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Where young musicians rub elbows with the greats

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1985

Marlboro, Vt.

BACK in January, Julia Lichten dragged her cello through the bitter-cold New York streets to audition in what she calls ``a seedy hotel room'' not far from Carnegie Hall. Now, sitting on the sun-drenched steps of a college campus in southern Vermont, she can hardly believe what blossomed from that winter planting. Miss Lichten is one of 68 musicians invited this summer to the 35th anniversary season of the Marlboro Music School and Festival.

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The school was founded by legendary violinist Adolph Busch, his brother Herman, son-in-law Rudolf Serkin, and colleagues Marcel, Louis, and Blanche Moyse. According to almost all comers, Marlboro is unlike anything else in the world -- a Brigadoon sort of place that springs up each year to last for an enchanted season.

What makes Marlboro different from other festivals is not just the universally acknowledged caliber of the musicians -- both young and established -- who come here to learn, but also the dual decision never to perform a work until the players feel it is ready and to throw young aspirants into studying and performing situations with revered masters.

Marlboro has brought together such musical giants as Pablo Cassals and Rudolf Serkin, as well as Budapest String Quartet members Alexander and Mischa Schneider, with students like Murray Perahia, Yo-Yo Ma, Andr'e-Michel Schub, and Emanuel Ax, and it has generally done so when these younger talents were still tender and malleable.

``Marlboro has remarkably kept its reputation,'' comments Joseph Polisi, president of the Juilliard School. ``It certainly is considered the ultimate [chamber] music experience.'' According to at least one respected musicologist, Marlboro participants have been highly instrumental in the renaissance of chamber music playing in this country during the last two decades.

``For young people in their 20s,'' says cellist Laurence Lesser, president of the New England Conservatory and a Marlboro alumnus, ``to be invited to Marlboro is to be touched with the knighting sword of a king.''

As Julia Lichten talks in the limpid Vermont sunshine -- the thick strains of a string quartet sounding in the distance -- she looks and feels as if she has been touched with such a sword.

``Working on [Schubert's ``Trout Quintet''] with Norbert Brainin [lead violinst of the Amadeus Quartet] . . . really made me rethink all kinds of things, from the actual mechanics of playing a stringed instrument . . . to exploring a piece you have played before,'' she recalls. ``I felt like things kept opening up. . . . He had very specific ideas about what the character of each of the movements is, and very beautiful ones.''

Marlboro is heady with this business of ``exploring a piece'' and finding the character of a phrase, a movement, a note.

Walking among the rustic buildings -- all white and small in the surrounding foothills of the Green Mountains -- on a recent Saturday, one could hear the strains of Faur'e, Boccherini, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, being assiduously worked over by some of the world's best players.

``The thing we have here is all the time in the world without commercial pressures,'' observes Peter Wiley, a cellist who has spent 10 seasons here, most recently in a coaching capacity, ``to delve completely into the innermost workings of a piece and let no stone go unturned.''

``The decisive difference between Marlboro and other festivals I have attended,'' muses Mr. Brainin, a veteran of European festivals, ``is that the `teacher,' who really is not a teacher, actually plays with the `students,' who are students in name only.'' That and ``the spirit of the place -- you could almost call it `holy.' ''