schedule -- first-chair orchestral musicians and even major soloists come to the festival so they can work on a few pieces they have never had the time to polish fully in the course of their normal activities.

And around it all is the quiet but telling presence of Serkin. He is the animating force behind Marlboro, even if he does keep an unusually low profile. He eats with the players in the main dining room, retaliates vigorously when he is involved in the almost nightly paperball wars.

And knows everym musician there that summer. In fact, one summer an attempt was made to expand participation at Marlboro, and Serkin said never again, because he was not able to get to know everyone that season. So the built-in rule is less than 70, and Serkin cares deeply about all of them.

How does Marlboro work? The fruition is heard every weekend in the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon concerts in the barn. Then there are winter tour series that give a very strong sampling of what Marlboro music is all about. And, of course, many memorable "Music From Marlboro" recordings are available on Columbia and by mail through the Marlboro Recording Society.

But that is just the exterior. For Marlboro is really an ongoing rehearsal. In the course of any given week, 80 to 120 pieces will be read through, examined , pondered, and -- if the group is willing -- rehearsed with the intention of performance. The task of scheduling these players falls to Jack Shapiro, who spends most of his days in a small office next to the music library."

The question that has been in the back of everybody's mind of late is the durability of the institution. It works well now because of Serkin. But can it manage on its own? Most people are convinced it can, though there are a few doubting Thomases who note that is might not be possible, in this star-oriented land, to continue without a luminary of the caliber and reputation of a Serkin.

Both frank Salomon and Anthony Checcia, who coadministrate the festival, feel otherwise. Last year, Mr. Serkin took a sabbatical and the ship ran quite smoothly. The festival has just begun a $900,000 endowment fund drive to supplement the $2 million that already exists, as a hedge against escalating costs.

It is a far more secure picture than when Mr. Checcia arrived as a bassoonist in 1956 and became an administrator in 1958. It was hand-to-mouth, with Serkin contributing substantially to keep things going.

In 1960, Pablo Casals came to Marlboro, and the tide was eventually turned. But for the 13 years he was involved with the festival, it was uphill most of the way. After that, Marlboro remained visible, and thriving. Mr Checcia, Salomon, and Serkin share the view that it will remain a tradition passed on from young to old as they become a part of the Marlboro family.

Mr. Salomon refers to the spirit of generosity that pervades all aspects of the operation. It is something a visitor can sense if he stays for more than a day, and it is manifested in the artists' generosity toward their colleagues (as well as the less visible non-artists generosity toward the institution).

Marlboro ideally costs $2,000 per person, so already one has an idea of the scope of the financial operations at Marlboro. Few are able to pay all of the cost, though some players do. Certain senior members accept little or no remuneration for their efforts even though they have expenses to cover. Still, Marlboro does realize the financial sacrifice involved for those who give up a summer to be at Marlboro as part of the senior guard.

Julius Levine, who has been here 21 years, considers Casals his musical father-mother, and Alexander Schneider (who, until 1975, was actively involved at Marlboro), his musical midwife.

"I have been able to be part of an exceptional slice of musical life. What I have learned -- that pivotal something in my life -- I am trying to pass on."

That is what keeps him coming back. And in that time, he notes a general increase in the level of excellence of the younger players (though Levine himself could hardly be considered "senior" in actual years). He notes, however , that ever since the barn was built, the emphasis has subtly changed.

In the old days, when the dining hall became the concert hall and Serkin helped move the tables out, if something wasn't ready, the pianist would fill in. The pressure to perform was not quite so intense as it is now, with two concerts a week that must be filled with chamber music. (There used to be a third, but Salomon admitted it was too hectic to push for three, and the emphasis was wrong, even though it did mean more money at the box office.) "It's no longer 'let nature take its course,' but rather 'when will it be ready.' I'm not altogether sure that that's bad, but it ism different."

Mr. Galimir notes that "there is no other place like it -- the enthusiasm, the dedication, you don't find it anywhere else. People enjoy what they're doing, and they enjoy each other." He notes what every senior member (and many other regulars) observe, that there is no competition.

Curiously enough, the newcomers find a good deal of competition among their peers -- young performers out to prove themselves better, who will even insist in the presence of a "senior" player that their way is the best, whether a group can accomodate it or not. The singers tend to feel a certain isolation from the rest of the musicians, but this has been a common complaint for years. Such minor problems aside, John Aler's simple statement about this "personal musical experience" seems pretty universal among all newcomers: "I'm surprised I liked it as much as I do."

What about the music at Marlboro? The weekend I was at Marlboro I heard a sensational account of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet Op. 57 dominated by Peter Orth at the keyboard, and Pina Carmirelli, first violin. It was rather like trying to contain an exploding powderkeg. On the same program was a performance of Brahms's stunning Vocal Quartets, Op. 96, with tenor John Aler, soprano Jenny Hayden Brown, mezzo Beverly Morgan, and bass James Tyeska, Luis Batlle at the keyboard, and also the Beethoven Octet, Marcel Moyse conducting.

Sunday afternoon was made memorable by John Aler's sensitive, beautifully vocalized account of Schubert's "Auf dem Strom," with David Jolley the seamless, eloquent horn player, and Mr. Batlle again at the piano. A stimulating Mozart Divertimento opened the program, and a bizarre performance of the Op. 46 Piano Quartet by Brahms closed it -- bizarre because each player was swathed in his own cocoon, with no one giving a hint that he or she had ever heard another work by the composer.

Irregularities of that sort are inevitable, however. Usually, Marlboro music is vital and often thrilling. What the players gain becomes part of an tradition -- a tradition unique to Marlboro, from which the whole music world has benefited in the past, and continues to benefit today.

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