It’s early summer in Vermont, and a curious procession winds its way along increasingly narrow roads toward a group of picture-postcard clapboard buildings atop a green hill. When the annual delivery of twenty or so Steinways arrives at Marlboro College for the annual Music School and Festival, they will join a modest administrative faculty, a handful of piano technicians and recording engineers, and seventy-five of the world’s finest chamber musicians, all coming together to take part in a unique utopian experiment.

The participants, who will work on just a few pieces for however long they want to work on them — two weeks, three, four, more — combine innocence with experience. The youngest third, selected via hotly contested auditions, will be visiting Marlboro for the first of up to three consecutive years. Another third will be eager young returnees. The seniors, a roster of whose names over the festival’s sixty-nine years — Casals, Ashkenasi, Fleisher, Perahia, Tortelier, Hahn — reads like a who’s who of classical music, are likely in it for the long haul, with many gladly returning for seven weeks of communal dining and shared living. In this republic of equals, your coffee order is as likely to be taken by the artistic director as a twenty-year-old newbie.

Mitsuko Uchida has missed only three summers since 1992 and has been in charge of the festival in one way or another for over twenty years. She understands the spirit of Marlboro as well as anyone. “Marlboro is for people to make music, and through making music together, understand what it is to make music,” she explains, her lyrical voice clipped by its own enthusiasm. “To truly understand an organism — and it’s not an organization, it’s an organism, like a little animal — you have to have been year after year after year. Only now I have started to truly understand.”

The Steinway connection stretches back to the early days, when the great German violinist Adolf Busch, his son-in-law Rudolf Serkin, and a handful of international colleagues — most of whom had escaped in the nick of time from the Nazis — mounted the first Marlboro Festival at the recently founded liberal arts college on the repurposed Dalrymple farm. Back then conditions were primitive, with wild woods and dirt roads. 

“The first year, twelve students showed up, but when they saw what it looked like, six of them turned around and walked right away,” says senior administrator Frank Salomon, a festival legend who first came to Marlboro sixty years ago at the behest of Serkin (Busch died in 1952). “So that year there were six founders and six students. In the early days it was touch-and-go, and a number of times Mr. Serkin had to sit down and write a check for ten thousand dollars, which was then an enormous amount of money.”

The iron fist at rest. Festival co-founder Rudolf Serkin. With violinist Felix Galimir (left) and cellist Hermann Busch (right).

Famously publicity-averse, Serkin was a man of few words who spoke through his actions, in the rehearsal room and otherwise. “Year after year, with an iron fist he controlled Marlboro,” is how Uchida puts it. “He was not a friend, no, but he was a great artist.”

By the late 1950s, Serkin had codified Marlboro’s musical philosophy. “He came to the conclusion that what could help exceptional young musicians learn the difference between being fine instrumentalists and being musicians who had something meaningful to say was to immerse them in chamber music during the summer,” says Salomon. “He understood that in chamber music, you not only learn your own part, but you have to learn the whole. You have to learn how to listen, how to compromise, how to make multiple voices into one. This place is as much about human values as musical values.”

Salomon describes a typical Serkin exchange: “A group who had been working on a piece for a number of weeks came up and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Serkin, we think we’ve finally got it,’ and he said, ‘Well, I think you’d better go back and keep rehearsing.’ His view was: maybe you made some progress, but life is a continuing exploration of possibilities.”

Focused rehearsals on limited repertoire is one of Marlboro’s luxuries, but it is in the mix of young and old and the idea that all opinions carry equal weight that it is truly revolutionary. “Of course, it’s not true that everybody is equal. That is a slogan,” laughs Uchida. “It is all lies, as many slogans are, because of course the seniors have more to say. But the young people have equal say.”

 

 ‘Year after year, with an iron fist he controlled Marlboro. He was not a friend, no, but he was a great artist.’

 

The large number of participants demands meticulous planning, with over two hundred rehearsals per week posted on the famous color-coordinated scheduling board. Uchida, who first came to Marlboro as a young artist in 1974, has instigated only one major change during her tenure, which began in tandem with Richard Goode and then ran five years with Uchida as sole artistic director. “I wanted the programming procedure — who performs the next week, or not — to be more open,” she explains. “It was very secretive, and that I did not like. The more secret it is, the more people start to have doubts about things that don’t really exist. Now everybody knows how it is decided and when it is decided.”

Last year Jonathan Biss was appointed co-artistic director, a decision that delighted Uchida, who first encountered the American pianist over twenty years ago at his Marlboro audition. “I don’t remember a single person otherwise, but I remember Jonathan vividly,” she recollects. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a talented young man!’ — I adored him from the start.”

