Splendid isolation
Persons Auditorium at Marlboro College is the summer performance venue for the Marlboro Music musicians.

Splendid isolation

In its 65th season, Marlboro Music gives musicians a quiet place to delve deeply into their craft, and then share the results in concert

MARLBORO — Frank Salomon, administrator of Marlboro Music School and Festival, says that despite the name, he believes that the organization offers not a festival but a retreat.

“Professional beginning artists get the special opportunity to work with acclaimed senior artists, some of whom have been involved with Marlboro 30 years or more,” says Salomon. “Together, both get a chance to explore music with unlimited rehearsal time. The young and the veterans inspire each other, as they discover what lies beneath a piece of music.”

Public performances are the outlet of this exploration process. After three weeks of daily rehearsals, Marlboro artists begin sharing with audiences the results of their in-depth collaborations. The programs are selected from the 60 to 80 groups in rehearsal at any one time; only one quarter of the more than 250 works explored during the summer can be included.

Salomon compares Marlboro Music to Princeton Center for Advanced Studies, where professionals, both young and seasoned, are able to get together and explore their field of study. He considers Marlboro to be a one-of-a-kind center for music, although it has had many imitators.

As Marlboro Music begins its 65th summer season on the campus of Marlboro College in southern Vermont, some 85 artists, including its Artistic Director Mitsuko Uchida and other distinguished musicians, are participating with some of the world's brightest young professionals during the seven-week session.

Five weekends of concerts are scheduled from Saturday, July 18, through Sunday, Aug. 16. Programs are not planned in advance and are only chosen a week before from what the musicians themselves feel has gone especially well. This year's roster of resident artists offers broad international representation with musicians hailing from 17 foreign countries from Armenia to Uzbekistan.

The first week's schedule of works, drawn from the musicians' requests, will show the diversity of repertoire being explored at Marlboro Music, from the Bartok Contrasts for clarinet, violin, and piano, to Stravinsky's Pribaoutki for voice, winds, and strings, with Beethoven, Brahms, Harbison, Henze, Hindemith, and Kurtag, among others, in between.

Marlboro Music was created in 1951 by eminent pianist Rudolf Serkin - its artistic director until his death in 1991 - and co-founders Adolf and Hermann Busch, and Marcel, Blanche, and Louis Moyse.

Over the ensuing decades, Marlboro was a vital gathering place and musical oasis for many renowned musicians and composers of the late 20th century, including cellist Pablo Casals, soprano Benita Valente, and acclaimed composers Leon Kirchner (who helped to establish a Resident Composer program here in the 1970s), Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland.

Since the Guarneri String Quartet formed at Marlboro in 1964, former participants have formed or joined many outstanding ensembles. Other Marlboro artists are now principal chair members of leading symphonic and opera orchestras worldwide; are among today's most sought-after recording and solo artists; or are acclaimed teachers at prominent conservatories and universities.

“It has been gratifying to see the development of three generations of musical leaders over the last 65 years,” says Salomon.

Frank Salomon's title at Marlboro Music is the rather vague 'administrator.' In fact, Salomon says he is still trying to figure out exactly what is job is after all these years.

In 1960, he joined Marlboro as co-administrator with Anthony Checchia, a veteran bassoonist from the Marlboro Festival, who had been asked by Rudolf Serkin to help out with administration in 1959.

“We have a great administrative team working with us, including Philip Maneval for 30 years as well as many other wonderful colleagues,” says Salomon.

Much preliminary off-season work is done in Philadelphia, where Marlboro Music offices are located, and in New York, where auditions for the summer festival take place. Salomon spends time in Vermont from April to November, with trips back and forth to New York.

From the middle of June until August, he is here pretty much full time.

“Serkin said Marlboro is based on a spirit of generosity,” explains Salomon. “That is true. Everyone makes a financial sacrifice. Young artists pay for housing, while older artists pass up more lucrative summer offers. But even more than that, the artists are generous in being musically giving, such as playing second in a piece when they would rather play first.”

Salomon believes that Marlboro is about family, community, and sharing.

“Take for instance the crew in the dining hall,” he continues. “The young artists set up, but older artists do also. Believe me, it is a great experience to see some young artist's eyes popping out of their heads like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon when asked what they would like to drink with their meal by some legendary musician whose records they have enjoyed and admired all their lives.”

Salomon has closely worked for the past three decades with the current co-artistic directors, pianists Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida.

