Musicians from Marlboro at 50


Musicians and concertgoers often speak about music in terms that skeptics find unscientific and imprecise, and perhaps even cloying. That may be inevitable: a performance that really works – that touches something in the listener’s psyche and evokes palpable feelings of joy or sorrow, well-being or terror, warmth or even outrage – does so in ways that are virtually impossible to define precisely in words. The key to it goes beyond playing the right notes at the right time, and beyond qualities of tone and rhythmic precision. It’s about more than the chemistry between the musicians, and their affinities and experiences with the score. For a performance to work on that level, all these elements must be in place, along with something beyond them that is often summed up in the admittedly unscientific and imprecise term “magic.”

Magic of this kind is the engine that has driven a great many of the Musicians from Marlboro concerts I’ve heard in New York over the last few decades, and as this justly-renowned touring program celebrates its 50th anniversary during the 2015-16 season, there is little doubt that much more magic is waiting to be unleashed. It’s worth noting, of course, that those of us on the receiving end – the listeners – are by no means the only beneficiaries of this effect. It works on the players as well, and it can have a telling effect on their musicianship.

Mitsuko Uchida: “It adds to your knowledge of the piece…”

“The truth is, the real thing happens only in front of the public, on stage,” said the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, Marlboro’s artistic director. “I may not always want to admit that: I often think that the beauty of Marlboro is that we can rehearse and rehearse, and in the end, we can still decide not to perform a work that we feel isn’t quite ready. But whatever I tell you about rehearsals being the most important thing – they’re not. Rehearsals are only rehearsals. And even at Marlboro, when we rehearse and rehearse, and decide to perform, that is when people pull their socks up. And when the musicians perform these pieces on tour and repeat the piece over several nights, it adds to your knowledge of the piece. And for me, that is one of the more important parts of the touring experience.”

At the heart of every Musicians from Marlboro program are works that were rehearsed and performed at Marlboro, the hybrid festival and musical training retreat, founded by Rudolf Serkin, Adolf and Herman Busch, and Marcel, Louise and Blanche Moyse, in 1951 at Marlboro, Vermont. The works on the Musicians from Marlboro’s tour programs – and the ensembles of young virtuosi-in-training and older masters that perform them – are essentially the cream of the summer crop, chosen as among the most powerful performances of the seven-week festival. So their levels of polish and eloquence should not be surprising.

Marlboro’s focus is its young musicians, some 50 of the 75 resident artists, some as young as 17 or 18, who flock to Vermont to study, rehearse and perform chamber music, elbow to elbow with established soloists, principal orchestral musicians and chamber players who have taken part of the summer off to participate in the program. The designations “student” and “teacher” are not used at Marlboro. Instead, the young musicians are participants; the established players – however young they may still be – are senior members.

Young players generally audition for a place at Marlboro, and these days, many come to Marlboro with some chamber music experience and ideas about which works they would like to learn. But there have been exceptions, one of the most notable being the pianist Yefim Bronfman, who first visited Marlboro in 1976, when he was 18.

Yefim Bronfman: “I had never heard of chamber music.”

“I got to Marlboro completely by accident,” Mr. Bronfman said. “I never auditioned, which is unusual. I got there somehow on the recommendation of Alexander Schneider and Isaac Stern, and it was my first trip to the United States, so I had no idea what to expect, or what was expected of me. I did not speak a word of English, and I had never heard of chamber music. I remember waiting in line to take the bus to Brattleboro, with some other musicians, and one of them, carrying a cello, introduced himself as Yo-Yo.

“I remember my first day I arrived,” Mr. Bronfman continued. “I was told that I had to play the Brahms Horn Trio and a Beethoven violin sonata. Having come from the Soviet Union, via Israel, I had never heard of this music before, and it was a complete disaster, in my case. But I was able to turn it around that summer, and I was invited back the following year. And I really fell in love with chamber music during those weeks. Ever since then, I’ve played at many wonderful chamber music festivals, and performed everything from the Haydn Trios, to the Schoenberg Phantasy for Violin and Piano, as well as everything by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann. It became, for a long time, the central activity of my life.”

How It All Started

The Musicians from Marlboro tours were not originally a part of Marlboro’s design; in fact, they did not begin until 15 years into the festival’s history, and when they were first proposed by William Judd, Rudolf Serkin’s manager, Mr. Serkin considered the prospect carefully before agreeing to the idea. For Serkin, Marlboro was about pure music-making – discovering and bringing to life the composer’s intentions, with a performance at Marlboro as its own reward. He was concerned that establishing the external goal of being chosen for a tour might distract participants from the work they were doing.

