By Sarah Freiberg
Intensive summer programs for adult amateur chamber-music aficionados attract serious musicians and earn fierce loyalty. The Bennington Chamber Music Conference, Chamber Music Workshop at the Composers Conference, and KentMusic String Quartet Conference are three standout programs geared toward advanced players. Bennington and the Composers Conference Workshop began as one program over 70 years ago, but separated into two distinct programs in 1975, and both include other instruments besides strings. The Kent Conference, run by the Manhattan String Quartet, focuses only on the string-quartet repertoire. Among the three, there is something for everyone looking to strengthen their chamber-music chops.
“I brought my string quartet of 20 years this summer, and we are still polishing the Brahms quartet we started there.”
Bennington Chamber Music Conference
The Bennington Chamber Music Conference takes place on the campus of Bennington College in Vermont, running for four weeks in July and August (July 15 to August 12). Participants usually attend for one or two weeks each summer. Marilyn Bell, the executive director, first attended as a participant in 1975, and has been in her role, on and off, since 1980. For the past 25 summers, Bell, a pianist, and her far-flung trio—she’s in New York, her violinist lives in Cleveland, and her cellist in Washington, D.C.—have been reuniting at Bennington for coaching.
An unusual fact about the Bennington program is that it is entirely self-run. Says Bell: “All administrative staff, as well as the whole board of directors, are participants at Bennington. Faculty members also participate on the board. It really is a home organization. We don’t hire any outside people to do these jobs.” This summer will be the 73rd for the conference, and Bell plans for year 75 “to put out big blasters to celebrate.”
Bell describes the bulk of the program as strings, but it also includes winds and piano. About half of the groups are preformed, and they can request works to study. Generally, though, the preformed groups play only half of their weekly schedule as a group. Of the four weeks, the first is the most intimate, with about 90 participants, while later weeks have about 110 participants, with some auditors as well, who just come to play, not to get coached.
There are coaching sessions both in the morning and afternoon, with plenty of free playing time built in as well. Two pieces are studied from Monday to Wednesday, with another two from Thursday–Saturday, with performance opportunities available, if wanted. There are also faculty performances, which are open to the public. Participants come prepared to work on entire pieces, and are given their chamber-music assignments well in advance. While many participants attend year after year, the conference welcomes newcomers. Applicants must provide musical résumés and audition.
Jan Woiler Meuse, a grant writer, is also an avid violinist. “In 1998, I got a job at Bennington to assist during the summer program. I just went all in, which meant I was learning and getting coached in eight pieces total—a lot more than I had ever done for chamber music. I remember how by the second or third week, I had to find an emergency massage therapist, because I didn’t know how to pace myself.” Woiler Meuse finds the atmosphere magical: “The combination of people, high level music and coaching, the setting and how beautiful it is—it hits everything for me. I can’t say enough good things about it. For me, the question is ‘How do I make the rest of my life more blissful like Bennington?’ For anyone who cares about growing as a musician and chamber musician, it is the perfect place to go.”
Arts administrator and consultant Polly Kahn began cello at 22, but stopped for 32 years “as family and career demanded all of my time,” returning to the cello “with a passion” three years ago. Of her first time at Bennington, she says; “The experience was overwhelming—stressful, intimidating, and incredibly inspiring. It took me a bit of time to find my rhythm and settle in, but the excellent coaching and the welcoming atmosphere made it an ultimately incredible experience. My opportunities to play chamber music have greatly expanded through both the networks and confidence I gained through the Bennington experience.”
Chamber Music Workshop at the Composers Conference
The two-week Chamber Music Workshop at the Composers Conference has been situated at Wellesley College for the past 43 years, but, in 2018, is relocating to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Kathryn Welter, executive director for the last 19 years, says that 75 percent of the participants are returning players. “I would say that half or more are preformed.”
As with Bennington, auditions are required. “We make assignments by mid-May, ask them to procure music and prepare. We also give them tips on what to expect, study the score, measure numbers.”
Joseph Singer, the Bussey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and a violinist, has been attending the Chamber Music Workshop for 35 years, and is passionate about it. “I have loved every minute of this camp. The coaches are wonderful. They understand what our abilities are and help us work on things that will improve the music immediately while sometimes explaining things we can work on at home.” Singer finds the concurrent Composers Conference inspiring: “A competition yields ten to 12 young composers out of more than a hundred applicants. Each composer gets two pieces rehearsed and performed each week. Those concerts mix traditional pieces with three or four pieces by the conference composers. We get to hear amazing performances by our morning coaches, playing both traditional and new music. Those are among the best chamber-music concerts I have ever attended.”
Simmons College professor Pamela Bromberg loves that she can commute to the Composers Conference. The first time she attended, in 2001, she was a last-minute fill-in for an ill cellist. “There is a sizable group that commutes, and that is an important factor. People meet each other at the camp, and some of those relationships continue on through the year.” Bromberg loves the exposure to new repertoire and ideas: “We get wonderful musical experiences, great coaching with a variety of approaches and understanding and wisdom. As amateurs, it is hard to get together in bigger groups, and the camp gives you a chance to do repertoire you don’t normally do. I brought my string quartet of 20 years this summer, and we are still polishing the Brahms quartet we started there. I like the chance to be disciplined and work hard—you must have a level of mastery when you begin the coaching sessions.”
The KentMusic String Quartet Conference
Hamilton, New York, and Seattle, Washington
The Manhattan String Quartet runs two weeks of the KentMusic String Quartet Conference in June—one week (June 11–17) at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and, as of two years ago, another week (June 18–24) at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. The Kent programs are for the study of string quartets only, and all groups work on the same piece—in 2018, it is Dvořák’s String Quartet in A-flat major, Op. 105. As retired ophthalmologist and amateur cellist Lee Shahinian put it, “The whole workshop vibrates with the single work.” Participants have rehearsal and coaching sessions daily, as well as illuminating afternoon lectures with music theorist David Clampitt.
Manhattan Quartet violist John Dexter thinks that one thing that makes the program unique is the coaches. “All our conferences feature coaches who are either active in a bona fide professional quartet or have been at some point in their musical careers. In our view, the specific business of ‘quartetting,’ including all the technical aspects of playing quartets, those aspects being so different from any other kind of playing one does, can only be effectively taught by folks who have actually played quartets professionally.”
Shahinian got hooked on the Kent program in 2001, at one of the Manhattan Quartet’s fabulous January chamber-music workshops in Europe—where not only do the participants study a particular piece, but learn about the composer in the context of a significant city, such as studying the Debussy quartet in Paris. Since then, he has attended close to a dozen stateside summer workshops, first at Colgate, and now in Seattle. He says that almost every person goes as a “free radical,” meaning there are very few preformed groups. Each day brings different players together. Violinist and psychiatrist Neal Kass points out that violinists have to prepare both first and second violin parts before attending the camp. “You don’t know on any given day which part you are going to play. It gets you to really know the piece, which is a really cool thing. On the final day, we play through the whole piece, and I like to try to play second violin where I had played first earlier in the week, and vice versa” to experience both parts in context.
Kass began playing at Kent six or seven years ago, attracted by the possibility of learning Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet. “The pieces they work on are outrageously good. It can be hard to find the time to take off from work, but each year I melt when I hear what the piece is going to be. Last year it was Bartok’s first quartet.”
While the participants do not perform, the Manhattan Quartet plays two concerts, ending with the week’s chosen work. One of the ways Kass says his outlook has changed thanks to the Kent workshops is his choice of a violin. “A bunch of the violins I tried would have been great for the Sibelius concerto, but the one I picked is much more of a chamber instrument, because I have become much more interested in a different type of sound.”