Serkin and Marlboro: affection and music in Vermont's green hills

I find myself searching for an image to capture Marlboro Music. Something to sum up 32 years of chamber music playing and learning and giving the world many of it's best musicmakers. Something that will say: Here is all the democratic discipline and monastic devotion to music. Here, in short, is the spirit of the place.

Two memories of pianist Rudolph Serkin - who helped found the festival in 1951 and has been its guiding light - come to mind. . . .

It is the last concert of the 1983 season. The music of Mozart occupies the energy and attention of a string quartet and pianist on stage. The audience is wrapped up in the flow of the music. From my seat, I can barely make out the figure of a man behind the stage baffles.

It takes a while, but eventually I realize that Rudolph Serkin is sitting back there, alone, unseen by the audience, face cradled in those enormous hands, listening deeply and appreciatively.

He seems an almost invisible presence within the music.

The second memory is a personal one that requires me to take you back in time.

I was maybe 18 or 19 years old when I bought a recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto by Mr. Serkin. The music, and the way it was played, soothed many a troubled spot for me over the years. When I came to Boston two years ago, I heard Rudolph Serkin playing the same piece in Symphony Hall. In 20 years he had found more new truth in this music than I would have thought conceivable. It was impossible to take notes during the performance. What could you say? This was Beethoven in all his expressive power and emotional intensity.

A few days later, I was introduced to Serkin backstage at Symphony Hall and told him what that performance meant to me.

He stepped back for a moment, saying, ''Oh, that music! And to have it received like that. It's . . .'' He groped for words, finally patting his hand over his heart, as if to show it beating. Then, quite suddenly, he put his arms around my neck and embraced me, tightly and affectionately.

After a moment, he pulled back and said, ''And you felt it, too!''

The spirit of Marlboro is Rudolph Serkin.

It is the affection, the uncompromising search for truth, and the athletic training that go into his kind of musicmaking.

Marlboro is a learning and performing center for chamber music that occupies this small community of white college buildings on the outstretched green hills of Vermont every summer.

Here, the brightest and the best young talent work with august figures in the musical world. They each bring a handful of pieces to study while they are here; and the work on each piece goes on until it is finished. If they never get the piece to where they want it, they never have to play it. It's that simple.

To appreciate what this can mean to older and younger players, you must have a sense of the pressure and hype of commercial concertizing. And then realize that Marlboro represents an escape from all that.

Marlboro is a place for serious musicians to be serious about music.

That their music benefits from the process is evident from the weekend concerts, almost always sold out in advance (even though the audience usually doesn't know who or what will be on the program when they buy their tickets). Every week, works are put on that have been toiled over, thought about, and polished to glistening.

Later in that final concert, for instance, Schubert's Sextet in D minor (Op 70) proceeds with certainty and conviction: six players, locked in intense, heated discourse. Simultaneously, they unravel all the multiple strands of this complicated musical tale.

Salvatore Accardo, who has become a prominent figure on the celebrity circuit , plays an expressive, sweet-voiced violin in a singing interchange with the young and lovely Sara Sant'Ambrogio on cello. The music takes on an intimate, personal character. It is a dialogue, a small exchange between friends.

Afterward, Accardo is walking away from Marlboro, his violin case tucked under his arm. Obviously reluctant to leave, he stops for a moment to tell a reporter:

''This is something unique. It's not only living together, here. It is also playing music together, which is something more. Because music is life. And to leave here is to leave a little of your life.''

It is a large question, whether they can take this life with them when they leave.

Every year, a group of players are chosen to tour the country in something called Music From Marlboro. They meet in New York and rehearse for a week; then they take off for Louisville, Memphis, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and a dozen other cities.

The idea is to bring Marlboro to the rest of the country. There are certain things which do not travel, however. For example:

At every meal in the large Marlboro mess hall, everyone is asked to serve - from Rudolph Serkin to the youngest player. And at every meal, Rudolph Serkin rolls up a piece of napkin and throws it at someone. What follows is a barrage of rolled up napkins that go whizzing through the air throughout the meal.

Sitting at one table, Robin Graham, a dark-eyed pretty young horn player who has seen the hard commercial side of the music world, remembers the first time she went to a music camp, when she was 14. ''We played Tchaikovsky's 'Romeo and Juliet,' '' she recalls. ''It's something everybody has played a hundred times. But for us it was something incredibly wonderful. And afterward we all ran and jumped in the pool together and went crazy.''

And that is largely the point at Marlboro. To find something wonderful and exciting in the music that communicates itself.

At the last concert, again. They are playing the final work of the summer, Beethoven's ''Fantasia'' in C minor for piano and chorus. Unlike the small chamber pieces played all summer, this work requires almost the entire festival of instrumentalists and singers. They play it every year as a farewell to each other and to the audience.

Rudolph Serkin is at the piano. As he moves purposefully through the solo introduction, one of the young violinists sits behind him, her eyes closed. He pounds through a cadenza, his mouth forming a sotto voce accompaniment, and comes suddenly and quietly to the statement of the theme, one which is very much like the ''Ode to Joy'' theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The first statement of the theme is quietly expressive; but it grows in intricacy and power, until it is taken up by the chorus.

After this is over, they will all be backstage, crying and hugging one another goodbye. But for now they are singing with rapt joyful faces. The words seem to be written expressly for this place and this occasion, especially the last few stanzas.

Whenever a spirit takes wing,

A chorus of spirits responds to him.

Receive then, beautiful souls,

Gladly the gifts of beautiful art.

When love and strength are wed,

The grace [of God] is man's reward.m

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