Music Mountain at 93: Music and Nature on a Mountaintop in Northwestern Connecticut

Since 1930, Falls Village in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut has been home to a summer chamber music festival at Music Mountain, now in its 93rd year.  Jacques Gordon, born in Odessa in 1899, was a violin prodigy, and upon immigrating to the United States as a teen, studied at the Institute of Musical Art, Juilliard’s predecessor.  In 1921, he was appointed concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and in the same year founded the acclaimed Gordon String Quartet.  His success with the Gordon String Quartet and as recitalist allowed him to resign in 1929 from the Chicago Symphony and pursue his love, chamber music, and more specifically, the quartet.  He with his wife, attorney Ruth Gordon, founded Music Mountain and fulfilled his dream of starting a music school and performance venue for the quartet repertoire.

Gordon was an affable and able fundraiser, and with the help of a Sears architect, he and his wife planned a unique campus for the Music Mountain summer festival.  From 1908-1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold catalogue mail-order houses that were transported by rail with intricate instructions for building on site.  At Music Mountain, the Gordons built four Sears houses, the Violin, Viola, and Cello houses, and the “Big House” for first violin Gordon and his family, large enough for entertaining visiting artists at post-concert parties.  Gordon Hall which currently seats 264 (with pandemic distancing) is the only mail-order concert hall designed by Sears, Roebuck and Co..  The buildings were completed in record time ready for the Inaugural Concert on August 22, 1930.  Many, then and now, have noted the superb acoustics in Gordon Hall.

The Great Depression threatened the existence of Music Mountain, however with a loyal and energetic group of local patrons led by then Board President Emma May Foot, the funds were raised to assure that Gordon’s dream would survive and thrive. Then, during World War II, when rubber and gasoline were in short supply, thereby limiting attendance at concerts, Gordon created the “Quartet on Wheels” raising the funds for the Gordon String Quartet to travel to multiple locations.  

Each summer before and after the War, the Gordon String Quartet was in residence at Music Mountain, and divided their time between teaching and the weekly Sunday afternoon performances.  After Gordon’s untimely death in 1948, Music Mountain was again rescued, this time by their friend and a prolific patron of chamber music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.  The newly renamed Berkshire String Quartet continued with this same model of teaching and performing from 1948-1980, followed by the Manhattan String Quartet from 1981-1988.  Since 1988, a variety of chamber groups, usually string quartets, are invited on a weekly basis.  This year there was also a Music Mountain ChamberFest for amateurs of all ages, with students taught by members of the Arianna String Quartet.

In 1987, under the leadership of Nick Gordon, late president of the board of Music Mountain and son of Jacques Gordon, Saturday evening concerts were added, now called “Twilight Jazz & More” featuring a wide array of pop and jazz performances.  Nick also lobbied hard for Music Mountain to be entered into the National Register of Historic Places, succeeding in 1987.  Air conditioning was added in 2005. 

More recently, during the summer of 2020 when the pandemic shuttered live performances, Music Mountain came to its audience by livestreamed concerts and artist interviews.  Oskar Espina-Ruiz, Artistic and Executive Director since 2016, adeptly hosted these weekly offerings.  His ingenuity is reminiscent of Gordon’s “Quartet on Wheels” that brought music to audiences during World War II.  Gordon would certainly have been pleased. 

Music Mountain continues to provide world class performances on an idyllic mountaintop in northwestern Connecticut.  It has survived enormous odds including the Great Depression, World War II, the premature death of its founder, and more recently the coronavirus pandemic.  The local communities have played an enormous role in Music Mountain’s continued success, and they have been rewarded with now 93 years of musical bliss.  Now under the leadership of Oskar Espina-Ruiz and Mike Abram, President of the Board, Music Mountain continues to grow and explore ways of continuing the mission first envisioned by its founder, Jacques Gordon.

The Saturday evening “Twilight Jazz & More” concerts start at 7 PM and this year, Music Mountain welcomes the Bill Charlap trio, the New Black Eagle Jazz Band, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, the Swingtime Big Band, Barbara Fasano, and more!  The Sunday afternoon chamber concerts at 3 PM present the Penderecki String Quartet & Victoria Schwartzman, piano, the Ulysses Quartet & Tanya Bannister, piano, the Harlem Quartet & Fei-Fei, piano, and more!  This year, Music Mountain celebrates the 250th Anniversary of Haydn’s “Sun” Quartets which are credited with creating the string quartet medium as we know it today.  All six “Sun” Quartets will be featured over the course of six concerts in July and August.  

Enjoy your picnic at one of the tables outside of Gordon Hall (bring your own or order in advance from Le Gamin in Sharon, CT).  And there is a concession booth for sweet treats, ice cream, and beverages (wines on Saturday evening) at intermission. 

For further information go to the Music Mountain website:  musicmountain.org

Festival address:  225 Music Mountain Road, Falls Village, CT  06031

Mailing address:  PO Box 738, Lakeville, CT  06039 

 

A life-long music enthusiast living in the Hudson Valley, Anne Liebling has spent many enjoyable hours at Music Mountain.  Her great aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Charles Lieb of West Cornwall, helped sustain Music Mountain during the Great Depression.

 

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