Beethoven at Avaloch Farm Music Institute

Longtime guest cellist and NSP board member, Heath Marlow, shares the following reflection on our magical week at Avaloch Farm Music Institute

Avaloch 2018

How fortunate am I? Each fall, Ealain, Emmy, and I spend a week in Boscawen, NH, preparing a string quartet program to bring back to Newport, usually with Ealain’s husband Jesse Holstein playing viola, when his schedule permits. This is our sixth time returning to the Avaloch Farm Music Institute.


The idyllic property includes a cluster of three barn-like buildings, specifically designed to host a diverse array of chamber music ensembles. Our surroundings are pristine yet still rustic, with seemingly friendly cows gazing at us from the other side of the low stone wall that marks the edge of the farm’s property. The only sounds we hear, other than our music making, come from the nearby fields being mowed.


In keeping with our quest to learn and perform all of the string quartets from Beethoven’s late period, we have decided to tackle his String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132. This 45-minute work, in five chapters, includes an iconic slow movement, a piece of music of uncommon emotional vulnerability, composed as Beethoven was recovering from a serious illness.


It’s our sixth time returning to an enviable daily routine of space, time, and (too much) delicious food. Here is how our rehearsal retreat has unfolded thus far:


DAY 1 is about reading through all five movements and feeling pleased by how much we can already take for granted. Three of us have had the opportunity to play the piece elsewhere, and we’re off to a quick start. We also meet the other resident ensembles, including a cello and piano duo, a flute and guitar trio, and another string quartet.

DAY 2 is when we begin to inspect each movement more carefully. We start to notice unusual instructions and markings that Beethoven carefully wrote in the score. Were they really there the entire time? How do we effectively communicate what Beethoven intended?

By DAY 3, we are having a different conversation in our rehearsal studio. It’s about making meaning, being present, and capturing the elusive sensations of togetherness and shared intention. Jesse reads aloud a favorite quotation by Mildred Portney Chase: "It is impossible to be self-conscious and totally involved in the music at the same time... As I forget my own presence, I attain a state of oneness with the activity and become absorbed in a way that defies the passage of time."


That evening, we listen to two of the movements that we are working on performed by one of the other resident ensembles, the Solera String Quartet. They sound fantastic, as they should. They are here for a final tune up before their Carnegie Hall debut next week. After the concert, we scramble back to our rehearsal room, both inspired and a bit intimidated by their beautiful and topnotch performance.


DAY 4 arrives and we start the morning a bit grumpy, perhaps realizing that, just as we begin to understand the elephant that we are uncovering (do you know that famous parable about the blind man and the elephant?), the end of our time together at Avaloch Farm is drawing near. Fortunately for us, the potential for any serious disagreement in rehearsal is quickly smoothed over by plenty of laughter. Our first run-through goes well. We debrief afterward and fix a few rough spots before our rehearsal devolves into an uproarious imagining of ordering Dominos Pizza to be delivered at dinnertime. This is truly a laughable idea because the food here is incredible; each meal is its own work of art.


DAY 5: We decide to record ourselves using an iPhone. This is always the moment of truth. It turns out—and this shouldn’t surprise me, but it always does—that many of the expressive ideas that we are trying to showcase actually interfere with the overall flow of the music. Ealain gently reminds us that, in the words of the revered violinist Pamela Frank, "you can't stop to pick every flower." Becca Fischer, another Avaloch resident and former first violinist of the recently retired Chiara Quartet listens to us play through each movement and gives us really helpful feedback. Opus 132 is a work that her quartet performed last year during its final (18th) season together.


As my final evening at Avaloch Farm approaches, Emmy and I set off to explore the nearby lake, bathed in the warmth of the setting sun, in a canoe. There’s still time for one more scrumptious dinner, a second performance by the Solera Quartet and some late-night fine-tuning in our rehearsal studio before I depart on Saturday morning. A perfect close to the week.


Heath Marlow, cello & NSP board member


We’re looking forward to sharing Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet with our Newport audience later this season…