Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, February 24, 2018

NEW YORK – Music Mountain in northwestern Connecticut’s Falls Village is one of the best-kept secrets in a world with a panoply of summer music festivals. Founded 82 years ago by Jacques Gordon (1898-1948), a Russian emigré and for many years the Chicago Symphony’s first violinist, Music Mountain has been presenting the classical masterpieces of the chamber music catalogue performed by a dazzling array of first-class artists from around the world.

Set on a hilltop surrounded by 125 acres of meadows and the rolling hills of the Connecticut countryside, it is the perfect setting for a summer concert. It is also a welcoming venue for a preperformance picnic or twilight stroll. Music Mountain is a utopia for the musical connoisseur.

The concerts are given from June to September in Gordon Hall, a white clapboard building designed by Sears, Roebuck and Co., as are the four other buildings that house visiting artists and students that make up the Music Mountain compound. All the buildings are prefabricated, circa 1929, and were sent from the company in Chicago by train to Falls Village and assembled by local workers.

The festival opened on August 22, 1930, predating neighboring Tanglewood by seven years. Although its main mission is the teaching and playing of chamber music, in recent years Music Mountain has expanded its repertory to include sidebars of country, jazz and big band music for dancing.

Recently, I met the festival’s impresario, Nicholas Gordon, the son of its founder, for lunch at his New York club, The Century, on West 43rd Street. A spry and energetic 83-year-old, he quickly began talking about his two favorite topics: Music Mountain and chamber music.

Mr. Gordon believes the reason Music Mountain has lasted so long is that it has never strayed far from its founder’s original goals.

"Basically, we are still doing what my father was doing – the educating and performing the literature of chamber music," he said. "We are also a small operation; at tops, we draw an audience of 500 at a performance. Chamber music was written to be played to a small group of devotees in a intimate space, a living room or a salon, not a large hall.

"The other reason for our longevity is Music Mountain not a social destination, like, say, Tanglewood, the Metropolitan Opera or the big music, summer music festivals that crowd Europe. Our audiences come because they love our music and programming; they love our quartets, quintets, and trios. We give them the best music played by the best performers in the world."

Mr. Gordon admits if there is any secret to Music Mountain's success, it is the acoustics of Gordon Hall. "The hall is the treasure of the property," he says, "one of the great music halls in the United States. I know that's a strong statement, but I stand by it.

"My father worked with the Sears, Roebuck architect to have it designed like a violin. The hall is 100 feet or so long and 38 feet wide with paneling on its interior chamber with nothing but stain on it, no paint or varnish, so it can vibrate. The walls are hollow with no insulation. Below the floor, there is crawl space, which tapers from the back to the front of the house. What you have is a totally vibrating chamber; the ceiling is like the belly of a violin, giving the concertgoers the feeling that they are hearing the music from the inside of a violin."

Gordon Hall was air-conditioned five years ago, but on balmy afternoons and nights, Mr. Gordon opens the hall's French doors.

The festival was originally funded by six Chicago millionaires who, after the stock market crash of ’29, lost their fortunes. A short while later, Sears, Roebuck and Co., a major seminal investor, foreclosed on Music Mountain's mortgage. That is when the Falls Village community, led by a Mrs. N. Chandler Foot, the wife of a famous New York Hospital pathologist, came to the festival’s rescue. She went to area towns asking for donations from ordinary citizens and local businesses. When she had amassed enough funds, she traveled to Chicago and bought back the buildings and land from Sears, Roebuck. Since then, the festival has been run by the Gordon Music Association, a nonprofit entity. Mr. Gordon has been in charge since 1974.

Mr. Gordon has never forgotten the role the citizens of northwest Connecticut played in keeping Music Mountain alive. He strives to keep ticket prices down ($30 for adults; free for those under 18). In addition to teaching programs, when the community asked for more diversified programming, he listened, and added the other types of music. He also sponsors a variety outreach events, such as children's theater and a yearly local library fundraiser.

Music Mountain artists are available to play at Falls Village funerals, and Gordon Hall can be used for local memorial services. Before every performance, Mr. Gordon dons a red jacket and welcomes the audience.

Mr. Gordon totes a cane these days, which he says he will retire in October when a bum knee is scheduled to be replaced. Cearly, he has no intention of retiring from his Music Mountain domain, though.

"What happens to Music Mountain when I get caught?" he asks. "Well, I put my trust in God. My children don't have any interest in continuing Music Mountain. But, that doesn't bother me because I feel Music Mountain will survive because it's such a unique institution. Whoever succeeds me will be somebody who has the same love and understanding of chamber music that my father had and that I have."

