MARLBORO—“Marlboro Music has been here in good times and in bad for 70 years,” says Marlboro Music Manager Philip Maneval. “And we’ll be here for another 70 years and beyond.”
Despite the shuffling of real estate deeds, Marlboro Music “is committed to protecting” the campus of the now-closed Marlboro College — the place that the festival has called home since 1951.
“We know and love it; there are abundant and rich legacies here and we want to protect those,” Maneval says.
Marlboro College was founded in 1946 as a GI Bill college, festival Board President Christopher Serkin explains, and “was a farm repurposed to a campus for returning servicemen.”
Marlboro Music was cofounded a few years later by Serkin’s grandfather, preeminent pianist Rudolf Serkin, along with Adolf and Hermann Busch and Marcel, Blanche, and Louis Moyse, all musician families who had fled the Nazi scourge in Europe.
The festival has run continuously since, save 2020, when it was shut down by the pandemic.
“It was traumatic for musicians,” Maneval says. “We provided honoraria as promised that summer hoping to help them make it through, and we offered online seminars” with key musicians, as well.
Miles Cohen, who has been with Marlboro since 1998 and works year-round with all operations, says that last summer, “we were still in that Covid bubble. We had a very small roster and only two Europeans among us.”
This year “feels more normal in the size and scope,” Cohen adds.
“We still have to be cautious,” he says. With a new variant of Covid lingering, “the well-loved large-group indoor activities such as square dances and big catered meals are on hiatus for one more year.”
Thus emerging from the pandemic’s extreme limitations, Marlboro Music’s 71st season on Potash Hill has just begun as Artistic Directors Mitsuko Uchida and Jonathan Biss welcome 92 resident artists from all over the world, including 24 musicians new to Marlboro.
The festival offers seven weeks for participants to “live, learn, and play together, exploring and exchanging ideas on the approximately 250 works that the musicians themselves have proposed to study,” according to a recent Marlboro Music media release.
Every summer — this being no exception — the Marlboro lineup features a mix of two groups: up-and-coming vocalists and instrumentalists, and luminaries in the chamber music world.
Festival literature notes that since the Guarneri Quartet formed there 1964, festival alumni have created or joined outstanding ensembles such as the Brentano, Cleveland, Dover, Emerson, Juilliard, Mendelssohn, Orion, Takács, Tokyo, and Vermeer quartets; the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; and others.
Marlboro is at the center of a lively art. As Serkin observes, “live chamber music is alive and well.”
“My impression is that as many as ever are studying classical music, and that the quality of musicians has never been higher,” he says. “In so many ways, chamber music is the most natural genre for self-expression through music. It’s more accessible than orchestral music and often more affordable.”
“The world of music is changing, but chamber music is where we see a continuing interest in some of the greatest compositions ever written, as well as some of the most exciting contemporary compositions,” Serkin continues. “Marlboro Music stands for a particular approach. Interpreting music or any text is finding the heart of the creative work, and that needs to be shaped with a certain humility and engagement.”
The luxury of time
Marlboro’s uniquely focuses on education as much as on entertainment — on the artist as much as on the audience.
After three weeks of in-depth rehearsals, fewer than a quarter of the musical collaborations will be shared with audiences in summer weekend concerts. Each weekend’s program is decided only a week in advance.
“At Marlboro, there’s luxury of time,” Cohen says. “The license to work on a piece that doesn’t have to be performed is an incredible gift.”
Musicians are “able to delve deeply into a composition,” he added — they can take it apart and put it back together with care and nuance.
“And a piece is brought to the stage — performed — only if it’s ready, and if the entire group thinks it makes sense to do so,” he says. “That’s the Marlboro experience.”
Communications Director Brian Potter, who been with the festival since 2013, notes that Marlboro is a foundational organization: “A lot of the enthusiasm and growth around chamber music emanates from Marlboro,” he says.
“We have time here — it’s not only about performance — it’s about having time to rehearse, to learn the music, and to play it without being strictly performance-oriented,” he continues.
The focus instead is “on exploring a piece for as much time as needed: some works are ready in a few weeks; others may continue into the next season.”
