In the Beginning
The roots of Taos School of Music date to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a group of local musicians would get together to make music. They played trumpet, recorders, violins, cello, piano, flutes, and viola, according to Chilton Anderson, one of the school's founders, and this odd assortment of instrumentalists was augmented from time to time by visiting dignitaries. One frequent visitor, Anderson said, was Kenneth Schanewerk, professor of violin and chairman of the string department at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. A summer resident of Taos, Schanewerk talked about how great it would be if he could just spend the year in Taos teaching violin and not have to go back to Texas.
“That bit of whimsy began to take a path toward doing a summer music program, and during the summer of 1962 the whimsy became serious discussion and planning for a summer chamber music program,” Anderson said.
In addition to Schanewerk, organizers of the school were Robert Parr, local musician and composer; Bill Letcher, Taos schools band teacher; and two Taos artists who were also musicians - Milford Greer and Robert D. Ray.
Anderson, who was a Taos area rancher and ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley in addition to being a cellist, had not been in on much of the early planning. However, he said that when it got down to really going ahead with the school it seemed to the others that he might have the best business head of the group, so he was brought into the planning to a greater extent and was soon named director of the school.
But what was Anderson to direct?
“None of us had ever done anything like this before,” Anderson said. “Bob Parr had some music and I quickly ordered more…mimeographed notices were sent to schools, and all of the faculty brought students – a daughter of one of the cellists played excellent oboe and piano."
Anderson added, “Unfortunately, after a few years many of those involved in creating the school went on to other things and places, divorced and left Taos, or just plain died.”
For the first few summers the faculty consisted of musician friends who came together in the summer to teach and perform. The faculty that first session in 1963 included violinist Kenneth Schanewerk; cellist Harvey Wolfe from Arizona State University and then a member of the Cleveland Symphony; and pianist John Goldmark, who became Dean and later President of the Mannes College of Music and served as advisor to Taos School of Music until his death in 1976.
Other string faculty members from the early years included Kenji Kobayashi, who became concert¬master of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Tokyo; Robert Marsh, who became principal cellist of the Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati Symphonies; Sally Peck, who went on to become principal violist of the Utah Symphony; Robert McNally, violin, who was concertmaster of the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra and Tulsa Opera Orchestra and violinist Elaine Richey, winner of the Naumburg Award and concertmaster of the Piedmont Chamber Orchestra.
Although some very fine instructors taught at Taos in those early years, after a while it became evident that the school needed the continuity of a preformed quartet as faculty members. The New Hungarian Quartet became the school's first faculty quartet-in-residence in 1975, and spent four years in that capacity.
Then in 1979, the American String Quartet, at the time quartet-in-residence at the Aspen Music Festival and the Mannes College of Music, became the school's faculty quartet, staying 20 years and developing a large following. Several years before the Americans moved on, they were forced by scheduling conflicts to be in Taos for only six of the program’s eight weeks, necessitating a second quartet to fill in the last two weeks.
Several string quartets have since filled that two week period – the Muir, Takács, Angeles, Brentano, and Vermeer. The Chicago String Quartet took over the first six-week period following the departure of the American String Quartet, and were resident faculty at the school for five years before being replaced by the Borromeo String Quartet in 2005.
In 2006, the format changed again. The Borromeo String Quartet became the resident quartet for the first four weeks and the Brentano String Quartet and the Miami String Quartet each taught for two week periods. In 2007 the Shanghai Quartet replaced the Miami String Quartet, and now alternates with the St. Lawrence String Quartet for that two-week slot. Having three different faculty quartets over the eight-week program provides variety for the school’s students as well as Taos audiences, Anderson said, and is expected to remain the format for the foreseeable future.
Faculty pianists for the school began with John Goldmark, dean of the Mannes College of Music, and later piano instructors included Anne Koscielny, Professor of Piano at Hartt College of Music, who taught in Taos for over ten years. Robert McDonald, now on the piano faculty of the Julliard School and the Curtis Institute, joined the school in 1982 and continues as resident pianist and artistic director.
Over the years the school has also had a number of talented and inspiring guest artists. Michael Tree, a founding member of the Guarneri Quartet, has been returning as guest artist since 1992. Randall Hodgekinson, faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music spent two weeks in 2008. In 2010, Paul Hersh, facutly of the San Francisco Conservatory joined the faculty for two weeks. In 2007, 2009 and this summer, pianist Thomas Sauer, a member of the Mannes Trio, will spend two weeks in Taos,
The Young Artists
In the early years the school experimented with various numbers of students and combinations of instruments, but the enrollment has now stabilized at 19: eight violinists, four violists, five cellists, and two pianists. This can produce three string quartets, a piano trio and a piano quartet, or a combination of those for each two-week segment of the program.
