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.
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.' ''
Credit for maintaining this spirit is generally given to Marlboro's artistic director, Rudolf Serkin, who could be seen one afternoon recently running through scales in the arklike interior of the auditorium, rain pelting the ground outside. Later that night, he sat at a table in the outsize, egalitarian dining hall, in which hardworking musicians are apt to throw balled-up napkins at each other, and where one Peter Lloyd, a Philadelphia Orchestra double-bassist was sweeping the floor as Berlin Philha rmonic concertmaster Saschko Gawriloff sauntered out the door.
Shyly but firmly, Mr. Serkin refuses credit for anything in the place, including decisions about how to play a Mozart trio: ``If there is a question, we ask Mozart,'' he says, only half joking and meaning they look for answers in the score. ``He's told us a lot of things we should do, and answered our questions. But there are still many to answer.''
``With Mr. Serkin, not that much would be said during rehearsals,'' observes Michael Parloff, principal flutist with the Metropolitan Opera, who has attended three other festivals and is in his third summer here at Marlboro. ``You would play it and play it, and it would change almost imperceptibly.''
Contrariwise, cellist David Soyer of the Guarneri Quartet does a lot of audible coaching. During one session, a fine, misting rain is blurring the green Vermont scenery as Mr. Soyer gently urges a couple of young companions to keep a Dvorak quintet sharp and articulated. ``Always very precise, very incisive,'' he exhorts. ``More expressive, here,'' he calls out later. Then, ``Can it be a little more muted? Laya-da? Laya-da?''
This kind of exhaustive coaching, thinking, playing, listening to rehearsal tapes, and replaying can go on for as many as 28 or 30 hours of rehearsal. The results of this intensive work could be heard in a pair of performances on a recent weekend.
The sold-out audience of 820 -- which included Washington Post board chairman Katharine Graham, former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith -- didn't know until the day of the concert who would be performing which works. As it turned out, flutist Parloff played in Samuel Barber's ``Summer Music for Woodwind Quintet,'' which was as light and airy as a bubble lifting out of a child's hand. Then Julia Lichten, in white dress a nd long reddish hair, essayed the difficulties of Faur'e's Trio in D minor with pianist Bruno Canino and violinist Ralph De Souza.
The next afternoon, Mr. Serkin sat still, listening for the young violist Steven Tenenbom to cue him. Then, his lips working incessantly, Serkin made his way through Mozart's Trio in E-flat major, to the accompaniment of Tenenbom and clarinetist Shannon Scott. A performance of Brahms's Quintet in G major quintessentially showed the business of this place -- from the muscular opening Allegro to the stormy last movement. All five players, including veteran David Soyer, played as if the world turned on each bow stroke.
Marlboro has been giving this kind of music to the Vermont countryside and the world for 35 years. In the mind of Rudolf Serkin, that period evokes ``an avalanche of wonderful memories of Busch, Casals, so many others. We cannot even begin'' to tell it all. But he would rather look forward than back. And, he says, maybe it's too soon to start summing up.
``Thirty-five years is too short a time.''