by Fred Baumgarten*
Weeks after most other summer music festivals have wrapped, Music Mountain continues well up to the cusp of autumn.
Music Mountain is one of the longest-running summer classical music festivals in the world – longer than Marlboro, Mostly Mozart, Aspen, and Tanglewood. Now concluding its 89th year, Music Mountain was founded in 1930 by Jacques Gordon for his string quartet, which had relocated from Chicago. It is located on a wooded mountaintop (yes, Music Mountain) in Falls Village, Connecticut, the foothills of the Berkshires. The bucolic campus, including the custom-built concert hall, was erected from designs in the Sears Catalog, the parts shipped by rail, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 16-week season, under the guidance of artistic director Oskar Espina-Ruiz, has featured string quartets from around the world including the Escher, Penderecki, St. Petersburg, Harlem, Shanghai, and Avalon. The string quartet is the bread and butter of Music Mountain, the vision of Jacques Gordon and his son Nicholas, who led the festival until his death last year at age 88.
Espina-Ruiz is a hyperactive, peripatetic musician whose portfolio also includes running the Treetops Chamber Music Society in Fairfield, Connecticut, performing as a clarinetist, and teaching the instrument at the University of North Carolina. I reached him by phone on one of his madcap dashes to the Tar Heel State.
“I’m very excited about our final concerts,” he says in his slightly breathless, Spanish-inflected baritone. “We have the final offering of the complete Beethoven cycle of string quartets by the Shanghai Quartet.” That’s a bit like winning tennis’s Grand Slam in a single year. On September 9, the Shanghai will play three late quartets, which Espina-Ruiz says, were “boundary-breaking.”
“Beethoven let the music guide the form, when composers before him were deriving the music from the form. Thus you have pieces with seven movements, or something like the Grosse Fugue (a part of Beethoven’s Opus 130 that was later published as a freestanding work). “The Grosse Fugue takes the form to its maximum – 17 minutes of incredibly dense music – a massive fugue.”
Interestingly, Beethoven’s final quartet and last major work, Opus 135 (also on the program), is “180 degrees” from Opus 130; it’s a look back at his earlier oeuvre with some humor and lightness, says Espina-Ruiz. The last movement bears the curious inscription, “The Difficult Resolution,” and then the words, “Must it be?” and “It must be!” Espina-Ruiz favors one theory (among several) that this was not Beethoven signaling some kind of life and death struggle, but merely a semi-humorous pep talk to himself to finish the piece and turn it in to the publisher.
The following Sunday, September 16, features the highly-regarded American String Quartet in its Music Mountain debut. First violinist Peter Winograd was a resident teacher for a week at the Music Mountain Academy, which trains an international cohort of aspiring young musicians. The program includes quartets by Haydn and Shostakovich, and, with the help of renowned pianist Robert McDonald, the romantic Dvorak piano quintet. McDonald is on the faculty of Juilliard and the Curtis Institute and has accompanied the likes of Isaac Stern and Midori.
An all-Mozart program wraps up the season on September 23 with the Ariel Quartet playing two late Mozart string quartets. For the finale, Espina-Ruiz joins the ensemble for the superb Clarinet Quintet, one of the first chamber works to feature clarinet. “Mozart was inspired by Austrian clarinetist Anton Stadler, who was still developing the instrument at the time, and the quintet actually was written for a special instrument, the basset clarinet, which had a lower range than the modern clarinet, down to a low C,” Espina-Ruiz explains.
The result, in this critic’s opinion, is one of the most heartfelt and ethereal pieces ever written – the spiritual godfather, as it were, to Brahms’ sublime Clarinet Quintet, one of his last works, written just more than a century later than Mozart’s.
Music Mountain is located at 225 Music Mountain Road in Falls Village, Conn. Sunday chamber concerts begin at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $60 for the Shanghai/Beethoven, with a reception following the concert, and $35 for the last two weekends: www.musicmountain.org, or call (860) 824-7126. Music Mountain also has jazz “Twilight Concerts” on Saturday evenings at 6:30 pm: the Bridge Trio on Sept. 8, the Roxy Coss Quintet on Sept. 15, and Bert Seager and The Why Not on Sept. 22. Tickets are $30.
* Fred Baumgarten has written on music for Berkshire On Stage and serves on the board of managers of Music Mountain.