“But Bill convinced Mr. Serkin that what was happening at Marlboro was of such high quality that it should be shared with others,” recalls Frank Salomon, one of the festival’s administrators since 1960. And so the first Musicians from Marlboro tour got underway in 1965, with the violinist Jaime Laredo, the violist Samuel Rhodes, the cellist Madeline Foley, the contralto Florence Kopleff and the pianist Ruth Laredo playing works by Mozart, Brahms, Dvorak and Irving Fine on the inaugural program.

To keep the tours from interfering with the musical work that takes place during the festival, a fairly complex system of selecting the works and performers for the tours has evolved. It begins with the young musicians who were selected to participate. Shortly after they pass their auditions, they are asked to list the scores they would like to work on during the summer.

Every May, the festival’s scheduling director and some of the senior musicians who have attended the new players’ auditions and who know the second and third-year participants from previous summers, convene to look over the lists and decide which pieces they feel best suit the participants. They then do a careful balancing act that involves looking through the request lists to find other players who have requested the same score, and appointing a senior member with an affinity for the work at hand, to collaborate with each young ensemble.

The process is repeated until each of the 75 musicians has between three and five pieces to work on during the summer. Attention is paid to the ways instruments are combined. If, for example, string players are assigned to an oboe quartet or a vocal work, where their role will be largely accompanimental, they usually will also be in a group working on a string quartet or quintet, in which their roles fall more fully into the spotlight. All told, in a given week at Marlboro, 70 to 80 scores are being rehearsed, with a healthy mix of favorite classics, rarities, and contemporary works.

Works are proposed for the festival’s weekend concerts when the members of an ensemble feel they have achieved something special worth sharing. That decision is typically made on Wednesday or Thursday, and on Thursday evening, the festival’s staff – Mitsuko Uchida, a panel of six senior musicians, along with Frank Salomon and Tony Checchia, the administrators, as well as the scheduling directors – assemble the weekend’s programs from among the works that are proposed as ready for prime time.

“We usually start by deciding what would make a good closing piece,” Mr. Salomon said. “And from there we build the rest of the program. As the summer progresses, we also take into account whether people have had an opportunity to perform. So if there’s a choice between two pieces, and the ensemble for one includes a number of people who have already performed a few times, and the other includes people who haven’t, the preference will be given to the second group.”

There is another consideration, as well. Where possible, Marlboro tries to include contemporary scores in its programs. It doesn’t always work out: some years, the contemporary pieces are not the standout performances and don’t make it through the vetting process that leads to the tour programs. As it turned out, new music was amply represented in the 50th anniversary season tour programs. Three programs included a work each by Earl Kim (“Three Poems in French”), Krzysztof Penderecki (Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio) and Kaija Saariaho (“Terra Memoria,” a string quartet); a fourth includes a 20th-century favorite, Alban Berg’s “Lyric Quartet.”

Consensus by Summer’s End

Over the years, the process for forming tour groups has evolved. By the end of the summer, Mr. Salomon said, “there is generally a consensus in the community about which pieces clicked in a special way. It’s from those works that the decision is made about which ensembles and works we will invite to go on tour.” The final choices – three ensembles are chosen to tour each season – is ultimately Ms. Uchida’s prerogative. Once a work and its associated ensemble are selected, it is up to the ensemble’s senior player to find repertory to fill out the program, although that, too, is subject to Ms. Uchida’s approval.

“Ultimately, yes, that’s true,” Ms. Uchida said when asked about her veto power. “But I am malleable. The key senior player in the touring group, let’s say he or she desperately wants to do something, and is convinced about it. I will usually give in. But on the other hand, there are works that I am happy to have the students perform at Marlboro, but would not want to air outside, and if someone wanted to include them on tour, I would put my foot down and say no. But almost everything is negotiable.”

The festival’s artistic directors have typically not toured with Musicians from Marlboro, although in the early days, William Judd tried hard to persuade Rudolf Serkin to take part. “The conclusion we came to,” Mr. Salomon explained, “was that if Mr. Serkin joined the tours, presenters would focus on him, and would want to engage only the groups he played in. We felt that if the program was to succeed, it had to stand on its own feet.” Similarly, Mr. Serkin’s successors, Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida (who directed the festival jointly until 2013, when Mr. Goode stepped down), have not played on the tours.

