An Observation of 43 Years of Success at the Taos (NM) School of Music
by Dorothy Kitchen*
Chilton Anderson, the founder of the Taos School of Music, says he doesn't "care if [the students] become known soloists – just that they continue the art and do something meaningful wherever they are to further music." This straightforward and simple artistic purpose underlies the activities and philosophy of the school, which this summer celebrates its 43rd year. It also explains its success and its appeal to the 19 young artists – all graduates of outstanding schools of music, freelance professionals, and winners of many prizes – who study chamber music for eight weeks in the Taos Ski Valley of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the Carson National Forest. Their instructors this year are the Borromeo, Takács, and Vermeer String Quartets, pianist Robert McDonald, and violist Michael Tree – important figures on the world stage and in the exacting field of chamber music.
Fifteen miles up a winding road, through mountains of sliding stone, heavy forests of cedar and birch, following a rushing stream on its steep journey, the Taos Ski Valley and the Hotel St. Bernard lie before us, a pocket of activity for skiers and vacationers at the base of even steeper mountains, with ski lifts and trails and roads like ski runs.
Centered in the St. Bernard Hotel, a ski lodge like those in the Bavarian Alps, is the Taos School of Music. Jean Mayer, the proprietor of the hotel, is a chef, a music lover, and an awesome skier, who still – at the age of 70 – serves as technical director of the Ernie Blake Ski School. Chilton, the founder and director of the school, is 76. On the first day, the young musicians – two pianists, four complete quartets, and an extra violinist – are handed their chamber music assignments and told that they must be ready for a concert in two weeks. This happens four times, with reconfigured groups on each occasion, during the eight-week session. The daily schedule is loosely run, beginning with an hour for private practice; then each group meets with a member of the resident quartet to begin the coaching sessions. Except for meals (which all take together in the hotel's dining room), the afternoons and evenings are free for practice and additional rehearsals and coaching.
As the concerts approach, private sessions and extra coaching sessions mushroom at all hours of the day. During the month I was there, the resident quartet was the Borromeo, and the student groups presented ten complete works – among them Janácek's Quartet No. 1, Shostakovich's 12th, the Fauré Piano Quintet, and the Harp Quartet, Op. 76, of Beethoven. Ten more works were to be mastered by the students in the remaining month of the school.
There is little to do in the Ski Valley in the summer but work, study, and eat – and, of course, hike the many trails – but no one seemed at a loss, for they used the time to perfect their performances and to receive advice from their coaches.
The faculty members, meanwhile, had their own responsibilities. During each two-week period, they present one major concert, and two seminars concerning the programs. In addition, during the first four weeks, there was an extra performance for the students (and for the board of the School), consisting of the Fauré Nocturnes for piano – among other things – and Bartók's Third String Quartet.
In subsequent weeks, there are Thursday seminars, preceded by magnificent dinners. The seminars usually focus on one of the works to be presented by the faculty at the Taos Art Center Auditorium the following Sunday.
On the first Sunday, Robert McDonald and the Borromeo collaborated on the Elgar Piano Quintet and the Borromeo presented Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet to a packed and cheering crowd. The next professional concert, two weeks later, included Janácek's "Intimate Letters" Quartet and Brahms' Viola Quartet in G, Op. 111, with Michael Tree. The Janácek had been the subject of the seminar on Thursday of that week, and the Borromeo and Michael Tree (who recorded it with the Guarneri Quartet), were the presenters. I overheard a member of the audience say that the seminar and had caused her to fall in love with the work and to understand dissonance and clashing sounds as part of the appropriate language of music.
This summer, the students were from Juilliard, New England Conservatory of Music, The Curtis Institute, Mannes College, and the Manhattan School of Music. One of them – Edward Robie – is from Raleigh, and Triangle readers will remember his performances with the Raleigh Symphony and Durham Symphony in their concerto winners concerts. There were other NC ties, too: Robert McDonald, now based at Juilliard and concertizing worldwide, spent several years teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts. And of course the first violinist of the Borromeo is Nicholas Kitchen, a native of Durham, who has soloed many times with all the orchestras in the Triangle, often with his wife, Yeesun Kim, who is the Borromeo's cellist. (One reason I was there was to serve as baby sitter and driver for their son, my grandson, two year old Christopher Kitchen.)