Initially, the artistic directors also included a third acclaimed pianist, András Schiff, when the three jointly took over after Serkin died in 1991. Schiff left shortly afterward; and Goode, who has had 28 summers with Marlboro and 20 as its co-artistic leaders, decided two years ago that he wanted to spend summers with his wife and so handed his reins over to his co-director.

“As its artistic director, Mitsuko Uchida is instrumental in inviting senior artists to Marlboro Music, as well as having a major role in soliciting suggestion for repertoire,” says Salomon. “At weekly meetings, she guides what is studied and what gets performed.”

Made up of 75 to 80 artists, Marlboro musicians can be divided into thirds.

“The first third are new artists,” says Salomon. “They have a three-year limit at the festival, which mean some can return for a second year or even a third. The new artists audition for a slot in New York. Marlboro holds auditions when an opening becomes available, but there is not necessary one in every category every year.”

The second third are those from the first who do return to Marlboro for a second or third year.

The final third are veteran senior artists.

“Ages for new players can range from 18 up to 30,” Salomon continues. “It varies. Pianists run from 18 until 26, while wind players can be up to 28, and singers, who develop later, up to 30.”

Salomon estimates for each season there are about 11 pianists, 18 violinists, 12 violists, 10 cellists, and one or two double basses. This number remains fairly consistent because of the balance needed for string groupings. Then there are eight singers with a variety of vocal types for both lieder and vocal chamber music.

“Vocal chamber music has a special appeal for singers,” explains Salomon. “Marlboro Music is a rare opportunity for singers to work with great instrumentalists in the healthy repertoire of chamber music that includes voice. When Uchida, Goode, and Schiff took over after Serkin, they jointly felt they should emphasize vocal chamber, because everyone could learn from this music.”

Seventy-five different pieces of music are worked on each week, around 200 in total. Artists spend 18 to 26 hours on three to five pieces. Most pieces have three weeks rehearsal, or about 11 to 12 hours.

When young artists apply to Marlboro, they select several works they would like to explore at Marlboro. The scheduling director then decides what pieces will be worked on during the summer, consulting in May and June with senior artists about what would be best.

“Senior artists figure out who has the best experience for the repertoire,” says Solomon. “They check if any other young artist requested working on this piece. They put together a group of musicians to form an ensemble, considering how each might fit in, both musically and personally.

“At the end of each week, the scheduling director draws up a list of what could make it onto the public performance program. The performers might tell the director, 'The work is going well but we need another week.' Or, 'Something special has happened here and could you find room on the program?' Some works are rehearsed all summer and never are performed.”

Around six senior artists decide what will be put on the program for each concert, balancing shorter, medium, and longer works.

They also must consider what will be on the second half of the concert, and how it relates to the first. Often, many works are available each week, and so some have to be postponed to be performed until later in the summer.

Finally, it is important that all Marlboro artists get a turn to perform.

Salomon says that this year, there will not be the traditional end-of-season performance of Beethoven's “Choral Fantasy.” Instead, guest conductor Leon Fletcher is scheduled to perform Mozart's “Jupiter Symphony.”

“There will also be a number of works by Finland's Kaija Saariaho, whose visit in 2014 as resident composer was so successful, that she was invited to return this summer.”

This year, she not only is returning as composer-in-residence, but will be accompanied by her husband, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, who is also a composer, well-known for his electronic music, which will be something novel for Marlboro. Both artists will be here for around nine days.

Occasionally, Marlboro artists perform a world premiere of a composer-in-residence work, but more often older pieces are studied. Composers sit in on these rehearsals a few weeks before the performance.

“Authors are often excited because they seldom have had artists of this caliber playing their music,” says Salomon. “They can comment on what they hear, and of course musicians are thrilled to have the actual composer of the piece right there with them.

“The composer might say something like, 'The tempo seems to me too fast or too slow.' Or they may say, 'I've never heard this piece performed on this level. I didn't imagine it being performed this way, but I like it.'”

Someone once told Salomon what made Marlboro so special could be reduced to one word: isolation.

“I think he was right,” Salomon says. “Today, we live in an instant world where before anything happens, it's on Facebook. Ours is a culture obsessed with being on top of everything.

“But this is not true at Marlboro. You find we have poor cellphone reception, and television that can be only beamed in by a satellite dish. Therefore, we are able to focus more on community and its people. Here you will find human communication, one on one, minute to minute, day by day, for seven weeks. It's amazing.”

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