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Aug. 16, 2022

The Classical Concerts that Predate 1969's Woodstock: Inside the Maverick

The Classical Concerts that Predate 1969's Woodstock: Inside the Maverick

Long before "THE" concert so closely associated with Woodstock, "Maverick Concerts" have been delighting fans of classical music for more than 100 years. We sat in the historic concert hall with music director Alexander Platt to hear about the history of the utopian Maverick art colony, the concert series that stemmed from it, and some 21st-century improvements to the Maverick experience. Plus, a look back at a groundbreaking John Cage composition that premiered at Maverick concert hall 70 years ago this month. For that, we get insights from music journalist and composer Kyle Gann

Interested in taking in a Maverick concert? Here's a link for upcoming events and tickets.
And to learn more about John Cage's 4'33", check out Gann's book, No Such Thing as Silence.

Thank you to our sponsors:
Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce
Hanford Mills Museum
The Mountain Eagle

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Transcript

Alexander Platt  0:03  
There's no finer place to hear chamber music. In the summertime. In America, there really isn't when everything is going. Well, it's just perfect. And I've had musicians from some of the greatest string quartets in the world. Tell me that.

Brett Barry  0:20  
On this week's Kaatscast an historic Catskills concert hall, and the 70th anniversary of a groundbreaking composition that premiered there. Kaatscast was voted number one regional podcast in this year's Readers Choice Chronogrammys. There's a new show every two weeks on your favorite podcast platform or at kaatscast .com, where you can join our mailing list by a hat, or even make a donation to help keep this show going strong. And if you're already a fan, please help spread the word by giving us a rating. And by showing friends and family how they too can tune in for the Best Audio Stories from the Catskills and now to Woodstock, New York and historied concert hall in the forest.

Alexander Platt  1:10  
I'm Alexander Platt and I'm the music director of the maverick concerts. And we are here in the truly historic 1916 Maverick concert hall which is basically a chapel in the forest just outside of the town of Woodstock, New York, as has been said the most famous small town in America, and we're just outside of that hustle and bustle and we really go back to an earlier Woodstock. We are really at the site where you might say that Woodstock really all began. The Maverick colony goes back to 1905, 1906 That was when Hervey White, who really was kind of like the Walt Whitman of Woodstock, New York, this very eccentric figure who dreamt of being part of a utopian community in the Catskill Mountains. He was originally part of the byrdcliffe colony. But there was a very famous defection, Ralph Whitehead and Hervey white, were very, very different people, the former being very wealthy, of Anglo-file, gentleman, and Hervey white being a poor kid from Kansas who lived hand to mouth and he quickly just fell afoul of the byrdcliffe scene which was very, in its way very elitist. I mean, they wanted to have a utopian community in the spirit of William Morris and you know, all the great arts and crafts artists in their work of that era, and Hervey, why was truly utopian in a more kind of socialist manner. byrdcliffe like the maverick exists to this day. byrdcliffe is a wonderful, fabulous institution, we consider them our, our sisters, and we love byrdcliffe and get along very, very well. But things were very different in 1905. And then so Hervey White had just in an age in which, let's just say open land and Woodstock was not quite as expensive as it isn't. He just kind of found a way to buy himself land in this forest just outside of Woodstock village. And he would just entice artists to come up from New York and spend the summer here, the summer of 1915. There are competing explanations, both of which might be true, there was a drought, and he needed to dig a well to provide water to his artists. So he needed to raise money. So he decided to have a music festival. And this was a strictly classical music festival. The other reason to have the festival although apparently people who dispute this was to raise funds for Belgian war refugees, because this is the era of World War One and we all wanted to help gallant little Belgium and as it turned out, several of the founding musicians THE MAVERICK were actually of French speaking, Belgian descent. So whatever the reasons are the predominant reasons, this festival was a huge success, huge financial success for Hervey white. So Hervey white then had the idea of establishing a permanent summer music festival on this site, and in the spring of 1916. As soon as the snow had melted, he and several of his friends said about building the maverick concert hall, and they did so with basically nothing but their bare hands and an expertise of architecture and engineering that came from looking at an old like coffee table book of drawings of French cathedrals, which is why we have these kind of Gothic arches, if you will, the very rustic Gothic arches and we have this equivalent have like a stained glass window or like the rose window of a cathedral. And remarkably, miraculously, the building didn't fall down. One of the reasons why we need financial support and we need to charge real money for tickets is because this is not your typical summer chamber music festival that takes place Oh, I don't know on the campus of a local college or university. The vast vast majority of summer music festivals don't have the physical plant challenges of the maverick. So we have to spend a lot of money every year on keeping this place from falling down. And we do.

