MARLBORO, Vt. — The sheet of paper on the chairs at the concert on the afternoon of July 31 said, “Marlboro Music, Public Concert VII.” It named heart-of-the-repertoire chamber music: duos by Vaughan Williams and Schubert, and a famous Dvořák trio. No premiere, small chamber work, or even a quartet. With $1 lemonade under a tree (no paths on the lawn) and no food stand or phone reception, it screamed “insiders only.”
But this concert was sold out, just like major-venue concerts by James Taylor or Yo-Yo Ma. Old people (which they mostly were) stood patiently in line for up to an hour, waiting for general-admission seats.
Last year Marlboro Music — not to be called a festival — celebrated its 70th anniversary. Rudolf Serkin was originally offered the southern Vermont property for his summer use, and beginning in 1951, he headed the program, offering the place to musicians — alone or with families — as a study center the rest of the year. He directed its beginnings with his father-in-law, Adolf Busch, who died in 1952. Other giants of the past were around: Pablo Casals, Marcel Moyse, Alexander Schneider. Young emerging professionals worked and performed with well-known performers, and still do.
Since 2018, Marlboro Music has been headed by pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Jonathan Biss, who decide which pieces are ready to be heard at the two or three weekend concerts. Listeners have a few days’ notice at most, and attend concerts largely on faith.
The wooden concert hall has extensions with windows and cushioned folding chairs. Pieces and artists are listed, welcome word sheets attached; there are no performer bios and no program notes. You can look them up.
This concert began with Vaughan Williams’ acutely English Along the Field from 1927, revised in 1954. The music closely follows the text in a straightforward gray-blue setting, without decoration, complex note patterns, or repeats. Whether or not it matches the words of six typical snarky A.E. Housman poems is a matter of taste. There is no strolling off into the sunset or lark ascending. Hopeful lovers usually get dumped, or worse: “But she shall lie with earth above, And he beside another love” or “Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty–‘Good-bye, young man, good-bye.’”
The next piece was Schubert’s Rondo in A major, D. 951. Schubert wrote so copiously for four-hand piano that the plump Peters edition Volume One holds only his early teenage years — eons away, musically, from his late teenage years. His juvenile pieces range up to 25 pages, hardly venturing out of the tonic key, and no one could have predicted that the composer of those banal melodies would in his last year of life create the F minor Fantasia and the A major Rondo, pinnacles of the literature.
Uchida, playing bass and pedaling, and Biss took the late Rondo seriously, sinking into it with an unusual weight of tone. It was not the friendly fumbling of amateur players, and its heft might not suit all listeners, but many found it highly emotional. I must have imagined that Uchida teared up at the end, but she wouldn’t have been alone.
The last work was Dvořák’s beloved Piano Trio in E minor (Dumky), a sequence of short Ukrainian-inflected movements, a couple of them little hopping folk melodies, some in major, some in minor. Its plaintive wails of wordless verse explode into gypsy music — klezmer, in fact — and slide back, as if reminded that melancholy is more appropriate. Its wild richness is no surprise: It was proofread by Brahms.
The audience felt and understood that musicians were combining seriousness with a joyfully good time. It was a moving experience, and these concertgoers, as they have for years, would drive up Potash Hill the next weekend for two more concerts, and the following weekend for three.
Marlboro Music continues through Aug. 14. For tickets and information, go here.