Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, Long Island’s longest-running classical music festival, celebrates its 40th summer season. The group will mark the milestone with 11 concerts, taking place from July 16 to August 13, that showcase a theme of “Beethoven as Innovator” alongside six of the festival’s favorite works from four decades of commissioning new music, with pieces by Elizabeth Brown, Kenji Bunch, Eric Ewazen, Bruce MacCombie, Kevin Puts, and Ned Rorem.
We spoke with festival founder and artistic director Marya Martin to learn more.
Tell us about your background as a musician.
I had a fairly normal childhood in New Zealand, and started piano lessons at age six. When at age 10 I began studying the flute, I simply fell in love with it, and practiced very hard throughout my teen years — I wanted to be a flutist. I went to college in New Zealand, then the Yale School of Music, and then the Paris Conservatoire, where I studied with Jean-Pierre Rampal, the artist responsible for the widespread popularity of the flute in our time. In fact, there was a period when I would work with Rampal during the week and fly to Switzerland on the weekend for lessons with James Galway – the other flute superstar!
After winning a number of competions in Europe and the U.S., I was able to get management, performed debut concerts in New York, Los Angeles, Washington – and then started playing everywhere I could. Such is the life of a solo musician, if you’re lucky.
What inspired you to start the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival?
I used to travel every summer to perform at music festivals all over the world. One summer, I met a lovely man who I ended up marrying — my husband, Ken Davidson. He was renting a house in Bridgehampton, and, faced with my being away for 12 weeks, he said, “what would you think if we started a music festival out here?” While I loved the idea, putting together a festival myself wasn’t something I had the bandwidth for at the time, so Ken really started it — he took great joy in jumpstarting the project, and ran it himself for the first couple of years. And he is still by my side, sure as the rising sun.
That first year, we just did two concerts. At the time, the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church — it’s been our home since the beginning — wouldn’t allow us to charge admission, so we just accepted donations. We had no idea who, if anyone, would come. I’ll never forget — we were warming up backstage, and Ken came in and said, “You have to see this.” There was a line out the door and down the street of people waiting to get in.
We knew then that we had something. Many of the people we talked to about our plans told us that people in the Hamptons just wanted to go to cocktail parties, but Ken and I believed — and we were right.
Tell us about this season’s BCMF and what guests can expect.
First and foremost, I want to offer our audiences a relaxed, convivial experience. I hope that no one will think a classical concert will be overwhelming or mystifying — I always talk to the audience, and all the artists and I are committed to communicating our enjoyment of the music we play. This is our 40th festival, and we decided to spend time with the great Beethoven, a name everyone thinks of as synonymous with the whole art form — but we want to highlight what an innovator he was, and we have programmed works that are not played all the time but are real gems that audiences will love.
We are also celebrating the festival’s history of new music by bringing back six works that we have commissioned, alongside the Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms, so our audiences will experience a wonderful mixture. There are those who approach contemporary music with trepidation, but I think our audiences have come to trust that the music we bring to them is not dense or difficult, and they have responded with real enthusiasm. For instance, Eric Ewazen’s “Bridgehampton Suite” is a piece that we asked him to write to honor the Mozart 250th anniversary, and it takes its inspiration from Mozart’s gorgeous D Major Flute Quartet. And we will be playing one of the three pieces we commissioned from the great Ned Rorem, who passed away last year — we wanted to honor him.
What are a few memorable BCMF experiences over the years?
Among the highlights of my festival experiences have been the wonderful collaborations with Alan Alda. We have done several “composer portrait” concerts, focusing on the lives of Mozart, Schumann, and others. Alan writes the script, based on the composer’s own letters and using his words, and this brings the music to life in a completely different way. It can be incredibly poignant and moving! Unfortunately, we couldn’t work it out to have one of these this year, but we are hoping to include one in next year’s festival.
Another major highlight every year is our Wm. Brian Litle concert (named after a beloved late BCMF board member). The Channing Sculpture Garden is a simply unique space, with the beautiful sculptures by Walter Channing, and we have wonderful wine from Channing Daughters, and music under a big tent — it’s very relaxed and festive at the same time. This year’s program has woven into it some songs that people will know — “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and songs by Aaron Copland; we call it an “American Adventure.”
Talk a little about the expansion of Bridgehampton Chamber Music to a year round program.
We are so fortunate that we had been going from strength to strength with each festival, with near-capacity audiences — and they told us, “We need you in the rest of the year.” So, we launched a spring series in 2015 with two concerts, which expanded to three, and even with the pandemic pause, we created a fall series in 2021. And they’ve almost all sold out. The concerts have very much a community feeling — the audiences love that they don’t have to wait for summer for what we offer.
What’s next for Bridgehampton Chamber Music?
Right now, I’m focused on making this summer the best one we’ve had! But I can say that the coming fall and spring series are already set, and we are working on next summer’s programs. I don’t want to say too much about that yet. Having reached this four-decade mark, we feel we have really come of age as an institution — in the best possible way, meaning that our roots are solid. Our focus is on making sure we will have the ability to continue to deliver wonderful music in the best ways — actually, that has always been our goal; I can’t think of a better one.