The acoustics are perfect, especially for piano and strings. No one quite knows why it may be because the north facing wall the planks of wood, you can see daylight through them, whereas the planks on the opposite roll are sealed. And so that may have something to do with it may be the fact that as you know this is a hall built entirely of wood. That certainly helps. And we have not adorned it at all there no carpets there, no tapestries, the wall behind the stage is there, basically. So it is a very austere space, but rich in its wooden building materials that along with its chapel like shape, I think is probably what, to some degree makes the magic. The Maverick concerts started in 1916 been going ever since. And the original name was the maverick Sunday concerts because the concerts were strictly on Sunday afternoons because this was again, in a time in which there was not not only no running water at the maverick there was no electricity. So you can only do concerts during the day. And also those were the days when there were no reserved seats. So you simply in the utopian tradition, you join the line to get your seat you bought a ticket book, you could either go to 10 Maverick concerts on your own, or you could go to one concert of the maverick with nine your closest personal friends. And that made often for a chaotic situation because we'd literally have no idea as to how many people would show up for a concert. This summer actually is the first summer in history where we have no ticket books. In large part because of the COVID pandemic. We switched last summer to an all advanced seating reserved seat system where you buy your tickets online, we still have a box office and you can still put down a $20 bill and get a seat outside in the in the benches and have a sublime experience for some of money. That will not even get you into the parking lot at Tanglewood. And you can hear performances that are very often of the same caliber. So we're very proud of that the Maverick is always going to be egalitarian. But it cannot be utopian that's a luxury we can no longer afford. So the concerts are now at four o'clock on Sundays. But I made it my mission that we would have something every Saturday night in order to expand the musical palette and expand the audience and expand our imprint in the community. Saturday nights are now a truly eclectic bouquet of jazz and world music, folk music folk rock. You know, in this kind of Woodstock tradition. Saturdays are just this beautiful, beautiful bouquet of great artistry in many, many fields of music. And then Sunday afternoons are and always will be this kind of, you know, as we say afternoon with great masters this shrine of classical music, most of all for the string quartet.

