BRATTLEBORO -- Utopia, apparently, has been found, and it lies about 12 miles west of Brattleboro, up in the hills of Marlboro. When you see a "Caution: Musicians at Play" sign, you know you're there.
The venerable Marlboro Music festival is enjoying a 63rd summer much like all its others, as some 75 musicians gather for what the New Yorker's Alex Ross called "the classical world's most coveted retreat," and audiences still flock to weekend concerts.
At Marlboro, classical music's reserve gives way to the giddiness of summer camp, best typified in the dining hall, where world-class musicians wait in line, collect their food on cafeteria trays, take turns helping out with kitchen chores and occasionally fling wadded up napkins at each other. The only thing different is the conversation -- Schubert, Schoenberg and Hindemith all came up on Tuesday.
Yet part and parcel of that giddiness -- indeed a major reason why it exists -- are high ideals: respect, love, family, community, commitment to art and the primacy of music, always music. The ideals wished for more often in the real world are paramount here. No wonder there's a certain amount of giddiness.
"Chamber music is a microcosm of life relationships and life lessons. In chamber music you have to learn not only your own part but the whole score, the whole context in which your voice fits. You have to listen. You have to compromise. You have to make all the voices into one coherent voice," said Frank Salomon, festival administrator, who is spending his 54th summer at Marlboro. "It's why people feel the experience of being here in this community has really been life-changing, not only for making music.
"This is not the real world," Salomon continues. "This is a utopia, of sorts."
But why should the rest of us care?
Well, for one, it shows up in the public concerts, and if you've never been to one, special things happen in Marlboro College's Persons Auditorium every weekend, where a handful of the dozens upon dozens of pieces being worked on are presented for performance.
Audiences this year have been strong, Salomon said, although Marlboro is always working on ways to build its audiences and make sure those who want to be there can be make it.
Concerts this weekend include the annual Town Benefit Concert in the Marlboro College Dining Hall on Friday at 8:30 p.m., and performances in Persons Auditorium on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. People interested in attending, should call Brian Potter at 802-254-2394. There are also a number of rehearsals during the week open to the public free of charge. These are fascinating glimpses into the work that goes on at Marlboro. People should call ahead to find out when they can come.
Another reason why we should care is that Marlboro owes something of its essence to its Vermont setting. In that way, it offers a reflection of our best-looking selves.
"It's a magical place," said French horn player Wei-Ping Chou, who was a participant from 2006-08 and is back this year. "Every little thing surprised me in the best way possible."
Chou described an amazing transformation that happens when she's here in Vermont instead of at home in New York City. "Scales are just so much more fun here. ... Horn playing in Marlboro is just easier. I have a more wind."
"It's that sense of isolation that which makes you focus both on the music and the community you're in," said Salomon.
And that's another reason why we should care. From the get-go, community at Marlboro has been an important part of the experience. Clichéd though it is, there's a big, happy family at Marlboro, where generations blend and where musicians' children get loving smiles from everyone else in the cafeteria. On Tuesday afternoon, one young girl drew appreciative laughs and applause showing off her hula-hooping to musicians having lunch outdoors at a picnic table.
For Salomon, such moments are proof that the family as it used to exist in America a couple of generations ago still exists in Marlboro. The fact that Marlboro Music can claim 62 marriages among participants through the years is further proof of how much family matters. Love blooms among kindred spirits here.
Beyond family matters, there's a special collegiality here. Senior musicians whose careers have spanned decades and who can command the highest fees in the world, willingly drop all that to come here. Why?
"What I love at Marlboro and that I try my best to remember from Mr. Serkin is that sense of respect," said violinist Lucy Chapman, who first came to Marlboro in 1973 as a wide-eyed young player awed by who she met. "I came to Marlboro, and I looked around, and it was like seeing movie stars."
Memories from her first summer include playing a Beethoven trio with Rudolf Serkin and cellist Sharon Robinson and spending hours in rehearsal going over the tiniest detail, the shortest phrase, until everything that could be found was.
"(Pablo) Casals had a huge influence on me. He insisted. He would go over and over a phrase with the violin section," Chapman said. "You always put the music first."
Yes, the music comes first at Marlboro. It's hard for those of us not in the musical world to appreciate Marlboro's approach to time. In their normal lives, musicians often have very little time to put together a piece for performance, relying on their skills and experience and a couple of read-throughs to get something concert-ready. At Marlboro, time elapses geologically. Ensembles spend hours and hours on a piece. Some pieces are played for weeks, and most are never performed.
I've often wondered how that experience helps musicians when they return to the real world. Chapman and Chou shed some light on that.
"It's a particular feeling when I play music (here). ... When I play it again elsewhere, that feeling comes back," said Chou. "I wish that people I played with were at Marlboro so they would know."
Chapman likened the Marlboro Music experience to learning a language. Even though you may never be immersed in it like you are at Marlboro, you have a fluency which never leaves you, she said.
As she pursued her career in music, Chapman returned from time to time to Marlboro and has been coming back every summer since 2006, willingly giving today's rising talents what Serkin and Casals and others in Marlboro's first generation gave her.
"We all feel that we were given a tremendous amount, and this is a great place to share what we've been given," she said. "You just feel that the ages are blending together."
Chapman has recently strengthened her root system in the area. She recently bought with her daughter some farm land on the Guilford/Halifax line. Her daughter farms the land; Chapman is happy just to have the chance to spend more time in Vermont. In April, Chapman and other Musicians from Marlboro will perform a concert for the Brattleboro Music Center.
Like Chapman, those who've been at Marlboro a while evoke names like Serkin, Moyse, Casals, Galimir regularly. The values these founders imbued the festival with are still held dear.
But Marlboro's gaze is as much forward as backward. That is evident in how seriously it takes its charge to train leaders in music and to welcome contemporary composers in residence every summer.
It's also evident in other ways. This summer, Marlboro rolled out a new geothermal cooling system. Installed by A.L. Tyler and Sons, the system is designed to circulate cool temperatures from deep down in the earth throughout the concert hall in an environmentally friendly way.
In embrace of our digital age, Marlboro has also put more content up on its website (www.marlboromusic.org). Click on "Resources" and you'll find information of what works by what composers have been played in what years and by whom.
Marlboro's forward gaze is also evident in its 60th anniversary campaign, which aims to raise $6 million in five years. To date more than $4 million has been raised, with three years to go. One recent large donor sent a note to Salomon praising Marlboro as "a special place and a special space" and saying "what comes across most clearly is ... joy in music-making."
Which brings us back to this weekend's concerts.
The program for Friday's Town Benefit Concert, which this year benefits the Marlboro Alliance and the Marlboro Volunteer Fire Department, includes the Bach Aria "Seele, deine Spezereien"; Britten Folk Songs; Toru Takemitsu's "Toward the Sea"; and the Beethoven String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1.
Saturday's program opens with the Mozart Quintet in E-flat, K. 452 for piano and woodwinds with Co-Artictic Director Richard Goode on piano; Hindemith's "Die Serenaden"; and Mozart's String Quintet in D Major, K. 593.
Sunday's concert will feature Gounod's Petite Symphonie; Resident Composer Krzysztof Penderecki's String Trio; and the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor with Goode on piano.
Information on remaining tickets and the final performances on Friday, Aug. 9, at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10, at 8:30 p.m., can be obtained at www.marlboromusic.org or by calling Brian Potter at 802-254-2394. The Aug. 11, 2:30 p.m., concert has been sold out for months.