NEW YORK – Music Mountain, one of the cultural wonders of northwestern Connecticut, is in the middle of its 86th season and is still thriving. Located on 125 verdant acres at the top of a mountain road in Falls Village, it is a unique, reasonably priced, live music experience. It is unlike most festivals and not overwhelmingly commercial, as is, say, Tanglewood.
Music Mountain began long ago in the Depression days, opening on Aug. 16, 1931, when Jacques Gordon (1899-1948), who had come from Odessa, Russia, during World War I and became the youngest violin player with the Chicago Symphony, happened on vacation upon this bucolic area with his wife and young son Nicholas.
Here he decided to set up a string quartet festival to entertain summer visitors and to provide master classes for music students. This dual purpose of diversion and study has been a constant philosophy that has successfully ruled Music Mountain over all these decades. Sears & Roebuck in Chicago created and sent the four pre-fab houses, which house musicians and students; as well as the concert facility, Gordon Hall, which is shaped like a violin. Local Falls Village residents of the period assembled the buildings.
Nicholas Gordon grew up and replaced his dad as majordomo of Music Mountain, and since 1975 it has been his 365-day-a-year occupation. Mr. Gordon, who is 87, is president of the festival, and this year he hired the fourth Music Mountain musical director, Jonathan Yates, who has played many times in Gordon Hall. More recently, Mr. Yates headed the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra and Norwalk’s Youth Symphony Orchestra.
I spoke to Mr. Yates about his new position when he was in town from Falls Village recently.
“What is wonderful about working at Music Mountain is what Nick and his father have established,” he said.
“I feel I am building on some timeless foundation. The first thing Nick wanted me to tackle was the master class education courses. We talked about how we could expand the experience and make it work for today’s musicians. We upped the teaching program from two to eight weeks with 42 students and 27 music teachers and mentors. The students came from music schools all over the country. For eight weeks, there were lots of strings playing and piano music in the hills of Music Mountain. Nick said it was the biggest class of students at Music Mountain since 1939.
“For audiences, I am going to start to do post-concert chats,” he went on. “To me, music is the most mysterious of the arts. It is nothing like ballet, film, theater or painting. Even [with] a painter like Jackson Pollock, an abstract expressionist, you can still look at his work and somehow figure it out and what he’s trying to say. Most people are inherently visual, and music is not like that. Music is all about listening, and the notes are what the composer is saying. Hopefully, in these talks, it will help the audience to listen to music in a new way.”
Mr. Yates, who like Mr. Gordon is from Chicago, is in his late 30s. He said he has been making musical sounds since he was a baby.
“My mother said when I was a baby, I would howl in the back seat of the car, and that’s when she knew I would be a musician. At 6, I started to take piano lessons, and by 11, I was taking lessons with a local Chicago teacher, Eloise Polk, who specialized in Beethoven,” he said.
He went on to Harvard, working with Robert Levin, and at 22, after graduating, he headed the music department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He has played with some of the finest musicians of his time, including Midori Goto, Gidon Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma and Peter Serkin.
“Music Mountain has always been an innovative place,” Mr. Yates said. “Some people might even call it eclectic. They mix things up with the classical and pop: one night it’s a Ravel sonata and the next is the Galvanized Jazz Band with dancing. That has always been the DNA of the festival, from Jacques to Nick to today. We just have to keep ferreting it out, it is all there. We just have to keep nurturing Music Mountain’s potential and its individuality.”
To find out more about Music Mountain schedules, go to www. musicmountain.org or call the box office at 860-824-7126.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.