Biss remembers that audition too. “I was told it would be whichever senior musicians happened to be in New York at that time, so don’t worry about it,” he says, stretching out in a common room armchair. “Well, I walked in, this sixteen-year-old kid from Bloomington, Indiana, barely knew my name, and sitting lined up were Mitsuko, Richard [Goode], and András [Schiff]. I had to fight a brief but strong impulse to turn right around and walk out of the room.”

That first year he worked on Beethoven’s Trio, Op. 7, No. 2, with Guarneri Quartet cellist David Soyer and Midori. “David Sawyer was Mr. Soyer. I don’t think there was anyone who called him David. And he clearly felt — and who could argue with him? — that he had played these pieces hundreds of times and it was silly to think someone who was learning it for the first time would have the same amount to contribute,” Biss recalls. “But there were other people who were much more Socratic, who seemed happier when everyone was contributing equally.”

Now a senior artist, Biss is clearly more comfortable in the latter group. “I’m not above saying, ‘In fact, that’s wrong,’ — I do sometimes — and there’s no denying I have more experience than someone who’s twenty, but I think one of the things you learn coming here is how to take responsibility for your own playing and your choices. If you’re going to convince someone else that your idea is valid, you have to be able to express it in a way they can understand.

A long way from Bloomington. Festival co–artistic director Jonathan Biss. (top) 
Mentor-in-chief. Festival co–artistic director Mitsuko Uchida. (bottom)

 

The beauty of Marlboro, he explains, is the way extended rehearsal periods allow you to discuss musical corners and transitions you would never explore in a normal situation. “That’s why I always say that time is the most precious commodity here,” he says.

Pianist Shai Wosner, a senior artist on his third visit, agrees: “I was curious and wary of the process, but not wary enough not to try it,” he says. “For me, it really sharpened the sense of what’s important and what’s not. You can really talk about the composer and the piece in a way you would never be able to in any other festival.

“In a funny way, it helps in other situations, which is most of life, where you don’t have that luxury of time,” he adds. “It’s not impossible to put a piece together on two or three rehearsals — with the right people that can be exhilarating, if risky — but the process at Marlboro helps you to navigate better afterwards.”

Biss and Uchida enjoy what both describe as a broad agreement on music’s central issues — although, as Uchida points out, if they agreed about everything they wouldn’t be human. 

“It’s precious to find people in your life that you can share music with on this level,” says Biss. “It’s the deep conviction you can never really know all there is to know about great music, and that it’s worth spending your whole life trying to know a little more.”

When asked to recall special Marlboro moments, coincidentally both artistic directors mention encounters with the great violinist Felix Galimir, a man Biss describes as one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. “He was at the end of his life and very frail — he would have been eighty-eight or eighty-nine,” says Biss. “The man could barely put the bow on the string, and yet when he played in the concerts something happened. Everyone was holding their breath to see if he’d get through it. But it was not just that, it was also this sense of distilled wisdom. I will never, ever forget that.”

 

 ‘I had to fight a brief but strong impulse to turn right around and walk out of the room.’ 

 

Many participants bring their kids, and Marlboro offers plenty of extracurricular activities, like swimming in the local pond. An opening-week square dance is designed to break any remaining ice and relieve the sense of isolation (it’s ten miles from the nearest town, and cell-phone service is spotty, to say the least). And then there are traditions like pelting each other with paper-napkin balls in the dining hall. Even the formidable Uchida takes a hit now and then, though word on the street advises against peppering her too thoroughly.

“Mr. Serkin threw out the first napkin ball at the first dinner, the way politicians throw out the first ball at baseball stadiums,” Salomon explains. “He felt [the festival] can get very intense, so it would be a relatively harmless way to let people get rid of their aggressions.”

For decades, Marlboro’s prestige has been a career booster, with alumni currently occupying nearly two hundred posts in America’s leading orchestras. String quartets like the Guarneri, the Vermeer, and the Emerson formed at Marlboro. The festival also has a reputation for inspiring romance, with sixty-five life partnerships currently to its credit, including that of Yo-Yo Ma and Jill Hornor, who met while Ma was rooming with Emanuel Ax.

But the musicians aren’t the only thing unique about Marlboro. The crowd filing into the Persons Auditorium may resemble audiences at festivals the length and breadth of the country, but when they purchased their tickets, the majority would not have had the slightest idea of what or who would be on the program. What gets played in front of paying guests depends on what the artists feel deserves to be heard, a decision made only a week ahead of each concert.

This year’s final Sunday culminated in another Marlboro tradition: a lusty performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, complete with amateur chorus and Biss — like Serkin, Goode, and Uchida before him — on piano. Listening to orchestra, singers, and soloist engage in the composer’s game of call and response, it felt more like an affirmation of faith: “Receive then, lovely souls, joyously the gifts of art. When love and strength are wed, grace divine is man’s reward.” It’s hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion to this most spiritual of musical retreats. 

Photos: Pete Checchia, Woodrow Leung, Clemens Kalischer, Allen Cohen

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