"The school's size is one of the keys to its success," said Anderson. "It allows for close personal attention by the faculty and a sense of rapport to develop between students and faculty which cannot be found in larger institutions."
Young artists accepted to Taos - all of whom are advanced and professionally oriented - come from major music institutions such as Boston University, the Cleveland Institute, Curtis, Eastman, Juilliard, Indiana, Rice, University of Michigan, New England Conservatory, Northwestern, San Francisco Conservatory, and SUNY at Stony Brook, and many have gone on to serve in some of the major chamber groups and orchestras in the world.
All students are awarded full tuition scholarships which cover instruction and rehearsal space, and they pay a $700 fee for room and board for the eight week period.
The Hotel St. Bernard at Taos Ski Valley was chosen as the school's home because of the beauty of its location in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the hotel's excellent facilities, and because it is the perfect distance from the town of Taos - close enough to permit access and far enough to prevent it from being a distraction.
Christopher Costanza, both a former student and a past and current instructor (former cellist with the Chicago String Quartet now with the St. Lawrence String Quartet), believes that the school's location, based in the picturesque mountain setting of Taos Ski Valley, is one of the keys to its success.
"Having a mountain outside your window is such an inspiring sight," Costanza commented. "You gain inspiration from being tucked away in the mountains, away from the worries of the world, where you can concentrate solely on the music."
Students live, eat, practice, and perform at the Hotel St. Bernard, but from the school's inception organizers and instructors wanted a more formal location for some concerts, to give the young artists the experience of performing in a concert hall.
The first concerts in the town of Taos took place in the Harwood Auditorium on Ledoux Street, then moved to the auditorium at what was then Taos High School, and then the First Presbyterian Church of Taos. The school settled into the Taos Community Auditorium after it was built in the early 1970s, and has performed there most summers since, except for times such as this year when the auditorium is closed for repairs, and concerts take place at the Fort Burgwin Campus of Southern Methodist University.
That first program in 1963 ran four weeks, but Anderson said it was immediately obvious that that was not enough, so it expanded to six weeks the next year. Then, at the request of the American String Quartet, the program was expanded to an eight-week session, which is the scenario today.
"The program is not designed to teach aspiring musicians how to play, since they are all playing at a professional level when they arrive," Anderson said. "Instead, the school helps them perfect their skills for creating music as part of a chamber group."
Most string players prefer chamber music repertoire, according to Anderson, because of its distinctly conversational nature.
"To coach chamber music is teaching the students how to listen, how to establish very quickly a rapport with one another and not become offended when somebody says 'I don't like what you're doing.' Chamber musicians have to be able to give and take, and take a hell of a lot, because they've got three or four other people to take it from," Anderson said.
What Makes Taos School of Music Special
Unlike many chamber music programs, the school does not preassign material, so students cannot practice before arriving. Although the ideal would be to have plenty of time to perfect a piece, the real world is not like that. Taos School of Music students have two weeks from being assigned their music to performance, and they have to learn how to pace themselves, rehearse, practice, and take time off, both from music and each other.
In addition, Taos School of Music does not form groups that stay together for the entire summer. Each quartet or trio works together for two weeks, gives a performance, and then is broken up and new groupings formed. The reason: a great part of chamber music playing is learning to work with others, adapt to others musically, personally and emotionally.
Chamber music offers a uniqueness not found in either solo work or orchestra performances, according to former Taos School of Music faculty member Daniel Avshalomov, violist with the American String Quartet.
"With an orchestra there's a great wash of sound, listening to a soloist the audience has the unending sense of that personality, that ego; but a small group making the music has many of the best elements of both worlds."
Avshalomov added, "For the audience, they have the sense of being admitted to a kind of intimacy, in that they not only hear music being made but they can experience the process that makes it."
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Ken Schanewerk, Chilton Anderson, Richard Pliler 1963
Susan Pullman, Susan Shumway, Alex Cole & Bryron Plexico in 1979
Rehearsal in front of Chalet Alpina in 1968
Rehearsing by the Rathskeller
Discussion on the hillside
Chris Costanza and his students
Photo by Yi-Wen Jiang
Photo by Tina Larkin