The festival lasts for seven weeks throughout the summer and usually attracts about 75 musicians and vocalists. Founded in 1951 by pianist Rudolf Serkin, its goal is to create a democratic and isolated retreat for chamber musicians to practice and learn from one another and exchange musical ideas. Rooms that serve as class and socializing spaces during the school year are outfitted with Steinway pianos and music stands during the summer, allowing seasoned players to teach rising talents. The Marlboro campus has served the festival well because of its picturesque isolation in southern Vermont, creating an atmosphere of focus and intensity.
Frank Salomon, a co-administrator of the festival, has been working with Marlboro since 1960. “At Marlboro, you’re in nature, in music, in a community. What makes Marlboro special is that it’s out in a rural area, away from distractions like movies and restaurants. You have to travel 10 miles if you want to be distracted.”
“The seclusion of the campus has a very strong effect,” says Mike Herring, the festival coordinator. “We’re out in the woods in a tight-knit community.”
The Marlboro campus is consumed by music during the daytime, when any loud activity happening within earshot of the buildings is halted to make for better practicing.
Most musicians practice anywhere from four to eight hours a day, and festival participants cut the intensity of practicing in a few famous ways. For example, stepping into the dining hall might mean being hit with the flying napkins that are tossed around at lunchtime; the tradition started as a game between Serkin and his daughter. And in the evening, the soccer field is overtaken with festival participants who compete with Marlboro College staff and faculty who are in the area for the summer.
An invitation to the Marlboro program represents a huge achievement for musicians, who travel from around the United States and the world for the opportunity to learn and play at Marlboro. Every member of the Marlboro ensemble must go through a rigorous admissions process to be selected for festival participation, sending in recordings of their work and – hopefully – being called before a committee for an audition in New York City. Opportunities to participate in the festival only come along when Marlboro is lacking an instrument; many musicians return for several years in a row.
“The audition is going in front of a bunch of people you idolize and then waiting for a call,” says Hassan Anderson, an oboe player from Florida.
Musicians and festival staff are also welcome to bring their spouses and families along to live at Marlboro. The result is a vibrant community made up of several generations of Marlboro participants, their children, and their parents.“What’s most interesting is how it hasn’t changed,” Salomon says. “It’s still experienced people willing to give up seven weeks of their summer without compensation in order to exchange ideas and appreciate music. The older musicians inspire the younger ones, and the older ones appreciate the energy and the new ideas coming from their younger counterparts.”
Marlboro Music is currently under the artistic direction of pianists Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida, who work alongside festival participants in practicing between 220 and 240 pieces throughout the summer. Musicians at the festival propose which pieces will be performed for the public only a week before each of the summer concerts, which take place on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Most pieces that are practiced will never reach the public, however.
“We call ourselves a school and a festival,” says Salomon, “but we’re really neither. We’re a retreat. Coming to a place like this is really for the sake of music, not for a job, not to perform, not to be reviewed.”
Marlboro Music also makes an effort to contribute to the local community. Every year, a community benefit concert is held in the dining hall, and its proceeds are donated to a local charity or organization in Marlboro or the surrounding area. Festival administrators are still selecting which organizations will benefit from the town benefit concert this year, but in the past, recipients have included the Marlboro Fire Department, the Marlboro School, and
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. In addition, the music festival has maintained a close relationship with Marlboro College since its inception; the college came into being only a few years before the festival did.
Festival concerts are open to the public and run to the end of August. Concert schedule information can be found at www.marlboromusic.org or by calling the festival offices at (802) 234-2394.