20 Years of Festival Memories

Written by Judith Wink.
About 20 years ago, I started going to the Amherst summer workshop.  I’ve rarely missed a year, and I always have a wonderful time. 
So those of you who haven’t been coming – what have you heard about Amherst?  I’ve heard the same bad stuff you have – the workshop is stressful, it’s a lot of hard work, people are snobby, you go home exhausted.   I can’t say I’ve experienced any of this.  Yes, you can work like a dog, if you choose to.  You can go home with shaky hands and bleary eyes from too much playing, too much coffee and too little sleep.  That’s what happens if you sign up for four classes a day (including three master classes) and play trio sonatas during lunch and hang out with pick-up ensembles until the wee hours.  When the workshop was still at Amherst College, one building was set aside for all-night playing.  Believe me, people used it.  I heard a group complaining that they’d been evicted at four o’clock one morning by the cleaning staff.  By Sunday breakfast, these folks were dead on their feet.  They looked like happy corpses, though.
As for snobby – I don’t know about that, either.  Of course us old-timers gravitate to people we already know, but if you’re reasonably outgoing, have amusing things to say and – this is vital – are willing to listen to other people’s stories, you will be loved and wanted.  Some of us have known each other forever, and so we know each other’s yarns verbatim.  We will latch on to a fresh audience the way a dog latches onto a filet mignon.
Some people, the ones who sign up for three master classes, see Amherst as a kind of early music boot camp.  I’ve always thought of it as a vacation with musical interludes.  I’ve never taken more than three classes.  That free period is priceless.  You can use it to practice, to sight-read quartets, to shop for music when the store’s empty, to read, to nap.  You can also go sight-seeing.  Connecticut College has two arboretums and an art museum right on campus.  Across the street is the United States Coast Guard Academy, a fascinating and moving place.  If you need exercise, head for the athletic center and keep going; there are splendid hiking trails that skirt the Thames River and cut through wetlands and woods.  The town of New London, a short drive away, has good restaurants.  It also has the cottage owned by Eugene O’Neill’s disfunctional family.  The house and the family inspired Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and an enthusiastic staff will tell you as much as you want to know about the place, the people and the play.  If you want to go further afield, Stonington Vineyards is an easy drive from the college.  Their summer wine festival usually takes place during the middle weekend of the workshop.  I’ve been to a couple of festivals, and while I don’t remember much about them, I’m pretty sure I had a good time.  If you go, pick up a couple of bottles, particularly the Summer White, a cheerful, light-bodied wine that’s perfect for sipping with friends after your last class. 
But of course music is what the workshop’s all about.  The thing about Amherst is, it’s big.  It’s the biggest workshop going.  It’s huge.  Do I make my point?  There are so many classes to choose from, at so many levels, that you’ve got to find something that pleases you.  You can take up a new instrument.  You can sing.  You can play Renaissance quintets or Baroque trio sonatas.  You can read early music from original notation, which devotees say is the only way to read it.  You can play plucked or bowed strings, brass or buzzies.  You can dance.  You can work on the Friday night theater production.  This, by the way, is an annual miracle.  On Monday it looks as though this is the year the show won’t come off because there’s too much to do in too little time.  On Friday night the show is a triumph, and we in the audience go back to our dorms scratching our heads and saying “Where does all this talent come from?”
I think it comes from the workshop itself.  For a solid week, you’re in a place where music rules.  While you’re there, you’re not a lawyer or a teacher or an engineer.  You’re a recorder player working on a Telemann sonata.  You’re a viol player trying to improve your tone and your tuning.  You’re the costume designer of the theater project, trying to dress a cast of courtiers, elves and peasants with ten yards of muslin and a roll of aluminum foil.  And you’re surrounded by other people who are equally engrossed.  You inspire each other.  Sometimes you push each other.  You end the week doing things that you couldn’t possibly have done when you got there.  Years ago I was in a mixed ensemble that included a guy who played the lizard.  (That’s a tenor cornetto, in case you haven’t run across one.)  He was awful.  He couldn’t count, his tone was ugly and his tuning was abysmal.  By the end of the workshop, he’d improved amazingly because he’d spent a week in a place where nothing mattered more than playing well.  This is the other miracle of Amherst.  It turns sow’s ears into silk purses.