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Faces of the Arts: National Music Festival and how Chestertown becomes a classical music beacon each spring

May 27, 2016 12:54PM ● By Cate Reynolds
We speak with Artistic Director Richard Rosenberg and Executive Director Caitlin Patton, among many others, who orchestrate Chestertown’s largest arts festival.

By Margie Elsberg // Photography courtesy National Music Festival

It’s spring in Chestertown, Maryland. The Farmers’ Market is packed with salad greens, annuals, and a swarm of locals; coxswains are on the Chester River, still in long sleeves, urging rowers to quicken the pace; and in Wilmer Park, bocce enthusiasts are at it again.

It’s May. This historic Eastern Shore town is warming up and the East Coast’s best-kept classical music secret—the highly acclaimed National Music Festival (NMF)—is only one month away.

Advanced students and veteran musicians from the U.S. and around the world, in orchestras, universities, and conservatories, are finishing seasons and semesters and thinking ahead to June. Some already are working on compositions they’ll play in Chestertown.

A few musicians are yet to be selected, so some NMF mentors, the professionals who select student apprentices to fill their sections, are still reviewing audition tapes. They know the quality of the National Music Festival depends on their choices.

Meanwhile, choruses in Frederick, Philadelphia, and Chestertown have been rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth, “The Choral,” since April. Liane Hansen (National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday host for more than 18 years) is at home in Rehoboth, Delaware, practicing the narration for “Tubby the Tuba.”

You can almost hear the Festival Brass rehearsing the opening fanfare.

But if the seconds-long cacophony of a pre-performance tune-up seems untamable to audience newcomers, the year-long medley of orchestral moving parts—decisions about music, mentors, apprentice musicians, venues, programs, marketing, tickets, housing, donor events, website content, rehearsal snacks, and more—is nothing short of Byzantine.

And it all rests on the artistry and craftsmanship of two people: Richard Rosenberg and Caitlin Patton.

Rosenberg is the artistic director; Patton is the executive director, and between the two, they have all the qualifications and experience that musicians and audiences could hope for.

Bernstein, von Karajan, and the great French conducting teacher Paul Vermel taught Rosenberg how to conduct. He’s led orchestras in the U.S., Europe, and South America for years, and before starting the National Music Festival, he founded and directed the Hot Springs Music Festival in Arkansas for 15 seasons.

Patton, meanwhile, graduated from Washington College at 19 (yes, 19) and took a festival apprenticeship in orchestra management on a whim. “I didn’t know what orchestra management was!” she laughs, then lists her jobs since then: production crew at Tanglewood, orchestra manager at Spoleto, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony’s first executive director. She fell in love with Rosenberg at the Hot Springs festival and by the time they were married, they knew they would create a festival of their own.

This festival would be the one that had been brewing in Rosenberg’s head for years.

Inspiration

The first time Rosenberg conducted, the music came from a gramophone in his great aunt’s apartment. His brother Philip, now with NMF, led the orchestra, standing on a leather hassock and waving a chopstick.

“I did the same,” Rosenberg says, “usually to ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ by Edward Grieg.”

When he was a student at Christopher Columbus High in the Bronx, he decided to wave a stick at others.

“I was admitted into the Artista League and I assembled a small orchestra for the induction ceremony.” Philip Rosenberg played the clarinet in the ensemble of 30 friends; they prepared a program that included Handel’s “Water Music” and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger Overture.”

“I used a white wooden baton that was longer than I was tall,” Richard says, amused. “I arrived in front of the orchestra and immediately dropped the baton. When I bent down to retrieve it, I caused a cascade of crashing music stands and sheet music.”

Philip says it was like watching a Jerry Lewis sketch.

But for Richard Rosenberg, his debut ended in triumph. “Nonetheless,” he says. “We played respectably and I was smitten.”

Today, he’s still smitten, and directing the six-year old festival in Chestertown—already a musical, educational, and financial success—thoroughly delights him.

“I first saw the need to create a music festival at a music festival,” Rosenberg recalls. He had been a student at the Aspen, Colorado, festival for two summers, studying with Paul Vermel. He applied for a third summer, but instead was invited to become Aspen’s first paid assistant conductor. It was a great—but expensive—opportunity.

“In spite of the salary and because the costs were so astronomical to reside there, I was forced to sell my upright piano to afford the employment.”

That’s when Rosenberg decided that one day, he would create a festival “that would allow dedicated, qualified students to learn their craft without having to hock their future.”

Foundation

At home in Kent County on a small farm in Galena, where Patton nurses rescued horses back to health, Rosenberg talks about his festival.

He calls his young musicians “apprentices” because they’re nearly ready to launch careers, and true to the vow he made at Aspen, they pay neither tuition nor room and board. All are chosen solely on skill.

The faculty members, called “mentors,” perform side-by-side with the apprentices they’ve selected—a significant break with festivals where faculty concerts are expensive and student performances are cut-rate.

In contrast, NMF’s 200 rehearsals are free to attend, performance tickets are $20 or less, and the musicians are onstage together. Rosenberg says the seating arrangement raises the bar.

“Sitting next to mentors forces apprentices to play at the very highest level. It also forces the mentors to play at the highest level. They know that the apprentice in the next chair is, in two years, going to kick their butt.”

With mentors a seat away during rehearsals, apprentices get instant feedback and can ask for fingering tips on complicated passages. Mentors also offer career advice and are encouraged to stay in touch.

