MARLBORO -- Soovin Kim, violinist and member of the Johannes Quartet, was frank, engaging and perfectly willing to share his thoughts on music, life, leadership, teaching, giving back and coming back to the Marlboro Music Festival, where he spent formative years as a younger musician and now mentors those younger than he is.
But he was hiding something, and a furtive glance revealed what it was -- in his hand was a tiny wadded-up ball of paper, the instrument of choice for mischief-makers in the Marlboro College cafeteria.
Explaining in a whisper that he was a frequent target, Kim was ready this time, and when no one was looking, he let the paper ball fly with a quick sidearm fling. It landed on the tray of an unsuspecting colleague 20 feet away. Without missing a beat, Kim continued talking, as if that sort of thing was what mature, sensible, brilliant musicians all over the world do.
At Marlboro, they do. There is a joy bordering on giddiness, a childlike wonder approaching full-on belief in fairies. Forget, for a moment if you can, that Marlboro is the summer home for many of the world’s most brilliant classical musicians and rising stars, present and future leaders in their field. It seems like any other summer camp, full of happy, tanned and healthy-looking people in shorts, flip-flops, T-shirts and tank tops having the time of their lives.
"There’s a great joy in coming here," said Kim.
You can hear the difference in the casual conversations that come up in the cafeteria. "Beethoven at 2, right?" one young musician asks another.
Last Monday, after a long day of rehearsing the pieces officially being worked on, 20 musicians gathered in the cafeteria to play through a Mozart symphony just for fun.
"Their joy in playing with each other and finding music they all loved was magical," said Frank Salomon, longtime administrator, who has spent more than five decades as part of the Marlboro Music family.
"I was sitting next to Ignat Solzhenitsyn having a ridiculously interesting discussion and debate about Shostakovich," said Kim. "To have space to have conversations like that is just very special."
Not to get too metaphysical here, but space and time may be what makes Marlboro Music is really all about.
Unique in the music world, rehearsal together, not performance, is the end.
"I think that the most important thing about being here is that you have all the time you need to do the job you’d like to do," said Composer-in-Residence William Bolcom. "We are often trying to fly by the seat of our pants. ... This is the kind of deal you always hope for because they do it right."
"The essence of what goes on here is the whole process of being able to work on a piece with unlimited rehearsal time," said Salomon, pointing out that some pieces may have as many as 30 hours of exploration in rehearsal. "Performance is not the end goal."
Still, performances at Marlboro are treasured experiences, and large crowds consistently fill Persons Auditorium at Marlboro College for weekend concerts.
This weekend, 28 of Marlboro’s 75 resident artists will be heard in concerts on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (featuring Brahms, Schnittke and Mozart) and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Beethoven, Auerbach, Webern and Mozart).
For those who want a better glimpse at the essence of Marlboro, there are open rehearsals during the week. It is there, Marlboro bares its soul, and you’ll see and hear world-class musicians sweat the details, down to the briefest hemidemisemiquaver (64th note). It’s fascinating stuff.
Those interested in seeing a rehearsal should call 802-254-2394. The schedule of open rehearsals for the coming week is announced on Mondays. Visitors to rehearsals are asked to arrive on time and be respectful of the rehearsal process. Be prepare to be enthralled.
"What a lot of people said is fascinating is to come to a rehearsal or two and then hear the work on stage that weekend," said Salomon.
What’s evident in watching a rehearsal is not merely the musicians’ devotion to the music, but also the core values which Marlboro’s founders -- Adolf and Herman Busch, Marcel, Louis and Blanche Moyse and Rudolf Serkin -- established.
Although the individual ensembles rehearsing music at Marlboro blend more senior performers with younger colleagues, the spirit is egalitarian. Everyone learns from everyone else.
Salomon likes to tell the story of the late cellist David Soyer, who continued to come to Marlboro in his 80s, playing a Debussy piece he had played, perhaps hundreds of times in his career, with three younger participants whose combined ages probably didn’t add up to his.