I spend my winter months, not unlike our founder, Hervey white, whose painting you're seeing right behind me these oil painting portrait of him. Not unlike Hervey white, I spend the winter months somewhere else Hervey white spent the winters in Georgia. I spend my winters in a place very unlike Georgia, the Upper Midwest, I live in Chicago and I have three what we call small budget orchestras, one of which is a community orchestra and the other are fully professional regional orchestras in Wisconsin, where I've been involved for just about 30 years now. And I've been a very, very busy freelance conductor. And then just as a kind of fluke, I fell into this job. I mean, we all do this over the course of our careers. I just happen to hear through a friend about a very eccentric, but wonderful small Sunday afternoon chamber music festival in of all places Woodstock, New York and called the maverick concerts. I'd never heard of the maverick I'd grown up in Connecticut. I'd spent three summers at Tanglewood. I'd spent a summer at Norfolk, the summer school for Yale, et cetera. I had never honestly HEARD OF THE MAVERICK concerts. And I came up for what was one of a small handful of Saturday Night events. They were doing them. And it was a concert of actually one of the great Woodstock personalities known to millions in the classical music world, Peter Chicheley, aka PDQ, Bach, whose humorous concerts I'd known as a kid and there he was, here on stage, the maverick playing the piano when doing a recital of words and music with his wife, Susan Sindel. And I was just absolutely charmed. I was introduced to some people. And then I heard that they were looking for a new music director because the gentleman who I can now call my predecessor, Vincent Wagner had very sadly passed away due to the AIDS epidemic. I'm looking at his photograph right now, which I think very appropriately, looks at Hervey White's portrait across the width of our music chapel, as we call it, and they were just informally asking around in New York and its environs, you know, do you know of anyone who might be good for this. So my name, I guess, naturally came to the fore. And by the end of that summer, they offered me the job. And it's been one of the great blessings of my life. My first season as music director, was in 2003. And with every year, I learned more, and I think I can say, I get better and better at doing this. And I just feel in my flower, As music director here, and I'm so blessed with a great staff and a great board of directors, and one of the best audiences in America. So it's really all apple pie. What's great about the maverick for me is that it allows me to recharge my batteries and be a maestro, be a music director be the man in charge, but I don't have to physically conduct I've done so many summer pops concerts, I've done so many outdoor Fourth of July things I've done enough of that. And, frankly, with global warming, it's just less of a pleasure to exert yourself that much physically outdoors, I'd rather be hosting a program of chamber music or jazz and let somebody else sweat it up.

Brett Barry  12:41  
And you're not entirely shielded from the elements here either

Alexander Platt  12:45  
not not not shielded, which insulated No, this is not an insulated space. It is not a four season space. I frequently get requests, during the intermission of the concert from newcomers to the Maverick and say, Oh, I'd love to rent this place out in October. And I said, Well, I'm sorry, you're out of luck, because we have no heat and no AC during my tenure, and we've had some improvements to the physical plant. We're looking up at our beautiful ceiling, which people have told me comparisons from Fujian meeting house to New England congregational meeting house to like a Jewish synagogue and Poland everything. It's a beautiful ceiling. And it's been beautifully restored over the decades. And we have these big beautiful fans, the ceiling fans that cool things down quite efficiently. And then we also have modern eco friendly bathrooms when I arrived in 2002, we had outhouses at the Maverick and that was something that needed to change. But we've done it in a completely eco friendly way. And I'm really happy about that. But yes, the hall itself is pretty much open to the elements. We're looking out at a set of barn doors which open and close depending on the climate, it's we still have a situation where on a Saturday night and very very late August or early September near the end of our season, we may close the doors but otherwise we just open them up and then beyond the doors looking east we have these beautiful cushioned outdoor benches on a Sunday afternoon with the birds are singing or on on a Saturday night with the August Moon it's an magical place to experience the concert because we also have a magical acoustic it's not at all an acoustic loss to sit out in the benches especially now in these. Well you know these quasi COVID times in which we live a lot of people prefer sitting on the benches. It's a completely natural and very pure space in which to hear fine music and when all goes well. Not when it's not too hot when it's not to cold, there's no finer place to hear chamber music. In the summertime. In America, there really isn't when everything is going. Well, it's just perfect. And I've had musicians from some of the greatest string quartets in the world. Tell me that.

Brett Barry  15:16  
After the break, this year marks the 70th anniversary of an unusual premiere at Maverick concert hall on August 29 1952. But first a word from our sponsors. Kaatscast is sponsored by the Hanford Mills Museum. Explore the power of the past as you watch the waterwheel bring a working sawmill to life, bring a picnic to enjoy by the millpond. For more information about scheduling a tour or about the museum's new exploration days, visit Hanford mills.org or call 607-278-5744. Kaatscast is also sponsored by the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook, you can sign up as a business member and subscribe to a weekly email of local events at Centralcatskills.org. Back at the maverick concert hall, I asked music director Alexander Platt, about the world premiere of a very unusual composition in August of 1952.