Marlboro has well-earned status among the most robust regional arts festivals. In terms of its importance in the cultural and economic landscape of southern Vermont, Cohen observes that “Marlboro is a vital part — along with the other regional chamber festivals. We feel invested in — tied to — the Marlboro community and those beyond in Brattleboro and Wilmington.”
While Marlboro audiences come from up and down the East Coast, from the West Coast, Canada, and Europe, Cohen says, “we genuinely feel that for Marlboro to be successful, it demands that we be connected in a loving, thoughtful, respectful way to the natural environment and to our surrounding community.”
Serkin, whose ancestors include not only Marlboro founder Rudolf Serkin, his grandfather, but his aunt, cellist Judith Serkin, and uncle, pianist Peter Serkin, notes warmly that he has spent every summer of his life at Marlboro. He, too, sees the value in the reciprocity between Marlboro Music and southern Vermont.
“Marlboro brings thousands of audience members to the area and helps create an identity that produces community and cultural benefits,” he says. “It’s important to the town and to the region — and this is especially true since Marlboro College’s closure. We have made this point to various state and regional officials.”
Serkin added that “we convene up to 160 people here every summer, all of whom rely on local resources and providers. In turn, we’re an important contributor to the region’s cultural and economic well-being.”
“Over the years, the festival has been the reason many have moved to the area and purchased homes here,” he says. “We provide a world-class cultural experience to people within the region as well as others from well beyond, and our audiences stay, dine, and shop locally."
A ‘remarkable space’
When Marlboro College closed a few years ago, the property passed to different hands while the festival engaged in the conversation about its destiny. The college sold the campus to Democracy Builders Fund, a nonprofit organization that planned to create a low-residency hybrid affordable college program for first-generation students.
Those plans were thwarted when the organization’s cofounder, Seth Andrew, was arrested and charged with federal financial crimes, to which he has pleaded guilty. Sentencing — postponed multiple times —is currently scheduled for July 28.
Long story short: the festival now controls the 560-acre, 59-building campus, through a new subsidiary nonprofit corporation, Potash Hill Inc., which now owns the property.
“Over the past decade, Marlboro Music has invested more than $15 million in new housing for its senior musicians, on-campus facility improvements, a new residence hall, and the beautiful new Jerome and Celia Bertin Reich Building, containing chamber music rehearsal studios, a music library, and other vital spaces for its musicians, staff, and community,” the organization said in a 2021 news release announcing the sale.
Marlboro Music has maintained itself well with fundraising, annual giving, and ticket sales while enjoying an “appropriate-sized” endowment, Serkin explains.
Now the new owners of the complex, festival leaders are keenly aware of the delicate financial balance in which it is poised.
Potash Hill is governed by a separate board of directors, and a 15-member volunteer task force has been undergoing a strategic planning process.
“[At present], we are trying hard to plan for off-season at Potash Hill: we want to attract tenants who’ll contribute to the community as the festival does,” says Serkin.
They aim to secure a cluster of complementary occupants who’d use the campus for various purposes at times when the festival is not in session.
“It’s a remarkable space with tremendous potential,” Serkin says. “We need to harness that.”
At an open dialogue session with the Marlboro community last month, for instance, it was suggested that the Marlboro Elementary School might relocate from its building on Route 9 to the campus’ capacious library.
Other buildings could be operated by educational, arts and/or business entities; fundraising and grants could anchor such an effort.
“We will need broad support,” Serkin adds.
Changes wrought by the pandemic were demanding enough. Compound that with now being owner of Potash Hill and these times, Maneval says, “are both exciting and daunting. It’s an expansive campus.”
As administrators and the board work toward sustainability, he continues, they’re also looking at preservation of the land.
“It’s an opportunity,” Potter adds. “And we’re open — we welcome new ideas.”
There’s a keen sense of dedication — even love — for Marlboro Music that emanates from all its administrators and, most understandably, from Serkin.
Maneval recalls: “I’d been hearing about Marlboro since I was a child, about its incredible community coupled with such high artistic standards. We offer a rock-solid commitment from the Marlboro Music organization to ensure it’s protected and preserved for generations to come.”
Seeing the familiar faces of regulars and locals in the audience is gratifying, as is welcoming newcomers, Potter says.
“If you’re out gardening and you want to punctuate your day with music, come on over” to enjoy a free open rehearsal, a concert, a stroll on the grounds, he says.