Shortly thereafter, we said our goodbyes. Then, Mr. Gordon was out the door, heading toward Grand Central Station and the next train back to Music Mountain.

The concerts are given from June to September in Gordon Hall, a white clapboard building designed by Sears, Roebuck and Co., as are the four other buildings that house visiting artists and students that make up the Music Mountain compound. All the buildings are prefabricated, circa 1929, and were sent from the company in Chicago by train to Falls Village and assembled by local workers.

The festival opened on August 22, 1930, predating neighboring Tanglewood by seven years. Although its main mission is the teaching and playing of chamber music, in recent years Music Mountain has expanded its repertory to include sidebars of country, jazz and big band music for dancing.

Recently, I met the festival’s impresario, Nicholas Gordon, the son of its founder, for lunch at his New York club, The Century, on West 43rd Street. A spry and energetic 83-year-old, he quickly began talking about his two favorite topics: Music Mountain and chamber music.

Mr. Gordon believes the reason Music Mountain has lasted so long is that it has never strayed far from its founder’s original goals.

"Basically, we are still doing what my father was doing – the educating and performing the literature of chamber music," he said. "We are also a small operation; at tops, we draw an audience of 500 at a performance. Chamber music was written to be played to a small group of devotees in a intimate space, a living room or a salon, not a large hall.

"The other reason for our longevity is Music Mountain not a social destination, like, say, Tanglewood, the Metropolitan Opera or the big music, summer music festivals that crowd Europe. Our audiences come because they love our music and programming; they love our quartets, quintets, and trios. We give them the best music played by the best performers in the world."

Mr. Gordon admits if there is any secret to Music Mountain's success, it is the acoustics of Gordon Hall. "The hall is the treasure of the property," he says, "one of the great music halls in the United States. I know that's a strong statement, but I stand by it.

"My father worked with the Sears, Roebuck architect to have it designed like a violin. The hall is 100 feet or so long and 38 feet wide with paneling on its interior chamber with nothing but stain on it, no paint or varnish, so it can vibrate. The walls are hollow with no insulation. Below the floor, there is crawl space, which tapers from the back to the front of the house. What you have is a totally vibrating chamber; the ceiling is like the belly of a violin, giving the concertgoers the feeling that they are hearing the music from the inside of a violin."

Gordon Hall was air-conditioned five years ago, but on balmy afternoons and nights, Mr. Gordon opens the hall's French doors.

The festival was originally funded by six Chicago millionaires who, after the stock market crash of ’29, lost their fortunes. A short while later, Sears, Roebuck and Co., a major seminal investor, foreclosed on Music Mountain's mortgage. That is when the Falls Village community, led by a Mrs. N. Chandler Foot, the wife of a famous New York Hospital pathologist, came to the festival’s rescue. She went to area towns asking for donations from ordinary citizens and local businesses. When she had amassed enough funds, she traveled to Chicago and bought back the buildings and land from Sears, Roebuck. Since then, the festival has been run by the Gordon Music Association, a nonprofit entity. Mr. Gordon has been in charge since 1974.

Mr. Gordon has never forgotten the role the citizens of northwest Connecticut played in keeping Music Mountain alive. He strives to keep ticket prices down ($30 for adults; free for those under 18). In addition to teaching programs, when the community asked for more diversified programming, he listened, and added the other types of music. He also sponsors a variety outreach events, such as children's theater and a yearly local library fundraiser.

Music Mountain artists are available to play at Falls Village funerals, and Gordon Hall can be used for local memorial services. Before every performance, Mr. Gordon dons a red jacket and welcomes the audience.

Mr. Gordon totes a cane these days, which he says he will retire in October when a bum knee is scheduled to be replaced. Cearly, he has no intention of retiring from his Music Mountain domain, though.

"What happens to Music Mountain when I get caught?" he asks. "Well, I put my trust in God. My children don't have any interest in continuing Music Mountain. But, that doesn't bother me because I feel Music Mountain will survive because it's such a unique institution. Whoever succeeds me will be somebody who has the same love and understanding of chamber music that my father had and that I have."

Shortly thereafter, we said our goodbyes. Then, Mr. Gordon was out the door, heading toward Grand Central Station and the next train back to Music Mountain.

For scheduling information and directions, go to www.musicmountain.org or call (860) 824-7126.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment. 

.