IN the heart of this college town sits an old stone mansion partially shrouded by trees and ivy - somewhat mysterious from afar, but warm and welcoming the nearer you come on its stone path. The massive front door, dramatized by a heavy iron ring, opens into what certainly must have been, a hundred years ago, a suitably grand home to its owner, a railroad tycoon. But now it is home to hundreds of instrument-toting musicians, from five-year-old Suzuki violinists to senior-citizen clarinetists.
The Longy School of Music, now in its 75th year, has maintained a prestigious presence in the Boston area, as a community music school that enrolls more adults than children and as a training camp for professionals, some of whom have gone on to international careers. Composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger and composer Elliott Carter are among the many musical luminaries who taught or studied here.
But in the last few years, the school has undergone an expansion unprecedented in its history, tailoring its historic role of thorough musical training, based on the European conservatory model, to the changing needs and interests of its community.
Under the guidance of director Victor Rosenbaum, a well-known concert pianist, the student body has doubled (to more than 1,100); curriculum has increased four-fold; and the number of public concerts has tripled to more than 200. The annual ``Septemberfest,'' a series of special concerts concluding tonight, regularly packs Pickman Concert Hall, the acoustically fine auditorium added to the house in 1969.
At a time when arts institutions in Massachusetts and elsewhere are facing cutbacks in funding, the Longy School is forging ahead, confident and energized.
``I'm over there very often going to concerts,'' says Gabriel Chodos, chairman of the piano department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Longy ``has a very good reputation and a certain kind of imagination and interesting quality to the concerts they sponsor.''
The school took a severe blow recently when the Massachusetts Cultural Council reduced its contribution from $26,000 to $9,000. But director Rosenbaum is encouraged by the fact that a three-year campaign to raise $1.5 million, begun last year, has already brought in over half that amount.
``I try to never lose sight of the fact that, while we're proud of our financial stability, that alone is not our goal. The goal is to bring music to people,'' to ``cater to community needs,'' says Rosenbaum in an interview at Longy. ``People are increasingly turning to music in these times which are so harried and strung out. ... Music is part of their spiritual nourishment.''
A retired fireman with glasses on the end of his nose comes here for weekly piano lessons. An MIT professor, a homemaker, a computer programmer, neighborhood children - all are regulars at the charming Edwin Abbott House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The all-wood interior, with its winding oak staircase, ornate marble fireplaces, and bay windows, has a comfortable feel.
One student notes the tremendous diversity of activity. ``You've got people doing jazz in one room, and people doing plainchant in another,'' remarks Frank Jones, an early-music instrumentalist, on his way out of class. World music, electronic music, and the much-heralded jazz and early-music departments exist side by side with traditional studies, including Dalcroze Eurhythmics - music-and-movement courses that were offered back in 1915, when Georges Longy, a famous oboeist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded the school.
But one constant, say teachers and students, is the friendly, unpressured atmosphere.
``The teachers are very sensitive to non-conservatory types,'' says Peter McKinney, an amateur clarinetist and former Harvard professor who works full-time in an administrative post there. ``If you can't play like a professional, they're not going to break your clarinet! You're there to have fun, to improve, and to understand the music.''
More adults, who are beginning or resuming music lessons, are flooding enrollment lists.
Ann Bader, a homemaker with three older children, has been a piano student at Longy for two years. ``I had some lessons when I was little ..., but I hadn't played in 20 years.'' She had looked into adult courses offered at a local university, but she didn't yet play well enough to get in. At Longy, however, she found a program suited to her needs and is now working on a certificate.
``I just can't believe the great teachers I got - with the little amount of experience I have,'' says Bader, whose is taking music history and theory courses, besides piano lessons. Her goal is to teach piano out of her home.
Rosenbaum says it is the avocational students who often serve as reminders of how vital music can be in someone's life.
``They'll trudge in after work with their cellos on their backs ... and an hour later come out of their lessons rejunvenated, revived, and stimulated. I'm quite convinced that, for many of them, that hour is the single most important part of their week,'' he says.
About 10 percent of Longy's enrollment consists of professionally minded students working for the school's Graduate or Artists Diplomas, or in the joint-degree programs Longy has with two nearby colleges. Among the most talked-about classes are those of Judith Ross, a student of Nadia Boulanger, who teaches solf`ege including sight-singing, a traditional musical skill that many modern-day schools don't emphasize. Finish her advanced course, and you'll be able to sight-sing any piece of music - in seven clefs.
``Just getting through Fun II [Fundamentals II] is a major event in your life - like being born,'' jokes Mr. Jones.
Lea La Due, a violinist with the Nashua (N.H.) Symphony, likes the fact that Longy's atmosphere isn't ``cutthroat,'' like bigger schools of music where ``you process in, process out, and - poof! - you're a musician. You get more personal attention here.... and custom-made opportunites you might not get elsewhere.''
Betty Roberts, a piano faculty member for 43 years, calls the Longy School ``my home.''
``What's kept me here is the respect the teachers have for each other - which is unique,'' she says, adding that that's not often the case at conservatories.
Mrs. Roberts feels that the energetic leadership of Rosenbaum, who took the helm in 1985, is vital to Longy's continued success. He knows how to delegate, she says, and is always available for frank, one-to-one discussions about policy.
What is Longy's strategy for the '90s - now that deficits have been erased and mailing lists have tripled?
``Building on that growth,'' asserts Rosenbaum. With renovation already completed on the house, more construction lies ahead for a new library wing and refurbished concert hall, plus the goal of pumping up the tiny endowment fund, which includes scholarship money, to $750,000.
Raising the money to finish these projects ``will be an uphill battle,'' he says, and a potential threat is public anti-arts sentiment, stirred up recently over the funding of controversial art, which discourages corporations and other sources from giving. ``That's the only worry I have.''