"You could see how much the three younger musicians had gained from working with him, and you could hear how much he was inspired by working with them," said Salomon. "The (senior musicians) are coming here because they want to immerse themselves in music and be inspired and hopefully inspire others. It brings out the best in everyone."
Last year, Marlboro celebrated its 60th anniversary, highlighted by a reunion weekend in which nearly 150 former participants from all eras returned.
"One of the things that came into sharp focus with the 60th anniversary is that Marlboro has helped to produce three generations of musical leaders," said Salomon. "One of the great things has been to see all those who spent formative years here returning as mentors ... That kind of continuity is something that makes us think that the future of Marlboro is a very positive one."
Soovin Kim is one of those who first came to Marlboro as a rising professional and returns as a mentor.
"Some of the students that I taught when they were 10, 11 and 12 are now starting to come to here. That shouldn’t be happening," he joked.
"I do feel a responsibility to come back here as well, not that I’m doing the place a huge favor. ... I’m always very thankful for all of the positive influences I’ve had," he explained.
As a working musician, juggling teaching, performing and lots of traveling, Marlboro offers a respite, a chance to recharge and refocus solely on music. In fact, his seven weeks in Marlboro this summer are the only time this year Kim will be one place that long. Add Marlboro’s idyllic setting and the chance to have long conversations about Shostakovich, and you can appreciate what it means for those who come back year after year.
For Kim, it’s inspired him to start his own music festival, the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, now in its fourth year in the Burlington area. For Kim, it’s a chance to do something for an area that’s very much his hometown -- he grew up in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where family still lives, and he honed his music skills with the Vermont Youth Orchestra. This year’s festival runs from Aug. 18-26 and features concerts, workshops, master classes, listening sessions, film screenings and more.
"It had been called for for many years by many of the people in the area. Many of them would come down to Marlboro and they thought ‘Why can’t we have some concerts of this sort of caliber?" said Kim. "At first, I said ‘No way.’"
But he changed his mind. "A lot of it has to do with my connection to my memories of growing up there. ... A lot of it has to do with my memory of myself as a child," said Kim, who has a passion for passing what he’s experienced on. "I teach quite a bit. I love teaching."
At Marlboro, musical lessons become life lessons -- the need to slow down and recharge; the egalitarian ethic and respect across all age groups; the responsibility one has to the next generation, to pay forward the generosity you’ve received.
Family is another core Marlboro value.
"Adolf Busch’s original vision was of a family sharing ideas," said Salomon. "What happens in the rehearsal room and what happens in the dining hall and in social settings are woven together in a marvelous way."
In the cafeteria, tots in high chairs and octogenarians sit side by side. There have been 62 Marlboro marriages, and the feeling of generations gathering together is very strong.
"The family that doesn’t exist any longer in the 21st century exists here for seven weeks," said Salomon.
Yet Marlboro does not cling solely to the past. Embracing the future, Marlboro’s evolving website includes detailed information about every performance, searchable by composer, artist and piece of music. The idea is to have it be a resource for scholars and passionate aficionados. The website also includes Philip Naegele’s translations. More resources will be uploaded in future years.
For people who want to try Marlboro, there are canopy area seats available for every concert for $5, the same price as 50 years ago. How many other things can you say that about?
Inside seats range from $15 to $ 37.50. Ticket information and Persons Auditorium open rehearsal schedule can be obtained by calling 802-254-2394 and tickets can also be ordered at www.marlbormusic.org. Concerts continue through Aug. 12, with two special Friday concerts at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 3 and Aug. 10.
For those who want more, Marlboro can be found on your radio dial. American Public Media’s "Performance Today" is running its annual Marlboro week starting July 29. Performances can also be heard in Vermont on WVPR, in Western Massachusetts on WFCR, in the Boston area on WGBH and in New York on WQXR. Check those stations for times.