The Nostalgia and Excitement of a Summer Music Festival

May 9, 2019

by Peter Oundjian, Music Director

I can’t wait to be in the throes of a summer festival again. It’s one of my absolute favourite things about spending a life as a classical musician, and it’s something that’s been missing from my life for too long. Summer programs and festivals have had a profound impact on my career path, my friendships, and my journey through life, and the Colorado Music Festival is a bright new chapter in a big book that had begun to gather some dust.

After a long season of making music with our home teams, many musicians take the opportunity to get out of town for a while and join a new squad for the summer. Kids everywhere go off to camp for a month or two in the summer. The best part about it is that it’s not like school at all; there’s a wonderful informality at camp. The frightening speed of summer injects an immediate collegial atmosphere into camp life. You become nostalgic about it long before it’s even over, and you hold on to every day a little more tightly.

Summer festivals have very much the same feeling.

The same instant, urgent bond tends to naturally take hold of a group of people who get to share a wonderful thing together for only a few weeks. There’s the same freshness, the same spontaneity, the same reminder that everything is temporary, that this summer is soon going to be another summer you’ll never get to live again.

I grew up playing the violin, and had a career as a chamber musician before turning to conducting in the mid-1990s. I may not have had the opportunity to do so if not for the connections I made at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, a festival I cherish as much as any musical place in my memory. But every summer of my life spent playing at grown-up band camps is special in its own way, and it started almost 50 years ago.

When I was in high school in England, I spent a summer at my first music camp. It was in Petworth, West Sussex, an idyllic little town of not more than a couple thousand people. It presented an opportunity to make music with people from all over the south of England — people who were like me, and who had spent their young lives committing themselves to the same craft.

My experience at Petworth gave me a craving that has remained with me ever since. A few years later, I was studying at the Juilliard School and was invited to Meadowmount, a famous festival for string players in upstate New York for the summer of 1976. This was a more focused environment than I had at Petworth. We’d perform both chamber music and solo pieces every week. Meadowmount created a truly collegial environment among young musicians — everybody understood each others’ nerves and anxieties. When it was your turn to step on stage, you felt a huge wave of support. It brought out the best in us. It reminded us why we were spending our days chasing a career in the craft we took up as children.

The following summer, I attended Chamber Music West in San Francisco. The festival’s founder, Milton Salkind, became a lifelong friend. Chamber Music West was different in that it combined students from top programs in the country with well-renowned artists from all over the world to form each chamber group. This was the first festival with which I developed a lasting relationship. I attended Chamber Music West for four straight summers (’77-’80), and returned twice in the ’80s as a member of the Tokyo String Quartet.

The Tokyo String Quartet brought me to a slew of summer festivals. In 1985, we attended the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Kuhmo, Finland, a small town near the Russian border. I made so many dear friends in such a short period of time, many of whom I am still performing with today. My memory often tricks me into thinking I must have spent longer than a week there — possibly because the sun never sets in that part of Finland in July.

I mentioned the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, which is a summer getaway in Litchfield, Connecticut under the auspices of the Yale School of Music. I have been teaching at Yale for 38 years, and Norfolk was such a perfect place to connect with students in a relaxed, informal environment. We played all day, had huge barbecues together in the late afternoons, and supported each others’ performances come nighttime. I spent 14 years with the Tokyo String Quartet, and we attended Norfolk during every single summer of my time with them.

It was at Norfolk where I met Howard Herring, who was the Associate Director of Chamber Music America at the time. We became close very quickly, and he was the first person I confided in about feeling I had to stop my violin career. It was 1994 and I was beginning to accept that I was no longer to play at the same level due to a repetitive stress injury I had sustained in my left hand.

Soon after that, Howard took over as the Executive Director of the Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts. He and Andre Previn gave me my first opportunity as a conductor just one month after I closed the book on my violin career in the summer of 1995. Within two years, I succeeded Andre as Music Director at Caramoor. This became one of the foundations of my conducting career, and it was the first place I got to create programs and curate entire summers of music. I am forever grateful to Howard and Andre, and to Caramoor and Norfolk.

Since I left Caramoor in 2003, I’ve performed at many summer festivals, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. But I haven’t been intimately involved with one in over 15 years — I haven’t had a chance to fulfill that craving. I’ve missed it immensely, and as the summer nears, I’m starting to get that same ball of excitement in my stomach that I used to get before all of those summers that have altered the course of my life so beautifully.

The wonderful thing about a summer festival is that you move to a new town and get to experience living in that community for a little while. You become a small part of the place, and in turn, the place becomes a part of your identity and a part of your growth. I will hold all of these places very close to my heart for the rest of my life. The opportunity to develop close relationships to the Colorado Music Festival and the city of Boulder is very meaningful to me. And amidst all this reflection and nostalgia, I feel tremendous excitement for what’s to come!

I hope to see you this summer at Colorado Music Festival, the new focus of my passion for summer festivals!

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