Finding a Musical Ideal in the Vermont Woods

Mitsuko Uchida, second from left, the artistic director of the Marlboro Music Festival, played Brahms with, from left, Tessa Lark, Robyn Bollinger, Peter Stumpf and Zoë Martin-Doike.

MARLBORO, Vt. — The projectile whizzed past Tessa Lark’s ear just as she was trying to put into words what makes the Marlboro Music School and Festival here so special. Ms. Lark, a violinist, was eating dinner last Saturday at a long table crowded with musicians and their families. Later in the evening, she was to perform Brahms’s Piano Quintet alongside the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, Marlboro’s artistic director.

The pianist Jonathan Biss, noticing my confusion, leaned forward. “It’s so intense here,” he said, “and you’re playing for hours a day, that behaving like an idiot is an essential release.”

Intensity and freedom may be the defining qualities of Marlboro. (As are the dinnertime paper fights, apparently a tradition.) Since the festival’s founding in 1951, this dairy farm turned liberal arts college has become the summer home for a thriving community of musicians who delve into the chamber repertory with a devotion bordering on zeal. Veteran artists and young professionals play side by side and feed off one another’s energy and experience. But the most extravagant gift Marlboro offers participants is a commodity that has become only more precious: time.

Chamber groups here have the luxury of rehearsing as long as they need. Public concerts each weekend and a Musicians from Marlboro tour during the regular season represent only a fraction of the works studied each session. Some groups spend the whole summer on a single piece.

The soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon told me over dinner that her work on Brett Dean’s String Quartet No. 2 had even carried over from one year to the next. That work (for high soprano and strings) references Ophelia from “Hamlet,” so Ms. Fitz Gibbon organized evening readings of Shakespeare’s play. Now that she is working on Schubert’s song “The Shepherd on the Rock,” her trio spent time reading through other 19th-century works for the same unusual combination of voice, clarinet and piano. “We just wanted to get to know that sound world,” she said.

The conditions are, everyone agrees, nearly perfect. “It is normal and unavoidable that in the real world things are performance-driven,” Mr. Biss said. “But coming back every year to this ideal — I can’t imagine not having that.”

Later that evening, I heard some of that ideal turned into sound. The performances were brilliant, polished and sometimes flamboyantly idiosyncratic. Two qualities stood out, the first a fierce clarity of intention with regard to the structure of an ensemble’s sound.

In Haydn’s Piano Trio in E flat (Hob. XV:29), the violinist Stephen Tavani sometimes cooled his tone to the smoothness of frosted glass, adding a soft-focus filter to the chiseled melodies of Evren Ozel’s piano. In some of the ruminating scales of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1, the violinists Stephen Waarts and Inmo Yang shrank their sound to a single spidery line. At moments, all four players employed a perfectly matched, tense vibrato that lent the music neurotic urgency.

Shifting focal planes and clear timbral contrasts added richness to Brahms’s Quintet, which included the violinist Robyn Bollinger, the violist Zoë Martin-Doike and the cellist Peter Stumpf alongside Ms. Lark and Ms. Uchida. During one string chorale in the first movement, Ms. Uchida dulled the tone of her accompanying chords until they sounded like small bells; in a passage for strings alone, the three upper voices blended into a single pale haze against which Mr. Stumpf’s vibrant cello radiated generosity and warmth.

The second characteristic of all the performances was their physicality, the way a group would move, sometimes extravagantly, as one body. It was expressed subtly in the opening of the Brahms, when Ms. Uchida reached the end of her phrase but continued to rock gently in time to the undulating arpeggiation in the strings.

And it took on a wild edge in the Scherzo, when the string players ripped out sforzando accents with the cheery violence of a convoy of bikers revving their engines. It was the body language of the players as much as the music that hinted at weeks spent not only rehearsing together, but also eating and hiking and dodging spitballs.

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