Yet, for audiences seeking star power, Musicians from Marlboro tours have never lacked it, and the festival’s history is such that longtime listeners know with a good degree of certainty that many of the young players they are hearing will likely earn their own prominence in years to come. Indeed, many of today’s senior members have seen all sides of the process, having first attended Marlboro as promising teenagers, and then becoming senior players as their careers blossomed. Mr. Salomon’s description of the succession of artists who have come through Marlboro sounds almost like a Biblical genealogy.

Sharing the summer’s magic with a wider audience

“In the early years, we were really guided by people who came from the Old World, most of them having escaped Hitler” he said. “You had Mr. Serkin, the Busches and the Moyses, who were joined by Felix Galimir, the Schneiders and others who brought a European culture and approach, in which they regarded the composer as more important than they were. And from there, three generations of important artists have come out of Marlboro. The first included the Guarneri Quartet, and soloists like Jaime Laredo, Benita Valente, Richard Stoltzman, Peter Serkin, Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida. Then you had the next group, with Yo-Yo Ma, Yefim Bronfman, Andras Schiff, Joshua Bell, Christian Tetzlaff, the Emerson Quartet and the Cleveland Quartet. And the third generation includes musicians like Jeremy Denk, Jonathan Biss, and the Brentano Quartet. In each generation, there are so many others who have made important contributions to chamber music and to Marlboro. All these people credit Marlboro as a major influence on their musical development.”

And many return, again and again.

Anthony McGill: “I remember those performances like they were last year.”

“I was in a Schubert Octet group with David Soyer, and I remember those performances like they were last year,” the clarinetist Anthony McGill said, recalling a youthful collaboration with the founding cellist of the Guarneri Quartet. Mr. McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (and before that, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), first attended Marlboro in 1998, when he was 18, and has returned as a senior member.

“It seems strange and funny to me to think of myself as a mentor, in the way David was to me, because in my mind, I’m not. In my mind, when I return, I feel like I’m still studying. The process is similar. There was never a point when they said ‘okay, we’re going to invite you back as an older person, and now you’re going to teach.’ It’s more like, you experience the music together with the younger students, and you set an example in, for instance, how to rehearse.

“That’s what David Soyer did: he knew that we knew who he was, and what his stature was, but the experience was, ‘this is how we delve into music at Marlboro.’ He was a strong personality, and I’m sure he was laying down the law. But it never felt like that. He was just showing us how to play music with him. And that’s what I’m doing now.

“It’s actually shocking for me,” Mr. McGill added, “because I think about all the time that has gone by, and about all the different things I’m doing now, in my life and career. But I also feel like it wasn’t so long ago that I was younger than anybody.”

The violinist Scott St. John has participated in 23 Musicians from Marlboro tours since his first, in the 1988-89 season, and he sees the transition from newcomer to mentor as fairly subtle. “Sure, the role is different,” he said. “I guess the camaraderie changes a bit, if only because when you go out as one of the older players, you feel more responsible for the ultimate sound – as well as the sanity – of your group. A lot of things don’t change, though. You definitely get to know people on a much deeper level when you tour together, and I think that’s an advantage. And also the fact that you repeat the concert eight to ten times, and hear the music change over that period. That’s a great experience.”

Peter Wiley: “Everything will be just fine.”

Peter Wiley – David Soyer’s successor in the Guarneri Quartet, which he joined in 1998, after 11 years as the cellist for the Beaux Arts Trio – arrived at Marlboro as a 16-year old in 1971, and now tries to spend time there every summer. Both at Marlboro and on tour, Mr. Wiley worked with the great violinist Felix Galimir. “Anything that involved Felix Galimir was, in my book, significant,” Mr. Wiley says. “Not only to me, but to so many of us. He was truly one of the great mentors.”

He also sees his current role as a senior participant as not vastly different from that of the younger musicians but adds that with experience, he now brings a calmer, more trusting perspective to the mix.

“One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older,” he says, “is not to be too fussy or too panicked at any point. You know, when I show up for a tour, and things don’t sound so good at the first rehearsal, I know that by the time we give the first performance, everything will be just fine. As a young person, I don’t think I realized that. It’s just part of the maturing process. And I’ve really tried to let the young artists ease into the situation – to help them understand that we don’t have to solve all the musical issues in the world in a single day. Let’s play and let’s enjoy it, and let’s love the music and let’s keep trying to figure out what the composer wanted to hear, and let’s support each other. That’s definitely different from when I was younger, and I felt that everything was riding on every single rehearsal. Not because the older artists were making me feel that way, I think it’s just the nature of where I was when I was younger.”

