BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC) is celebrating two major milestones — the 60th anniversary season of Marlboro Music and the 90th birthday of photographer Clemens Kalischer — with a new photo exhibit that opens on Saturday.
Since 1956, Kalischer, who splits his time between Stockbridge, Mass. and Brattleboro, has been photographing the Marlboro Music School and Festival — arguably the most famous, and most beloved, summer retreat for the world’s top chamber music performers and a place where young musicians can learn from the masters in a relaxed, collegial environment.
His BMAC exhibit, “Clemens Kalischer: Six Decades of Marlboro Music,” is a collection of 49 of his black-and-white photos from the mid-1950s through the early 2000s.
Kalischer has spent more than six decades as a photographer freelancing for many publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Life, Fortune, and Time.
His work is in the permanent collections of several museums and archives, including the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Kalischer's first introduction to Marlboro came when Walter Hard, editor of Vermont Life, asked him if he wanted try taking some photos of the then-five-year-old music festival.
“I saw my first show there and was amazed,” Kalischer said in a phone interview earlier this week.
That first assignment led to many more visits to Marlboro, and a deep love for the creative process that takes place there.
“There are no barriers and no hierarchy there,” Kalischer said. “Everyone is a student. Instead of rushing around to concert halls, they really have the time to get to know the music better, and to get to know each other as fellow musicians.”
The founders of Marlboro Music — violist Adolph Busch; Busch's brother, cellist Herman Busch; Busch's son-in-law, pianist Rudolf Serkin; flautist Marcel Moyse; Moyse's son Louis Moyse; and Moyse's daughter-in-law, violinist and conductor Blanche Moyse — figure prominently in Kalischer’s photos from the 1950s and 1960s.
These are the giants of chamber music in the 20th century, joined by such peers as cellist Pablo Casals, a regular at Marlboro in the 1960s and 1970s. But those looking at Kalischer's photos also get to see the generation of musicians they inspired who would become giants in their time.
In one of those “before they were famous” moments captured by Kalischer, a 1956 photo shows Van Cliburn and James Levine practicing a four-hands piece on a piano in a dimly lit room, two years before Cliburn became an international superstar by winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, and two decades before Levine became the Metropolitan Opera’s principal conductor.
“I happened to walk into the building and heard the music,” said Kalischer of the circumstances of the photo. “I walked in very quietly and started taking pictures. Some photographers have a lot of ego, and it gets in the way of a photograph. If you come in quietly and not draw attention to yourself, after a few minutes, you could be hanging from the ceiling and not be noticed.”
The tradition of young performers coming to Marlboro to learn and to play with the best stretches from Cliburn and Levine to cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Joshua Bell. Marlboro Music alumni fill the ranks of symphony orchestras, conservatories, and chamber ensembles around the world.
Kalischer’s photographs convey the give-and-take between old pros and young up-and-comers as they interact, not as teacher and student, but as peers. They show moments of intense concentration in rehearsal, and moments of joyfulness as musicians celebrate in the dining hall or play softball in a nearby field.
The honesty and directness of Kalischer’s work shines from every photograph. The subjects speak for themselves, and he never intrudes.
“Never inclined to seek the limelight, he has quietly over six decades built a body of work notable for its high quality and open-armed embrace of the varied human condition,” art historian Miles Unger wrote in the introduction to a 2002 collection of Kalischer's work, Invisible Man: The Photographs of Clemens Kalischer.
The invisibility that Unger refers to “does not simply reflect an unwillingness to promote himself. It involves as well a recognition that photography of the kind he practices demands that the photographer remains invisible so that the subject can be revealed with the maximum clarity. In losing himself, he gains the world.”
Those traits are evident in Kalischer’s Marlboro pictures. His documentary style allows him to blend into the background and capture the qualities that make the school and festival so special.
“Every time you go out, it is different,” he said. “Sometimes, it takes a minute to get the photo. Sometimes, it can take hours. Everything I do is unexpected.”