A Mozart Festival fan gets his first run-through
The opening concert of the Vermont Mozart Festival did not play out according to the well-marketed image of picnickers mixing Brahms and Beaujolais on the grounds of Shelburne Farms. On a dark and glowering Sunday afternoon, it was inevitable that the festivities would be moved to the considerably less glam premises of Memorial Auditorium in downtown Burlington.
True, the basketball hoop, in its raised position over the western wall of the gymnasium, is a poor substitute for the sun setting over Lake Champlain. But the musicians were sporting about the venue change and performed beautifully. Soloist Scott Thornburg shone in Haydn's Concerto in E-flat major for trumpet and orchestra. The Brahms Second Symphony, which claimed the second half of the evening, was played by the largest orchestra the Vermont Mozart Festival has ever assembled.
But the applause for Bizet's L'Arlesienne, Suite No. 2, after individual movements, was particularly enthuastic. In large part this was a tribute to the supple, suggestive flute playing of Jennifer Grim. Although she was not listed as a soloist on Sunday's program, her prominent flute introduced and carried several important themes in the piece. At the end of it, the conductor encouraged her to take a bow.
What inspires a beautiful, 31-year-old flutist to leave New York City to spend three weeks swatting mosquitos in the Green Mountains --three years in a row? What makes Mozart-minded musicians agree to bunk together for weeks for the chance to perform at, well, Memorial Auditorium?
Three days after her Bizet performance, Grim answers the door of the St. Michael's College townhouse she's sharing with as many as three other musicians during the course of the festival. Today the two-story townhouse is all hers. Friendly but reserved, she has the air of someone who spends a lot of time alone and doesn't mind it in the least.
Earlier that afternoon Grim had been rehearsing an Elliot Carter sonata with an oboist, cellist and harpsichordist for a concert scheduled for October in Washington, D.C. Her fellow musicians are members of the New York Chamber Soloists, all of whom are also playing in the Ver-mont Mozart Festival Orchestra.
This is not coincidence. The New York Chamber Soloists, founded by Melvin Kaplan, has from the beginning formed the musical nucleus of the Mozart Festival. Kaplan is also one of the festival founders, its principal oboist and artistic director. He seems to be, too, its chief recruiter. In the world of the Vermont Mozart Festival, I quickly learn to regard Kaplan as philosophers do Plato: No matter which path you take, you encounter him on his way back.
As it happened, Grim met Kaplan when he was a judge in a chamber music competition she'd entered with other musicians from her program at Yale. They got his attention when they performed a wind quintet without sheet music. "So," she remembers him asking, "you're going to play it in concert from memory?"
When Grim graduated and moved to New York, they made contact again. She subbed for a while with Kaplan's New York Chamber Soloists, then became a resident in the ensemble. The path to Vermont seemed almost preordained.
For Grim, it all started in Berkeley, California. She comes from an artistic family, though not a particularly musical one, she says. Her first instrument was the violin, but she soon grew frustrated with it. "It takes a very long time," she observes, "before you can get even a decent sound out of a violin."
Flute was a better fit. Grim entered Stanford with the intention of going pre-med, but then decided to pursue music full-time. But Stanford didn't have a music performance program, so she took classes in music history and theory, continued her flute lessons, performed at every opportunity, and graduated with a B.A. in psychology. As is often the case in Grim's chosen field, her teacher's recommendation was instrumental in getting her noticed by a good music school. Eventually she earned a Master's and Doctorate in music at Yale.
Over dinner at the Waiting Room in Burlington, I ask Grim the necessary first question: "So, what is it, flutist or flautist?" She answers by quoting no less an authority than Sir James Galway: "I can't be a flautist, because I don't play the flaut." She's been asked this before.
And what does she think about being the poster girl for the Vermont Mozart Festival? She laughs, not totally unprepared for this question, either. When you access the Vermont Mozart Festival website, a photo of Grim is the first thing you see. Her face is turned away from the camera, and she holds her flute upright against her back, elegantly bare in a black, full-length evening dress. Click on this image, and you're taken to the main page, where you can see her from the front, playing her flute.
