Combine young musicians close to beginning their professional careers with seasoned mentors and an audience of music lovers for an intense two-week “boot camp.” What do you get? A creative combustion called the National Music Festival.
The annual event is June 2-15 in Chestertown and Kent County on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore, less than a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C.
“The energy that the young musicians bring to it [the festival] is one of the most compelling things about it,” said Caitlin Patton, the event’s executive director.
She explained that the student apprentices are passionate about their budding careers and eager to impress their mentors. The mentors, who must “stay on their toes,” are reinvigorated by the process.
“It makes for a really different atmosphere,” she said.
The bonus is that 35 concerts and 200 rehearsals are open to the public. Last year, the festival drew some 4,000 attendees over the two-week period.
The repertoire is largely classical music, such as Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D” and Beethoven’s “Mass in C,” but there are also other types of music and “off-the-wall” pieces, such as a funny rendition of H. K. Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!”
Presentations range from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral works, plus choral and chamber opera. Venues include churches, theaters, art galleries and local businesses, including an auto-repair garage. The largest venue is Decker Theatre at Washington College.
Patton said her husband Richard Rosenberg, the festival’s artistic director, has “a gift for programming,” and he puts together unusual combinations of music that make the experience “exciting and new.”
The apprentices and mentors play side by side at concerts and the technical quality is high, according to Patton.
“If you close your eyes you wouldn’t know they’re young musicians in the orchestra. The quality is equal to any regional orchestra,” she said.
Chestertown, a historic town of about 5,000 residents on the Chester River, swells with visitors during the festival and there is an air of excitement.
“It’s the best two weeks of the year in Chestertown,” said Sandy Ryon, an enthusiastic festival supporter. “It takes over the town.”
She said musicians, carrying their instruments, roam the streets, and music can be heard flowing from windows.
She laughed that she had overheard one concert-goer say, “See, honey, we don’t have to go to the Kennedy Center and worry about parking!”
Fine-tuning their craft
The festival employs 30 world-class musicians to mentor 110 student apprentices, usually college or graduate students whose average age is 22. The participants hail from about 30 states and 15 countries. Apprentices, who are chosen through competitive applications, receive scholarships and stay in private homes.
The young musicians basically just need some fine-tuning as they transition from students to professionals.
“They’re [the apprentices] not coming here to learn where to put their fingers, but to wrap their heads around getting their first job,” Rosenberg tells visitors to the festival website.
A number of past apprentices have gone on to jobs with symphony orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestras.
New this year is a voice apprenticeship.
Rosenberg, who has conducted orchestras around the world, serves as the principal festival orchestra conductor. Patton, who plays the violin and viola and is an Eastern Shore native, expects to perform a bit with the orchestra and chorale. Both will serve as mentors for the festival they founded in 2010.
The festival is the flagship of the nonprofit OuterArts Maryland Inc., which also sponsors community and youth programming through the year. Funding comes from donations and ticket sales.
A $250 festival pass allows access to all ticketed events. Single passes, usually $15 or $20, can be purchased for individual programs. All rehearsals are free. Visit the festival website for details on schedules and tickets.
Some visitors enjoy the behind-the-scenes action, watching the evolution of a performance from rehearsal to polished concert. Families like to introduce their children to music at the less-formal rehearsals. Pre-concert talks offer educational insights.
Patton said the orchestra is “the heart of our program.” She suggests that if your festival time is limited, attend an orchestra concert, held on Friday and Saturday both weekends. Chamber music lovers may want to duck into rehearsals during the week.
Patton recommends booking lodging in advance. Several hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are available.
“The community has been so incredibly welcoming,” said Patton, adding the festival gives the area a big economic boost.
The Kent County Visitors Center at 122 N. Cross St. is a good resource for information on the area’s museums, theaters, art galleries and antique stores, as well as shopping, dining and outdoor recreational opportunities. Chestertown is the county seat of picturesque Kent County, which borders the Chesapeake Bay. (kentcounty.com/tourism).
What: National Music Festival
When: June 2-15
Where: Kent County, Md.