70th Anniversary of the New Hampshire Music Festival
A History of Musical innovation
In July 2021, a large pontoon boat carrying an ensemble of wind players of the New Hampshire Music Festival and its music director, Paul Polivnick, serenaded an audience of over 280 boaters who listened to music of Mozart and Gounod in a cove on Squam Lake. This water-based concert not only was reminiscent of the first performance of Handel’s Water Music on the River Thames but also harkened back to the origins of the Festival on an island in Lake Winnipesaukee. As it celebrates its 70th anniversary, the Festival has been piecing together its history. Written records are few and far between, but aided by the memories of some who were involved with the Festival and by bits and pieces of a written record (now more easily accessible in the age of the internet), certain Festival milestones do stand out. Those milestones mark the Festival’s earliest days and its enduring commitment to diverse and innovative programming.
At the beginning was Hedy Spielter, an accomplished pianist and phenomenal teacher, who devoted her life to establishing and nurturing what became a highly successful school of piano instruction. She maintained a large studio on West 79th Street in Manhattan where tutors would provide academic instruction and children could practice for hours each day under her strict supervision. Joining her in these endeavors was her teaching partner and common-law husband, Jules Epailly.
In her younger years, Hedy had studied in France with notable pedagogue Isidor Philipp at The American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, and later at The Juilliard School, from which many of her students came. Jules Epailly had a sporadic career as an actor (for example, substantial roles in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Johnny Belinda” and playing the Judge in “Art Trouble,” a 1934 short film of the Three Stooges). During the early 1940’s, Hedy’s studio grew in reputation, with successful students performing in recitals at Carnegie Hall and receiving admiring notices in the New York press.
In the late 1940’s, Hedy and Jules made the decision to purchase a summer get-away from the New York City heat and settled on a small island in the middle of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Taking her teaching staff and as many students as could come with her, this idyllic setting with a beach, canoes, and camp-style cottages for the students, and a handsome main house for teachers Hedy named “Melody Island.” The program on Melody Island grew quickly, with more advanced students longing for performance opportunities. Hedy and Jules built a small orchestra shell, invited a wider range of Juilliard musicians, and engaged a young Juilliard student conductor, Maurice Bonney, in order to stage a mini-music festival on Melody Island for several years. Among the many notable visitors to this mini-festival was Leopold Stokowski, who was enticed to visit with the promise of an undisturbed quiet retreat. That condition was not respected for long, and one by one orchestra players trotted up to Stokowski’s house to audition for him. It has been reported that he took quite a few players to Houston when he became Music Director of the Houston Symphony in 1955, and Maurice Bonney was to become Stokowski’s assistant conductor there (where he also was assistant principal viola and later the founder of orchestras in Albuquerque and Anchorage). It is worth noting that on Stokowski’s first concert with the Houston Symphony as its Music Director (October 31, 1955) was the premiere of Symphony # 2, “Mysterious Mountain” by Alan Hovhaness. As we shall see, many years later the Festival would commission and premiere another Hovhaness symphony.
With the orchestra shell in place and locals and visitors boating to Melody Island for summer concerts, the 1940’s enterprise of Hedy and Jules to establish a summer music retreat developed over six decades and was incorporated in 1952 into what we know today as the New Hampshire Music Festival.
At some point in the 1950’s, the Festival outgrew its home on Melody Island and relocated to Center Harbor, on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. Concerts were given and musicians were provided with residential, dining, and practice space in two buildings in Center Harbor that once had been The Garnet Inn.
In the late 1950’s, the Festival’s Board, wishing to raise the profile of the orchestra by attracting excellent professional musicians from around the country, decided to find a music director who could help achieve that goal. In February 1960, some Board members traveled to Portland, Maine to attend a concert of the Minneapolis Symphony, which was on tour in New England, conducted by Tom Nee, its assistant conductor. Impressed by what they heard and by his background and reputation, the Board hired Tom Nee as Music Director, a position he would hold from 1960 through 1992. As a condition of taking the position, Nee required that the orchestra be fully professional, with an emphasis on diverse programming and in the forefront in commissioning new works. Tom Nee also focused on forming a community chorus in order to ensure that the great orchestral choral works could be included to achieve diverse programming. The Festival chorus was conducted by Nee’s former student and good friend Joel Johnson who held the post of Symphonic Chorus Conductor for 50 years. Joel, still a devoted advocate and friend to the Festival, holds the title of symphonic chorus conductor emeritus
Under Nee’s tenure, the Festival commissioned works from a wide range of composers that included Alan Hovhaness, John Harbison, and Eric Stokes. It is interesting to note that in 1987, the Festival and the Loon Preservation Society commissioned Symphony # 63, “Loon Lake” by Alan Hovhaness, which the Festival orchestra premiered on August 18, 1988. As we have seen, Stokowski, perhaps with some former Festival musicians in his Houston Symphony, premiered a very early symphony by Hovhaness, and the Festival later commissioned and premiered Loon Lake, one of his last five symphonies.
Tom Nee and the Festival orchestra presented concerts in throughout the state in venues at Plymouth, Gilford, Portsmouth, and Hanover. In 1980, the Festival moved its headquarters from Center Harbor to Plymouth, with performances on the campus of Plymouth State University and musicians housed on that campus.
After Nee’s tenure concluded, the Festival continued with Music Directors Paul Polivnick (1992-2009), Donato Cabrera (2010-2015), and Paul Polivnick (2016 to present). The balance of old and new music was maintained. A series of Composer Portraits, in which living composers visited the Festival for performances of their orchestral and chamber works, became a regular programming feature. Nathaniel Stookey, Nico Muhly, David Amram, Huang Ruo, and Ittai Shapira are among the composers who have been featured on the Festival’s Composer Portraits.
The concerts of the 2022 season exemplify the Festival’s wide-ranging musical appetite. The first concert will include a performance of the previously commissioned and premiered Hovhaness, Symphony #63, “Loon Lake,” while the second concert will present the premiere of James Stephenson’s Piano Concerto, which was co-commissioned by the Festival. The third concert will include Missy Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transfiguration and the Tuba Concerto by John Williams. Each of these concerts will be “balanced” by works of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Dvorak, Dukas, Tchaikovsky, and Orff.
The course charted by its founders, music directors, and performers has carried the Festival in exciting directions over the past 70 years. We can hope that the Festival’s next 70 years will display the same wide-ranging musical appetite that has been a mainstay of its programming and has delighted its audiences since its earliest days. Change is a certainty in the musical life of the future, and the Festival, of necessity, will remain attuned to the expectations of composers, performers, and audiences as it continues to pursue a path of musical innovation.