The story of the founding of the Taos School and its continuing success and stellar reputation is the reason for this story. Its graduates include Erica Nickrenz of the Eroica Trio, Hsin-Yun Huang, formerly of the Borromeo and now teaching at Juilliard, and Mischa Amory, violist of the Brentano Quartet, and many others.
Forty-three years ago, a group of local Taos artists and musicians gathered once a week at the home of Chilton Anderson, a rancher who was the head ski instructor at the Taos Ski Valley School and an amateur cellist. Joining them one summer was Ken Schanewerk, a professor of violin at Texas Christian College. He noted that Taos was the perfect place for a summer chamber music school and offered his services as an instructor.
Chilton, from a family of prominent land owners in the Taos Area and who donated their family home for the Millicent Rogers Museum, took up Schanewerk's challenge and, through Klaus Adams, found Harvey Wolfe to act as cellist. Later, the great violinist Andor Toth – and after him, his son –became interested. Andor brought violist Denes Koromzay and violinist Richard Young and the New Hungarian String Quartet. Young (who would later return as the violist of the Vermeer Quartet) and Denes and the New Hungarian Quartet agreed to come back in succeeding summers, and thus a continuing school came into being. Grace Parr, a founder of the school, remains on the board. Chilton sent requests for support to other local cattlemen, and Jean Mayer of the St Bernard in the Ski Valley offered rooms and sustenance to his fellow skier's project, and thus was born the Taos School of Music. At the time, no other summer program offered serious chamber music study, so there was a need for the Taos approach. Monetary support came from local people through Chilton's letter campaign; he also telephoned and gathered the musicians, who in turn gathered the students. It has been going on the same way for 43 years, and each summer brings new dimensions to the quality of the music. The school grew because there was a place for it, and good students came because of the faculty. Committed teachers and committed students – committed to quality – and a group of local people with a strong, determined, and visionary leader – brought fine chamber music to Taos, New Mexico, a center for the arts in its own right. The school will continue as long as people need or want the level of quality that exists there. Chilton's daughter Kathy is now his assistant; she is a force in her own right, continuing the tradition and the reality of the Taos School of Music.
Supporters of quality music in our own area – including readers of CVNC – can learn from this model. Local people who themselves believe in the value of music and who are willing to work for it can bring the best to their communities. There are always young people who are ready to attend programs that will help them develop their art. For example, Durham residents include the founders of the Mallarmé Chamber Players and those who brought the ADF to the Triangle. The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle and, indeed, the North Carolina Symphony itself are the products of one or two people acting as catalysts and bringing other like-minded people to their causes.
Taos does not seek to get bigger – only better. The residents of the ski valley will use their resources to bring a limited number of people to this crucible of talent and quality in chamber music. Quality lasts. Excellence in workmanship and diligence in performance make value. Strength and persistence cause things to endure. Inner drive is irreplaceable. Standards must not be compromised. The Taos School of Music embodies the concrete actualization of these ideals, ideals so strong that there has never been a need to verbalize them at any point during the past 43 years. The students, teachers, and supporters of the school, with Chilton Anderson at the helm, would have thought them superfluous. They would say instead that real music speaks for itself – and that chamber music speaks the best of all. They are working to make that voice available to Taos and – through the school's faculty and students – to all people, for the foreseeable future.
Among the many other music programs I have visited are Meadowmount, Tanglewood, the EMF, Encore, Yale, and Madeline Island. I have had students who attended Interlochen, Brevard, Bowdoin, and Blue Hill. These institutions are places of inspiration and dedication. Taos takes its place at the top, providing for all who love chamber music a place where the future is being formed from the dedication of masters passing on their art to already-formed young artists who are ready and willing to learn more and to go forth to use it.
*We are pleased to welcome back Dorothy Kitchen, Director of the Duke String School, for this installment in our ongoing series of features by leading regional artists and teachers. The first article in this series, composer J. Mark Scearce's The Matching Game, and the second, composer Scott Lindroth's On Teaching Music in the 21st Century, remain available in our archives.