“At most festivals,” Rosenberg says, “students go away and never hear from their teachers again.”

The Program

The National Music Festival will run from June 5th to 18th at a blistering real-world pace, usually giving apprentices three days to rehearse instead of the three weeks or three months they’ve had at school. Richard posted the 2016 programs on the website last fall and the range of music is staggering, from Mozart and Mendelsohn to Prokofiev and Stravinsky. There will be concertos for oboe, for bassoon, and for violin (Tchaikovsky), a suite for orchestra and banjo, an evening called “Piano Mania,” and one devoted to Dixieland.

The centerpiece of the festival will be Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Choral,” generally considered his greatest work. The orchestra and chorus will perform The Choral in Chestertown on June 10th and in Philadelphia the following afternoon.

“I program music that apprentices need to get into their fingers in order to take auditions,” Rosenberg says. “Secondly, I program music that will attract an audience, and also—because Caitlin and I spend much of our time raising money and doing administrative things—it has to be music we want to hear.”

Preparation

The winter plods on in Kent County, and while farmers fix combines and watermen mend nets, Caitlin is in touch with her personnel manager, Michael Sawzin.

Sawzin sends recruitment letters to music schools in December, then reviews every apprentice application. He gives mentors online audition addresses, mostly on YouTube, so they can decide which applicants they will accept.

Long and lean, with a great smile, Sawzin was a saxophone apprentice in 2012, an administrative apprentice in 2013, then landed the personnel job in 2014.

He says the hardest part is sending rejection letters to about half of the young musicians who apply (“We only need three flutes”) but the best part springs from Rosenberg and Patton’s commitment to keep room and board free—their decision to ask locals to house both apprentices and mentors as guests.

Sawzin loves working with the hosts.

“This welcoming community is the most priceless thing,” he says. “It isn’t anything we can force; it just happens. The hosts want to be there when their musicians play, and what’s become the signature of the festival is that the relationship is a genuine catalyst that moves the musicians to perform at their highest level. You can feel the musicians wanting to give the audience their best.”

 

Connections

Matthew Michener has been an NMF apprentice for two years, playing side-by-side with the percussion mentor, Michelle Humphries. When we talked to him in December, he was hoping to return for a third season, in great part because of the music he’d get to play.

A native of Memphis, Michener says his mother made all her kids take piano lessons when they were three or four (“We called Thursdays piano torture day”). He learned to play drums when he was 10 or 11 (“I wanted to play guitar but they didn’t teach it”), joined the drum line in high school but got disgusted because it felt as if no one else was practicing.

He joined the all-state orchestra and went to festivals in Tennessee and Tanglewood where “everyone sounded great” so he decided to major in music in college.

A friend at Boston University told Michener about “a festival in this adorable little town” that offered fellowships to everyone. Humphries accepted him by email and contacted him again about three weeks before the festival was to start.

She asked Michener if he wanted to learn the vibraphone solo for “Escapade,” a John Williams score for the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can that includes a saxophone-vibraphone duet.

“I later found out the vibraphone was going to be pulled out in front of the orchestra,” Michener says. “Having to put it together in only three weeks made it feel like a really professional gig, but that’s how I was going to have to perform in the real world, so I said, ‘Sure.’”

Michener pauses. “It wasn’t flawless, but it was pretty darn close.”

That first summer, he performed in all four orchestra concerts (he lists the compositions as if it happened yesterday) and loved the mentor-apprentice relationship.

“It’s kind of comforting to know that there’s a professional right next to you,” Michener says. “You can look at her, you can watch how she’s approaching her instrument, and you can ask what articulations would she use, what sticks would she use, is she playing louder? I watch how she’s blending her sound with the ensemble and I try to do the same.”

Humphries has been an NMF mentor for five years and she clearly thinks the apprentice-mentor system is pure genius.

“There is no amount of talking or explaining that can convey what it’s like to play side-by-side with the apprentices,” she says. “There is an intimacy about making music together which opens the possibility to a deeper kind of learning and expression.”

Coda

When the festival is only a couple of weeks—then days—away, Rosenberg, Patton, and Board Chair Sandy Ryon supervise as everything that’s been in the works for months slips into place. They join the NMF staffers and a supporting army of volunteers who have all shifted into purposeful overdrive.

They put up banners and posters, edit and print the Festival Program, set up the NMF headquarters at the Chestertown Visitors Center, finalize housing lists, distribute travel schedules to drivers who fetch musicians at airports and train stations, make sure restaurants will stay open for post-concert meals, and survey nearly 20 venues to ensure that seating, lighting, sound equipment, and oversize instruments will be in place and work perfectly for all 200 rehearsals and nearly 30 concerts.

And if that’s not enough, a battalion of hospitality volunteers is ready to bake, cook, and serve meals, receptions, and a mid-festival picnic for early arrivers, season pass holders, donors, and musicians. What’s more, they will bake homemade cookies day after day to go with bottled water and salty snacks for 150 musicians during breaks at every orchestra rehearsal.

Says Hospitality Chair Bonnie Keating, “We do the best we can, but they come out of the rehearsals like a hoard of locusts, and suddenly everything is gone.”

At last, it’s June 5th.

The musicians have arrived. They’ve met their hosts and mentors, gone to the orientation session, picked up their music, and begun to rehearse. Everyone is excited and everyone is ready.

The National Music Festival has begun.