Joseph Lin – Bartók Quartet # 1, first with MFM and, now, with the Juilliard Quartet

The violinist Joseph Lin, like Mr. Wiley, toured with David Soyer, and now that he is the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, a position he has held since 2011, he sees some irony in the way his Marlboro experiences prepared him for his current job.

“My first Musicians from Marlboro tour, in 2001, was built around the Bartók First Quartet, which I think I had worked on at Marlboro my first summer there, in 1998,” Mr. Lin said. “It was absolutely formative – there’s no question about that. I was working with David Soyer, who was a very intimidating figure, and I can remember looking forward to every day we worked on that piece during that summer, and how exciting it was for all of us to bring it on tour. But to put it in perspective, so many years later, the Juilliard Quartet is planning to tour with the Bartók First during the 2016-17 season. And it will be wonderful to revisit the piece with a whole new set of colleagues. But I’m also very aware that my introduction to the piece was very informed by Mr. Soyer and, one might say, the Guarneri Quartet approach. And when I work on it with the Juilliard, I know I’ll also be thinking about my early experiences with it.”

Different Influences

Different, even competing, musical viewpoints co-existing are, of course, a crucial part of what Marlboro has always offered. As Frank Salomon observes, “from the very start you had Rudolf Serkin, Felix Galimir and Alexander Schneider representing one school, the Moyses representing another, Pina Carmirelli representing another, and Leon Kirchner representing yet another. And from these different influences, these young artists fashioned their own ideas, accepting or rejecting these different influences, drawing on what they felt made sense, and forming their own musical personalities.

“Mr. Serkin always felt it was important to have these different influences, even if sometimes the differences were a little disruptive. He felt it was not good to have a flat surface and the calm lake – that waves were important in the process of musical exploration and interchange. And we still believe that’s important.”

Some musicians look back at their experiences on Musicians from Marlboro tours as decisive moments in their careers. Mr. Wiley, for example, attributes his decision to become a chamber music player to his Marlboro experiences.

“In the early 1980’s,” he said, “I was in the Cincinnati Orchestra, and I started taking summers off to go back to Marlboro. I was thinking about leaving the orchestra, but I didn’t really know what I would do, and a great part of my decision had to do with returning to Marlboro, and going on the Marlboro tours. It definitely gave me an itch to get more and more involved in chamber music.”

An Introduction to Life on the Road

Other musicians look back fondly at their Musicians from Marlboro experiences as an introduction to life on the road.

“It was my first touring experience,” said Yefim Bronfman, who played on a Musicians from Marlboro tour after his third summer in Vermont. “I was still in school, and to go on tour and play 10 concerts in 11 days, mostly driving between them, with occasional trains and planes, was very exciting, and a lot of fun. But also, the ensemble was a couple of teenagers – me and Shlomo Mintz – and two older players, the cellist Paul Tobias and David Jolley, the French horn player. If not for them, we would probably have gotten lost somewhere and not made it from one concert to the next.”

Mr. Wiley concurs. “I think one of the great things about Musicians from Marlboro,” he added, “is that we can help young artists understand the touring life, and to get a taste of what that life is really about – not only musically, but in terms of hitting the road, living in hotels, rehearsing on the road, dealing with a schedule. All the things many of us end up doing a lot of, professionally. Many young musicians don’t have that opportunity. They work hard for hours and weeks and months, and then play one concert, and it’s over. To play a program over and over again, on tour, is an important experience.”

And as Ms. Uchida sees it, having the chance to repeat works over several nights, before attentive audiences, may be the most valuable thing the tours can offer young musicians.

“Many people begin touring on their own,” she said, “so a young fiddle player will end up standing before an orchestra, trying to play as loud as possible, or the same for a young pianist. But playing with the people with whom you have worked so hard, who you love to be with, and to then repeat those pieces four or five times – that has given so many players their first taste of what repeated performances can mean. They discover that the important thing isn’t everybody patting them on the back and saying ‘isn’t this lovely.’ No, it’s that every evening they are trying to play their absolute best, and they are experiencing how the piece actually evolves. That is very important. That is the main point.”

Allan Kozinn, a music critic and culture reporter for the New York Times for many years, now lives in Portland, Maine, and writes for the Times, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He also covers classical music in Maine for the Portland Press Herald.

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