Summer series triumphs at Music Mountain

Benjamin Hochman and Friends opened the 2023 Music Mountain summer series at Gordon Hall.

Anne Daily

Summer series triumphs at Music Mountain

Music Mountain in Falls Village is set to begin its 95th season on June 2.

The summer will open with a benefit concert and reception featuring pianist Benjamin Hochman and Friends from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Oskar Espina Ruiz, the festival promises a season rich with transformative musical experiences.

Oskar Espina Ruiz, who has been Artistic Director of Music Mountain since 2016, brings a wealth of experience and passion to the festival. He divides his time between performing, teaching clarinet at the School of the Arts in North Carolina during the winter and residing at Music Mountain in the summer.

“It’s very convenient,” said Espina Ruiz. “I mean, it’s such a peaceful place.”

Espina Ruiz’s first full season was in 2017 when he took over from Music Mountain’s founder, Jacques Gordon. Gordon was also the concertmaster at the Chicago Symphony from 1921 to 1930 and the founding first violinist of the Gordon String Quartet.

“I had been curating concerts for over ten years at Treetops Chamber Music Society in Stamford, which put me in touch with many groups that play at Music Mountain,” Espina Ruiz recalled. “When the opening came up at Music Mountain, I applied. Despite being a clarinetist, my extensive experience organizing festivals made me a good fit.”

His diverse background allows Espina Ruiz to play many roles as director including performing, teaching, writing grants, organizing and more. “It’s all connected,” he explained.

“I love playing more than anything else, but I also love teaching, and organizing is something I’ve done all my life. So, it kind of comes naturally.”

The 95th season’s theme, “From Struggle to Triumph,” is a testament to the transformative power of music and in particular, music performed live at this venue.

Espina Ruiz noted, “The place itself is quite transformative. It was built to emulate the inside of a violin, and it’s a very beautiful campus. It’s at the top of a mountain so it’s quite an experience just to drive here. Then you come inside this theatre that looks exactly as it did 95 years ago. Many people come in with headaches and problems and leave feeling renewed because they went through this trip that the music brought them through.” He added, “They are ready to take on life as they come out of Music Mountain.”

Opening night on June 2 promises a spectacular start with pianist Benjamin Hochman, violinist Ben Bowman, and cellist Joel Noyes from the Met Opera Orchestra. The trio will perform Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio, and Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat Major. The concert will also feature the presentation of Music Mountain’s Lifetime Achievement Award to former board president Ann McKinney and will be followed by a free reception on the Great Lawn.

“I very much wanted to make sure that every program included what we call ‘a discovery piece.’ It’s very contemporary, but it’s also a way we are looking back because Jacques Gordon, the founder, did that from the very beginning; to include music by living composers or lesser-known composers. So, the idea of the discovery piece goes all the way back to the beginning, although back then the living composers might have been Ravel and Turina which are considered classics now,” he laughed.

The festival also includes a robust jazz program.

“Jazz is very interesting,” said Espina Ruiz. “It’s similar to chamber music in that it’s a small group, they are listening to one another and having a conversation very much like in a Beethoven string quartet.”

While Espina Ruiz is not a jazz player, he enjoys improvisation and works with knowledgeable board members to curate the jazz programs. This year, the jazz concerts will continue to delight audiences on Saturday evenings at 7 p.m., while Sunday afternoon chamber music concerts offer a chance to enjoy music outdoors with a picnic on the lawn.

Espina Ruiz shared that intermission is also a big part of the Music Mountain experience. “People come out and talk to friends and enjoy an ice cream or a glass of wine. Others come early or stay afterwards and have a picnic. It’s just wonderful.”

With a capacity of 265, Gordon Hall remains the heart of Music Mountain, providing exceptional acoustics in a historic setting. As Music Mountain looks to the future, ongoing renovations and grant funding aim to restore the historic houses on the campus and revive residential education programs. For now, the Music Mountain continues to nurture both adult and younger musicians, ensuring that the tradition of teaching and performing remains vibrant.

As Oskar Espina Ruiz reflected, “Music sends you on a trip at every concert, and you come out transformed.”

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