Marlboro blends paradise and paradox into something close to perfection

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MARLBORO -- We’ll start with a philosophical question: Is it possible for thing to be more perfect?

At the crest of a hill in southern Vermont, there is ample evidence that the answer is "yes."

Already world-renowned as a premier chamber music retreat and training ground -- a place where high artistry meets high ideals -- Marlboro Music is experiencing something of a more perfect summer, with capacity crowds moved to tears and typewriters by weekend performances that have been deemed magic, even by Marlboro standards.

"BRAVISSIMO!!!!! ... What a glorious opening weekend. Kudos to all of you. It was breathtakingly beautiful," wrote one fan after opening weekend.

"Almost nothing transcends the beauty that you all created in these magical green hills these past two days," opined another.

Marlboro always hears from satisfied fans, but the number of glowing comments and the speed with which they arrived caught the attention of longtime administrator and keeper of Marlboro traditions Frank Salomon.

These opening concerts came July 18-19, a mere three weeks after The New Yorker devoted a major 10-page spread to Marlboro Music.

"I think the New Yorker piece stirred up some dormant interest," said Salomon.

But New Yorker pieces don’t make Marlboro what it is. Most people never see the essence of the festival, which is now in its 59th season in summer residency at Marlboro College.

At its heart, Marlboro Music is a place of paradoxes: A festival renowned for its performances, whose core mission is based on what happens in rehearsal; a gathering of the musical elite whose guiding principle is egalitarianism; a place where serious artists can be downright silly at times; a retreat, a place of isolation, which teaches the fundamental necessity of cooperation, shared experience and good listening; a venerable, serious, well-established institution which seems to convey its ideals organically, through stories, living exemplars and oral traditions.

"At Marlboro, things evolve. There’s no master plan," said Salomon. "It has to come from within. We’re not a typical organization. We’re atypical."

And that’s why if you’ve never ventured up the hill, if you’ve thought Marlboro isn’t where you’ll feel at home, or that chamber music isn’t your cup of tea, check those thoughts and see for yourself. Chamber music is just the vehicle for -- and the concerts the outward expression of -- ideals which have special resonance in our times.

"(Rudolf) Serkin always talked about Marlboro being based on a spirit of generosity," said Salomon.

Musical training, sure, but Marlboro is really training good human beings. Serkin and the other founders -- Herman and Adolf Busch and Marcel, Louis and Blanche Moyse, among them -- had a notion of training ambassadors, leaders and good citizens of the world.

"When someone we know is behaving badly, (my wife and I) say, ‘He could never play in a chamber group ... never in a string quartet," said Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the renowned Guarneri Quartet, which traces its roots, like so many other ensembles, to Marlboro.

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There are ample affordable opportunities to see the brilliant musicians at Marlboro behaving well. There are free, open rehearsals at Persons Auditorium at Marlboro at many times during the week. Schedules are available starting Mondays of each week by calling 802-254-2394, and it’s a marvelous opportunity to hear beautiful music and to hear it worked on so it becomes ... more perfect.

About a dozen people were taking advantage of that opportunity last Thursday afternoon as Midori Goto, Nareh Arghamanyan and Mendelssohn Quartet cellist Marcy Rosen run through the sublime slow movement of the Beethoven Trio in G Major. Rosen and Goto seemed to be sharing one instrument as a phrase ran through a continuum of strings from Goto’s violin to Rosen’s cello. Arghamanyan moves with balletic grace as she tilts her head toward the string players, listening intensely.

Canopy area tickets for weekend performances (Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.) are $5, and I can’t think of a better use of a fin, can you? Seats in the theater range from $15-35, and there are some tickets for children ages 8-19 available for $7.50. Call 802-254-2394 or visit

Of course, the real heart and soul of Marlboro -- and a place where you can see chamber musicians behaving badly --a little badly -- is the cafeteria, where the ideals and paradoxes are played out in an organic, earthy fashion. It is here Marlboro looks like a summer camp, only one where people make music instead of lanyards.

Waiting in a lunch line or seated around long tables, senior musicians and their younger compatriots fill the dining hall with a noisy chatter and much laughter, and the talk is of baseball, the weather, the health and welfare of friends, everything, it seems but music.