Alexander Platt  16:33  
Well, I get asked about this a lot. I get two questions. The two questions I get asked most frequently. One of them being kind of hilarious is that it'll be usually a Saturday afternoon and the Saturday night artists are rehearsing and a late model high end automobile will roll into the parking lot. And it will usually have Florida license plates, which means it's a rental and usually a European voice. A voice in a European accent will say is this valve Woodstock vase. In other words, is this where the Woodstock Festival took place in the summer of 1969? And I always say no, no, it's so it's actually an on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel and just here you go and give them some directions. And then the other thing I get asked about it very frequently. So is this where you know 4'33" happen. And it's true.

Kyle Gann  17:22  
Yeah, this is Kyle Gann I teach at Bard College I for many years, I was a music critic for The Village Voice. And I've written seven books on American classical music. And I'm a composer

Brett Barry  17:34  
For the uninitiated, which I think is a lot of people. What is 4'33"? 

Kyle Gann  17:38  
4'33" is a three movement piece and all the movements are silent. That was the original definition Cage thought about it differently later. But originally, it was a work in three minutes for a non playing pianist. And the three movements were marked in the original performance by closing the piano lid, the lid over the keyboard at the beginning of each movement and opening it as the end. And there's some ambiguity about the length of the movements on the original program. There were listed as being first 130 seconds, the second one, two minutes and 23 seconds and the third one one minute and 40 seconds. Although later in the published score, they were listed differently.

Brett Barry  18:28  
Tell me a little bit about John Cage and what was the cultural context for his composing this piece.

Kyle Gann  18:34  
Cage had been thinking about doing a silent piece for at least four years because he mentioned it in a lecture at Vassar and 1948. And the original impetus for the piece seems to have been a reaction to music, because in 1948, he said he wanted to write a 14 and a half minute piece that would be silent, that you could put on a record because somebody RPM records used back then for music were either three and a half or four and a half minutes long. And Cage's generation was horrified by music as I still am today. It was a huge thing. There was a Supreme Court case trying to get music taken out in public places that failed. He thought and other musicians of his generation thought it was it was kind of a forced listening of music that people couldn't get away from. And he originally thought of making a silent piece, the right length for music that you could play and it would cut off the music for four and a half minutes.

Brett Barry  19:44  
So instead of sitting in the elevator and listening to elevator music, you'd be left with the silence or the natural sounds of the elevator in motion, that kind of thing.

Kyle Gann  19:54  
Yeah, the blessitt Four and a half minute release from the piped in music Over the next four years he was thinking about it changed quite a bit. And I think he was afraid it was too much of a protest or a joke and conceived negatively. And he had to come up with another way of thinking about it. In the next few years, he got very much into Zen and started thinking about the arbitrary distinction between naturally occurring sounds and music. And he wanted to make a piece of music that would erase that distinction. So when he reconceived it, as a Zen piece, I think it gave him the courage to go public with it. The concert at Maverick was a recital by David Tudor, Tudor he'd been asked to play and cage told Tudor his idea, just a couple of weeks before the concert, and Tudor encouraged him to go along with it. So it was performed there on a program of otherwise Avant garde music, kind of unusual for the Maverick is Mavericks always been a classical music, performance space. It was kind of a departure from what people were used to hearing there.

Brett Barry  21:08  
What was the reception to it at the time?

