By Leah Hollingsworth
Nestled in the woods of New Hampshire and complete with private practice studios, bedrooms with handmade quilts, and five-star chefs, Avaloch Farm Music Institute is almost too good to be true. Cellist Ashley Bathgate has participated in three residencies at Avaloch and confirms its idyllic reality. “It’s one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had—in my whole life,” she says. “Being at Avaloch is so luxurious. We have these beautiful suites, and I wake up and take a walk in the early morning and say hello to everyone at breakfast, and then spend time on the porch—doing an hour or two of reading or administrative emails—with an incredible view and unlimited coffee and fresh cookies.
“I use the time there not just to practice, but also to do a big administrative overhaul—website updates, electronic explorations, reading about the equipment and programs that I’m using [for new music projects]. During the year, I never have time for in-depth study; I feel like I’m just running triage. At Avaloch I can explore, learn, grow, and at the same time relax and refresh and recharge. All our needs are taken care of . . . After some admin work, I usually practice for a few hours. There’s lunch. There’s time for swimming or canoeing at the lake. More practice, and dinner. Blueberries to pick. Evenings are spent with the residence community—getting to know everyone and listening to music together. I mean, I couldn’t imagine anything more idyllic.”
Bathgate’s experience reflects the hopes that director Deborah Sherr had when she started the program. “We [wanted] to provide an environment that makes musicians feel valued in the deepest possible way, and gives them the opportunity to work intensively, but without pressure. Every aspect of Avaloch was conceived with the needs of musicians as the primary motivation.” Sherr, a professional cellist, teacher, and arts administrator (directing Greenwood Music Camp for 33 years, among other projects), never understood why there were so many artist residency programs in the US, but nothing specifically for performing musicians.
“Avaloch exists to support musicians by providing beautiful, comfortable facilities—both for living and working—with fabulous meals, in a gorgeous, bucolic setting, and a warm, nurturing environment,” she says. Sherr—along with Bathgate, founder Fred Tauber, and many from the Avaloch community—all describe the importance of a place to work without the pressures of performance. “We are not a presenting organization,” Sherr says, “and the musicians can work on their projects unencumbered by the needs of daily life, and without any expectations of a specific product at the end. The musicians are given absolute autonomy. Projects range from preparing concert seasons, making recordings, having the time to organize an ensemble’s administrative or marketing issues, collaborating with composers, or simply having the time and psychic space to explore repertoire.”
Tauber agrees: “[Musicians] deserve to have a place simply to work on their craft, on their scholarship, and to truly develop their professional identities, apart from the pressures of making a living . . . And they deserve to be treated well, so we do that! They are nurtured, so that they can focus on the reason they are there.”
Cellist Bärli Nugent, an assistant dean and director of chamber music at Juilliard, is both an advisory-board member for Avaloch and a past participant. Nugent was in a wind quintet for many years, but it wasn’t until the group was offered a summer residency at Aspen—where they had the opportunity to live and work together, focusing solely on their development as an ensemble without financial pressures or performance expectations—that their career blossomed. Nugent’s first-hand experience of how powerful such an experience could be for young artists meant she immediately wanted to be involved at Avaloch when Sherr approached her.
“I see festivals and chamber-music groups popping up all over the place,” Nugent says, “but so many [ensembles] are simply microwaving repertoire for a performance immediately coming up. At Avaloch, they can grow and take risks, and really spend the time working—two hours on one measure—and this is what produces extraordinary chamber-music groups. Avaloch allows ensembles to get off the track of trying to make a living, pay the rent, prepare for competitions, get ready for the next concert . . . . This is a place where groups come without any demands, no public performances, where they are taken care of with unlimited amounts of time to practice, to rest, to eat great food, to work.”
Community is central to Avaloch, and the resident artists play informally for each other many evenings each week, giving and receiving feedback, and trying out new ideas. Bathgate shares how meaningful Avaloch’s community is to her: “I’m usually teaching or gigging all the time, and I don’t do a lot of summer festivals, so I don’t have a community that I’m always with or feel supported by. But the people that I’ve met at Avaloch have had a big impact on me. I count on and really value them. We all need community to do what we’re doing, and I wouldn’t have it without Avaloch.”
Nugent believes that Avaloch’s career influence on its residents is two-fold. “In another ten years I think we’ll start seeing ensembles who spent time here start to emerge as major players in the chamber-music field. But—just as important—we are already seeing groups who don’t have national recognition playing a vital role in their local communities because of projects they developed at Avaloch. We need to nurture these artists, too,” she says.
“We [wanted] to provide an environment that makes musicians feel valued in the deepest possible way, and gives them the opportunity to work intensively, but without pressure.”
Bathgate’s time at Avaloch not only helped her to focus, recharge, and prepare for the upcoming year in a general way, but also had a specific impact on her career. As an artist focused on contemporary music, she brought several composers to her second and third residencies, and found that spending time together working in person was invaluable.
“It’s a luxury, at Avaloch, to be in the same room with musicians and composers that you are working with—instead of trying to work through ideas together on Google Hangout or Skype. We could experiment with different sounds, discuss what worked and didn’t in real time. They’d write a page a day for me, and I could learn it, and then we’d talk about it right then and there. The process should be like this all the time, but of course it’s not. We all have to pay our rents and are all over the map—literally. Now I’ve been able to premiere these new works, record them, and release a couple of new albums. None of it would have been possible without the time at Avaloch.”
Bathgate hopes to return to Avaloch this summer. Her advice to new residents? “Enjoy every second! The sky is the limit for your projects and proposals. And don’t eat too many desserts.”
Avaloch Farm Music Institute is currently in its fourth season. Learn more about the residency and its application procedures at avalochfarmmusic.org.