Grim has an appealing face --clear, open and expressive, with large brown eyes. But she doesn't seem at all vain about her good looks, and takes a pragmatic line about the attention they receive. "Classical music is struggling right now," she observes. "Musicians are very aware of the necessity of marketing. We're musicians, but we're performers, too. As performers, you can't afford to pay no attention to the image you project." Presenting attractive young faces is especially important in the field of classical music, she agrees, because the audience tends to skew old.
Like any professional musician, Grim spends a substantial amount of each day in practice. "You have to keep your chops up," she says. For flutists, this means maintaining the small muscles of the mouth, for good embouchure. She takes days off, and would like to do a little hiking while she's in Vermont, but shies away from more rigorous sporting activities. Grim is wary of injury. She tells the story of a guitar player she knows who insisted on playing basketball. His fingers got messed up shortly before a qualifying exam; he failed. In any event, recreation doesn't appear to be an option going into a weekend crowded with three performances and six rehearsals.
This year, the 130 musicians of the Vermont Mozart Festival are playing 22 concerts in 11 locations over three weeks. For them, the one fixed point in the still-moving world may very well be the rehearsal room of Elley-Long Hall, the Vermont Youth Orchestra's permanent home on the north campus of St. Michael's College. It is a very appealing space, perhaps a third longer than it is broad, with pale wooden floors, white walls and a raked acoustical ceiling. The musicians arrange their chairs in the center of the room and are bathed in natural light. The big room easily holds dozens of chairs -- not to mention a trio of kettle drums and a grand piano -- without feeling cramped.
Standard festival practice is to rehearse each concert twice: first on the afternoon before the concert, second on the morning of the performance. This tight schedule takes for granted the talent and professionalism of the musicians. "It's really a pick-up orchestra," notes William Metcalf, a founder of the festival and one of its conductors, "in the sense that it doesn't exist except at the festival."
A lot of the musicians work freelance in New York, so they're familiar with such a pace; they've got to be quick studies. Adds Eric Kenyon, director of operations for the festival and a regular rehearsal-goer: "With players of this caliber, you assume they're going to hit the right notes. Rehearsals are for working on transitions, adding polish." Fine tuning, so to speak.
Rehearsals are also where musicians work through the scores, and their parts in them. At the one I attend, the players in the 11-member Festival Wind and Brass Ensemble are arranged in a semi-circle to encourage interaction. Trumpeter Jim Duncan can't help noticing the annotations on Thornburg's score. "Why does your part say 'IQ'?" he wonders aloud. "It means 'I cue,'" Thornburg explains. Some of the questions are more widely directed. "Where's the pickup?" someone asks the company at large. It seems that rare thing, a committee working towards an interpretation --and reaching it.
Kaplan has special status, of course. When a piece without an oboe part is rehearsed, he withdraws just outside the circle and offers a guiding commentary. Of average height and build, Kaplan is nevertheless a quietly imposing figure. His long face and steel gray hair --frothed with white at the top, the sides, and on his chin --give him the distinguished look of an Old World professor. His eyes twinkle and his eyebrows crinkle with amusement, but one can easily imagine them coming together sternly.
Now, however, he's just a fellow artist, sharing the benefit of his practiced judgment and discerning ear. When he says of the flute part, "Jennifer, I hated the breath before the G-sharp," it is to alert, not rebuke, and is so understood.
Approached at rehearsals, the musicians tend to give the same answers about what draws them to the Vermont Mozart Festival, whether they've been coming for 15 years, like French horn player Sharon Moe, or are here for the first time, like violinist Victoria Parker.
Timpanist Rosina Cannizzaro has been with the orchestra for two years running, last year with her Burlington-native husband Nicola, who plays the same instrument as his wife. She articulates the appeal most concisely. "First of all, playing in the summer is great. But then in such a nice place! And with such fine musicians!" Tuba player Scott Mendoker, a first-year resident who teaches at Rutgers, gives an example. "When I heard we were going to play Brahms' Second Symphony with only 30," he says, "I thought, 'This will never work.' But the level of the musicianship is so high that it sounded great; you don't even notice."
I certainly didn't. But then, for most of us, the experience of the Mozart Festival is limited to enjoying concerts. Given the pleasure that affords, it's easy to see why we assume everything is happening just for us. But listening to these musicians, observing them at work, I come to realize how fully a festival like this is actually a thing made by, for and of musicians. It's their world. Luckily, for three weeks every summer, we get to live in it.