NEW YORK – A unique, 84-year-old music festival, set on a leafy green hilltop in the northwestern Connecticut town of Falls Village, celebrates the wonders of the classical string quartet.
Called Music Mountain, it features an array of classical works by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, played by a brilliant assemblage of distinguished contemporary musicians, every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon from mid-June to after Labor Day.
Its artistic maestro, Nick Gordon, whose father Jacques began the festival in the 1930s, puts together a hand-picked repertoire. Because I hadn’t spoken to Mr. Gordon in a couple of years, I called him one recent Sunday morning to see how things are progressing at Music Mountain.
Mr. Gordon, who is about the same age as the festival, exhibits the vigor and enthusiasm of a man half his calendar years. He immediately launched into thinking out loud about the festival and his artistic sensibilities:
“Attendance is up; donations are fine. People come to Music Mountain for one reason only, and that is to enjoy the music. They want to hear artists who they know will be very good and they want to hear music they like.
“They are not interested in hearing new works or listening to the latest composer on the block. Beethoven is a favorite. Shostakovich, they are beginning to enjoy. Each year I look to the past for a point of view. You just can’t reach into a basket and say, ‘We will do Haydn this year.’ You have to have some overriding theme.
“One year, we did the first and last compositions of composers. Mozart was a genius, but his first compositions at age 15 and last are like night and day.
“There is a huge amount of music by great composers that gets shoved under the rug, which I try to uncover. Franz Schubert was one of the greatest composers that ever lived, and everything he touched was beautiful. Yet everyone plays the quartet ‘Death and the Maiden.’ But there are a lot of compositions of his that aren’t heard, and on Sunday, July 21, we are playing his ‘Adagio and Rondo Concertante,’ which is seldom played. Then we will end the program with ‘Death and the Maiden.’ So the audience gets two tastes of Schubert. We will be mixing things up like that with a lot of composers this year.”
Mr. Gordon said his broad knowledge of classical string quartet music was garnered from his father.
“I grew up listening to this stuff,” he said. “I spent my childhood hearing my father teach quartets to students every evening from June to September.”
The young Mr. Gordon also played the cello. “My father was of the violin tradition that you had to stand up and practice. I didn’t want to do that, so I waited until I was 12 and could sit down and play the cello,” he said. “I was not a very good cellist and I stopped playing after I finished college and went to work.”
His father had come from Odessa in 1914, just before World War I broke out, arriving with his violin in hand. Once in New York, Jacques Gordon lied about his age and got a job playing in the orchestra at the Capital Theater. He studied with Franz Kneiler at the Institute of Musical Art, later called Juilliard.
At 21, he became the country’s youngest concertmaster at the Chicago Symphony and began the Gordon String Quartet. He, his wife, their son Nick and a brother relocated in summertime to Falls Village in 1930 and began giving concerts.
The concerts are performed 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 long, narrow concert building looks like a violin, and its rich pine interior gives the music an impeccable acoustical quality.
Mr. Gordon’s father died in 1938, but the concerts continued. Nick Gordon was an executive at NBC radio and television until 1969, when he was asked to help with fund-raising.
He started running Music Mountain in 1975 and has been a constant presence ever since.
He has seen some changes in musicians over the years.
“Things have changed in some ways,” he said. “I adore the young cellist Matt Haimowitz, but 30 years ago, someone like him would never play anywhere except in a recital or music hall. Today, they are in bars, clubs, the beach or in Carnegie Hall. They will play anywhere to be heard, and find audiences everywhere. The trouble is that a lot of these venues have terrible acoustics and don’t do much for the musician.”
Of current musicians, he said, “I think the good ones are just fine. There are people who say they are better, which I don’t think is necessarily true. They are learning from a previous generation. The only way you can learn classical music is to practice, practice, practice.”
Mr. Gordon said Music Mountain focuses on one kind of music. Sidebar performances of Gilbert and Sullivan, jazz, big bands, cabaret, country and folk music, all funded by private donors, help pay the bills.
Tickets to Music Mountain chamber concerts are $35 at the door and free to anyone 18 or younger who is accompanied by a ticket-holder.
Mr. Gordon said people are welcome to talk to him at concerts.
“If somebody is looking for me, look for the guy in the red jacket,” he said. If you run into him, he would be glad to hear your thoughts.
Information is available at www.musicmountain.org or 860-824-7126.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.