The air is filled also with wadded up paper balls, arcing from one table to the other, a Marlboro tradition that has been attributed to Serkin but is now practiced by nearly everyone. There are announcements of road trips into town, time to unwind and perhaps drink a beer, a schedule of movie screenings ... very typical summer camp stuff.

"Musicians are silly. I just have to say that," said violinist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu, a second year Marlboro participant, whose words are born out when esteemed senior cellist Peter Wiley starts making funny faces at her as she talks with me. "Most musicians have got to have a giving heart and a sense of humor."

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Both are evident the more Wu talks about her time at Marlboro, but her appreciation of the place is serious, too.

"This is really the ideal world for classical music. ... It really builds a certain strength to be working so intensely with people," she said. "In the real world, there are lots of things you never get to discuss. ... Here, at Marlboro, you have the chance to become the perfect colleague. In the real world, you just try to get through the piece."

And that gets at another aspect of Marlboro, which like the dining hall, is essential to understanding the place but out of public view. At Marlboro, rehearsal is king. In all, the 75 participants work on some 240 pieces, with the unheard of gift of unlimited rehearsal time, some, like Elliot Carter’s second quartet have been worked on for all seven weeks of the festival. Only a quarter of those pieces see public performance.

"It’s all about the music. It’s not about the performance," Wu said.

That was the essential ideal Marlboro’s founders strove to inculcate. Clearly, they did their work well. The names of Marlboro legends like Busch, Casals, Philipp Naegele are constantly whispered. Cellist David Soyer, in his 80s and still playing brilliantly, holds forth in the dining hall and rehearsals, with stories from Marlboro’s past. Above all, the name Serkin is mentioned most, cited like Lincoln and Washington would be if we were a more perfect union.

"We hear about Mr. Serkin on a daily basis, yes," Wu said. "If you watch Rudolf Serkin play on YouTube, there’s a sense of devotion."

Notions of responsibility to honoring Serkin’s egalitarian ideals and of devotion to music, pure and simple, are part of what goes on at Marlboro. The keepers of the tradition -- Soyer, Naegele, Salomon and so many others -- work hard to pass it on. Co-Artistic Directors Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode deserve a lot of credit too.

Wu recounted a moment of understanding she had while watching a DVD one evening this summer. "Suddenly, we realized that we are the next generation, and we are honored to continue this," she said.

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It doesn’t take long for those ideals to transmit. First year participant Moran Katz, a clarinetist from Israel who studies at Juilliard has only been at Marlboro three or four weeks, but she knows.

"It’s not about you. If you’re used to thinking ‘I don’t like this piece or that piece,’ let that go a little bit," said Katz. "The better you get to know people, the better you play."

Again, the cafeteria offers the best proof. In addition to lively banter, funny faces and wadded paper balls, the generous egalitarianism Serkin practiced and preached is evident in the fact that everyone, no matter how old or how many Grammys they have on the shelf, takes a turn serving and cleaning up.

None of the senior musicians seems to mind. They all give up more lucrative options to be at Marlboro in the summer, so there must be a reason.

"They give you the feeling that they’re here to learn from you as much as you learn from them," said Katz.

"It’s giving back, but it’s getting, too," agreed Guarneri violinist Steinhardt.

And just look around -- not only will you see musicians in their later years imparting their wisdom, giving pieces of themselves, but you’ll see infants and toddlers cruising around, giving Marlboro a deeper grounding in basic humanity.

"There’s a sharing not only of music, not only of chores, but of shared experiences," Salomon said.

Wu put it this way, "It’s really like a big family."

Sometimes, quite literally.

On July 4, violist Jonathan Chu proposed marriage to fellow violist Beth Guterman, and she said "Yes."

The two met at Marlboro last year and are now the 57th couple brought together by the festival. Think about that -- that’s just about one every year.

"I think he was planning on waiting, but it was a rainy day, and he got emotional," Guterman said. "We got to celebrate (our engagement) here at our meeting place."

And from now on, the fireworks every year will be for them, too.

Fireworks, and a chance to observe this unique "Republic of Equals," as Serkin called it, in action are there for you, too, through Aug. 16. For information on open rehearsals, tickets and more, call 802-254-2394 or visit www.marlboromusic .org.


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