Kyle Gann  21:10  
The reception appears to have been pretty noisy, but you know, it was a very avant garde program, there were pieces by Cage's friend, Earl Brown, Christian Wolf and Morton Feldman, which were, you know, somewhat chance influenced and not exactly improv the story, but they might have turned out different each time. And in the middle of the program was the big 12 tone. First  sonata by Pierre Boulez, who wasn't well known at the time, none of these people were well known at the time. That was a major feat for most people's ears back then in 1950, tune quilter and music hadn't been around that long. And so there was probably some resistance already. Growing up, apparently, the a lot of the audience were vacationing members of the New York Philharmonic. And so they certainly were prepared for classical music. But they probably were not prepared for anything on that program. They sat through it. And then when it came to the cage, which was the next last work on the program, the way cage described it, and the first movement, they heard the rustling of the wind and the trees, and the second movement, it rained, and you could hear that and of course, the rain falling on the roof of the maverick concert space. And then in the third movement, the audience started getting restless and calling out things and making a ruckus. And in fact, every performance I've heard of 4'33", that divides it into three movements. And they don't always, there tend to be differences and the incidental sounds you hear in each movement. To me, the main purpose of the piece is kind of an act of framing. If you listen to the piece, and you notice that there are actually differences between the sounds and movements, that's not a function of the music. That's something your brain is doing as it processes the sound, and works in into this three movement format. So I think it was a way of demonstrating, as Cage said that when we're listening to music, we think something's being done to us, but we're actually doing something to it

Was Cage in the audience that night? 

Yeah. Yeah, Cage was there. He didn't perform anything. It was all performed by David Tudor.

Brett Barry  23:30  
And it's been performed many times since then. 70 years later. Oh, yeah. What motivates a music director to include it in their repertoire? And is there usually some kind of introduction to it, or our audiences still left scratching their heads?

Kyle Gann  23:46  
Well, I think by this time, most people who encounter it know what they're gonna get. I actually played it on my high school recital, piano recital in 1973. And I did get up and talk about it beforehand, maybe I should have had the courage to not do so. I didn't know if the teachers and my fellow students would think I'd gone mad or what so I think sometimes people talk about it beforehand. And I think other times they just assumed by now it's such a cultural icon that everybody knows what to expect. In fact, the book I wrote about it is for a series Yale did called American icons. And one of their books is on the hamburger ones on the Empire State Building. One is on Gone With the Wind, and they wanted to include 4'33" It's kind of a welcoming populist approach to everything about it. When I played the piece in my high school, we listened to the H back system. But at Maverick you have all these wonderful outdoor sounds and every time I've been there, I've noticed all of the, you know, the wind and the trees and they're all these different kinds of trees and you get a well Some wonderful environmental sounds out there. And I've always thought it was significant that he premiered the piece there because the Hudson Valley is the home to the Hudson school painters. And they invented American art by being very attentive to this new landscape that had never been seen in Europe before. And I thought the act of listening to that landscape drew a connection between composing and painting. They invented American painting by looking at the landscape. We reinvented music by listening to it.

Brett Barry  25:40  
Back at Maverick as rain started pattering on the roof, like it had when John Cage sat in the audience in 1952. I asked Alexander Platt, if there were plans for a 70th anniversary 4'33" performance,

Alexander Platt  25:54  
we are forgoing a celebration of that at the maverick the next big anniversary, when we get to the 75th anniversary of 4'33". You're the first to hear this, but we're going to use it as a centerpiece of a summer the theme of which will be celebrating postwar American modernism. 

Brett Barry  26:13  
One more question. What's it like? Living in the Catskills three or four months out of every year,

Alexander Platt  26:21  
A) a great, great pleasure and B) always having to deal with the sadness of having to leave in September, which is such a riotously beautiful time. I have to pull myself away. And hopefully someday, someday soon, I don't have to have that second issue. But that's again, watch this space.

Brett Barry  26:44  
If you want to squeeze in a performance before the season concludes in early September, you can buy tickets at Maverick concerts.org Thanks to Alexandra Platt, and to Kyle Gann, author of no such thing as silence, John Cage's 4'33" published by Yale University Press. Our thanks also to the mountain Eagles for their support. To subscribe, call 518-763-6854 or email mountaineaglenews@gmail.com Kaatscast is a production of silver hollow audio. Check out kaatscast.com to search all our episodes, make a donation or buy a Kaatscast hat embroidered right here in the Catskills. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening. And we'll see you again in two weeks.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA