in: News & Features

June 29, 2012

Apple Hill: More Music in Bucolic New Hampshire

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Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, an unassuming cluster of farm-like buildings on a dirt road in the middle of the southern New Hampshire woods a few miles north of Keene, seems at first glance a humble target for the devotion aimed at it by a small but far-reaching network of musicians. Its grandest structure is the Concert Barn, where board floors and wooden crossbeams support a creaky loft and late-afternoon breezes waft through screened windows across the grand piano. The versatile space, alternately populated with stackable audience chairs and sturdy wooden tables, also serves as mess hall, rehearsal room, meeting room, dance floor, and late-night jam session locale. And for those more than 300 professional and student musicians who take up residence on campus over the course of the summer, there is no alternative to an often muddy hike up or down the hill to a rustic cabin at night — unless it’s a yurt.

The concert barn (Zoe Kemmerling photo)

During its summer concerts, Apple Hill opens its barn doors to the public every Tuesday from June 19th through August 21st, alternately showcasing the faculty-in-residence and guest artists. But more than a concert series, Tuesday nights are a time to invite the audience to partake in the unique revolving community that is the heart of the summer festival and its year-round adjunct program, Playing for Peace, which brings the Apple Hill String Quartet and Executive and Artistic Director Leonard “Lenny” Matczynski around the world to places most in need of the lessons chamber music has to offer. “Summer is really the heart of everything at Apple Hill,” says Sarah Kim, the quartet’s second violinist and artistic director for this year’s Session I. “Our gauge for how successful a [Playing for Peace] workshop is is how closely it resembles a summer session.”

The summer sessions, like any music festival, are chances for like-minded musicians to meet new people, work feverishly towards a fast-approaching concert, eat plentifully three times a day, ask each other for practice advice, play in masterclasses, play in ping-pong tournaments, teach each other fiddle tunes, stargaze, go skinny dipping at midnight, and indulge in many other activities made more poignant and intense due to the compressed (in Apple Hill’s case, 10-day) time frame. What strikes the newcomer is the wholehearted love and enthusiasm with which returning participants greet each other and the relish with which they reminisce on the shared experiences of past sessions. For the purpose of the summer chamber music workshops is not just to teach music but also to teach how to live in a community.

At the beginning of every session Matczynski shares his philosophy with the Apple Hill participants: people are accepted for who they are, everyone has an expressive voice, and everyone deserves to be encouraged and supported equally. One might ask, isn’t this hopelessly idealistic? What about the real world? But to Matczynski, this philosophy is the real world, which is not only indistinguishable from the art of playing chamber music but stretches farther than one might think. “It’s open and it’s free,” he says. “Chamber music is democratic; there’s no leader. If musicians know they’re coming to a place where they’re accepted, they’ll be able to grow from that space. We’re here to encourage that.” And oddly enough, it’s just that freedom which creates the strongest bonds. “In a rural environment, there’s a retreat-like feeling, which people often expect to be a feeling of ‘you’re on your own.’ But in chamber music, you’re not on your own — musically, you’re connecting with people. And daily, everyone is contributing: we all eat and do our leisure activities together. After two days, you’re bonded for life.”

The chamber groups, two or three apiece, into which each of the five session’s 60-odd participants are organized (with respect to ability and temperament) constitute one of the monumental tasks faced by Kim and her colleagues, including fellow quartet musicians Elise Kuder, violin, Michael Kelley, viola, and Rupert Thompson, cello. Musicians range in age from teenagers to octogenarians; some are just beginning to stretch their ears and abilities within an ensemble, some play chamber music as part of their career, some are college or conservatory students, some are seasoned music-lovers from other walks of life. Seeing one’s name listed next to one from across the globe is striking, but “the age thing is really important too,” says Kim. “Diversity in generations makes it easy to want to go out and see it happen,” to make the kinds of connections that help the world run more smoothly.

Antique stone wall (Zoe Kemmerling photo)

When the quartet goes on a Playing for Peace tour, it concentrates its efforts into a four-day session in which students from conflicting backgrounds are placed in groups together and coached in the kinds of skills that lead to a successful chamber music performance: listening, watching, adjusting, being flexible. Some participants are awarded scholarships to attend Apple Hill the following summer to study for a month at the workshop. Past destinations of the tour include Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and West Bank/Palestine in the Middle East; England, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland; Greek and Turkish areas of Cyprus; the Caucuses area of Russia, and inner-city neighborhoods of the US. This past fall brought the quartet to Jordan and Limassol, Cyprus; and recurring trips to both countries have given the Apple Hill musicians a chance to see the evolution of their work. “We went to northern Cyprus, the Turkish part, and had a masterclass with musicians from the orchestra there,” says Kim, “and there were at least 10 musicians there who had gone through different generations of the Playing for Peace program, including at least one from the very first [Cyprian] group! That year, 2000, the borders were closed, so the group, which included two Greek and two Turkish Cypriots, had to meet in the buffer zone to rehearse.” This past spring Matczynski and the quartet made a tour closer to home, with stops in Maine, Boston, NYC, and Washington, DC.

In DC, a voice from the past emerged in the form of Cecile Khill, the program’s very first scholarship student. An Arab Israeli from Nazareth, she now holds a doctorate from Georgetown University and teaches piano at an international school in the DC area. “She was giving a talk on what the program did for her,” Matczynski recalls, “and what she kept returning to is that she felt free, how free she felt on those 100 acres in New Hampshire.” One of the Cypriot graduates, clarinetist George Georgiou, has since started a music organization in Nicosia and is still a frequent face in New Hampshire. A Jordanian graduate has since helped found the music department at King’s Academy, Jordan’s premier boarding school.

“When you’re free and you’re also in a community, there are a lot of responsibilities that you need to be aware of,” says Matczynski. “Apple Hill is a place to teach about community behavior and about adapting to the wider community; it’s a time to practice what you might preach. It takes a lot of awareness.” Coincidentally, that’s also what growing up and finding one’s place in the world is about. Josh Addison is one of session I’s two camp directors, an often exhausting position that involves making sure that everyone on campus is safe, involved, and doing one’s part. Having experienced Apple Hill during many stages of his life, Addison, who is 26, says “this is my first year in the pro sphere, teaching and freelancing, and only now did I feel even remotely ready for the responsibility. You take on a new role and it’s really exciting.” To him, Apple Hill is a process. Or more accurately, “there are processes: collectively there’s a development, individually we’re developing as a result of those interactions, but there’s also a real awareness of what it means to interact with other people — that consciousness of it makes Apple Hill an aware community, and that’s its strength.”

The faculty, who change with each session, are both an integral part of the community and help shape the Tuesday evening concert series. Some, like clarinetists Eric Thomas and John Laughton, cellist Brookes Whitehouse, and flautist Gretchen Pusch, are “Apple Hill originals,” those with long histories with the institution. Matczynski describes the people he brings to the faculty as “chamber players, role models, lifestyle models, and friends.” And the players in turn inspire the programming. “This summer I really wanted to do both Hindemith clarinet pieces. He was at his essence a chamber music composer. And we have two really great clarinetists. I love to do pieces by composers that everyone is familiar with, but are never heard. I said ‘let’s do the Beethoven viola quintet’ and people didn’t know it existed. And there’s an arrangement of Afternoon of a Faun for clarinet, flute, and piano.” These last two will be performed July 31, along with Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which Matczynski unabashedly declares is “a showpiece for three players who are just virtuosos.” (The Hindemith Quintet op. 30 was performed last week; the other to which Matczynski referred is the Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.)

The Playing for Peace philosophy extends to the faculty too. Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and Israeli-born pianist Sally Pinkas are on the July 31st concert. Azmeh will return on August 7th for a recital of original pieces combining improvised, classical, jazz, Syrian, and Sri Lankan music. Other programs bring friends from closer to home. On July 3rd, Boston regulars Yi-heng Yang and Daniel Sedgwick will perform Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite arranged for piano four-hands on a program which also features violinists Jae Young Cosmos Lee and Rohan Gregory; on July 17th violinist Gabriella Diaz will appear along with Laughton in the Hindemith quartet; and tenor Frank Kelley will join the Apple Hill Quartet and pianist Jean Schneider for Vaughan-Williams’s On Wenlock Edge. And sometimes, Matczynski says, “I just think instrumentally. We have Elah Grandel on bassoon in a beautiful romantic piece, Schumann’s Three Romances, on August 14th.” The same program will involve two musicians from an earlier incarnation of the Apple Hill Chamber Players, violinist Mowry Pearson and cellist Paul Cohen, in Enesco’s Octet. The final concert of the summer, on August 21st, will feature more Apple Hill regulars in the Dirt Road Ensemble, which is both a uniquely fitting moniker and, yes, a tongue-in-cheek take-off on the Silk Road Ensemble.

Matczynski has brought an ambitious vision to Apple Hill since taking over directorship in 2008, a role that includes everything from dealing with foreign embassies, programming, balancing the budget (no mean feat), to pruning rosebushes. After serving as the founding executive director of Boston’s Emmanuel Music from 1993-2007, he knew that any situation that he was in had to be a community-centered place, like Emmanuel. “I was on the board of Apple Hill,” he explained, “so I knew what the issues were. And I’d been teaching there since the 80s, so I was very familiar with and its culture; it was easy to step in — easy, but tremendously difficult work. And it was great to go to a place where I taught, and to have the opportunity to start a string quartet.” The Apple Hill Quartet is still a young quartet, but Kim says “after you sit down and play with different people during the summer, playing with the quartet feels like coming home. And we’re growing as a quartet, changing, not taking for granted what we have. For instance, we’re doing our first Beethoven late quartet this year, which we’re really excited for.”

Concert barn interior (Zoe Kemmerling photo) 

What’s next for Apple Hill, besides late Beethoven? Matczynski is motivated and forthright about sharing his goals. “I’d like Apple Hill to be year-round. I have a three-phase construction projects for the buildings and grounds, which will end with a permanent dormitory and rehearsal space. I want composers and quartets to be able to come for retreats and extensive study and coaching sessions. It’s beautiful here in the winter.” Kim, in her turn, is appreciative of all the center has maintained through myriad changes and incarnations. “There’s no recipe for fostering community; we want to maintain that unique adaptability, never have it become over-programmed, if you know what I mean.”

Quartet musicians Kelley and Kuder are, along with Matczynski, stewards of Apple Hill’s lovely and welcoming garden corners and can often be seen with hose or pruning shears in tow as the sun is descending before a concert. “When you think of New Hampshire,” says Kuder, “you don’t immediately think of a place that is verdant, full of life and unrestrained growth. But it is! Look at the incredible greenery. It really is.”

More information on the summer concert series and Apple Hill’s Playing for Peace program can be found here.

Zoe Kemmerling, a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory, is a freelance violist, baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.

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