A HISTORY OF THE
WINDHAM CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL
by Robert Manno and Magdalena Golczewski
When Magdalena and I married in '83, we were both artists with the Metropolitan Opera. She was a violinist in the orchestra and I sang as a baritone in the chorus, while moonlighting as a composer. Even though performing with the Met is artistically rewarding, we shared a desire to expand our performing lives beyond the repertoire performed at the Met. We also shared a desire to escape New York City when not at the Met. So, we bought an older house situated on 15 acres in the Northern Catskills just seven miles above the town of Windham, a quaint historic hamlet and ski resort only two and a half hours from Lincoln Center.
Our desire to perform chamber music in Windham was an idea that we talked about constantly. We even considered presenting summer concerts in our meadow with its inspiring panoramic mountain view, but our need for privacy won out, so we began looking for a suitable venue in the Windham area for chamber music.
In the center of Windham stands an 1826 Presbyterian Church that had been closed for years and donated to the town in the late seventies for eventual use as a "Civic Centre." Walking through town one day, we noticed that the door was open and so we entered the old structure. It was in a state of almost total disrepair, but obviously an architectural gem in need of a lot of tender loving care. We found a carpenter, Larry Tompkins, meticulously working at repairing and restoring the building. Later, we learned that the building was on the National Register of Historic Places and Larry was the chairman of the Committee to Preserve the Centre Church Building. We introduced ourselves and told him we were looking for a place to do concerts. Larry replied that the town was hoping to use the building, in part, for exactly that purpose. I clapped my hands together twice and knew the acoustics would be ideal. We had found the place we were looking for.
Years passed before the old church was complete. Funds were scarce and the town had other priorities. But in 1996 we took a peek into the building again and Larry told us it would be ready the next summer. We excitedly began planning our first concert for July 19, 1997. We obtained a "DBA" Certificate as the "Windham Chamber Music Festival" from the Greene County Courthouse and registered as a charity with the Office of the New York State Attorney General. A small group from the Chamber of Commerce helped publicize the event and organize ticket sales, and we convinced the residents of Windham to support the chamber music festival at least for that initial concert.
We totally overlooked the fact that the overwhelming majority of local residents had never been to a classical music concert and had never heard the term "chamber music." However, remaining true to our individual tastes, we presented a challenging program: the first performance of my 1995 String Sextet (a dark piece that has been likened by more than one reviewer to Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht) and Schubert's great C Major Cello Quintet. This was definitely not an "easy listening" concert, and yet not one of the 260 standing-room-only audience members left that night. That concert marked the beginning of a wonderful and exciting journey.
I will never forget the following day when I went into town to collect some money from tickets sold by a generous local merchant. The shop owner congratulated me on the great turnout and said that while "the musicians didn't seem to know what they were doing in that first piece" (my Sextet), "they sure played great after intermission" (the Schubert). She had no idea, of course, that she was speaking to the composer of the first piece on the program. (I vigorously agreed with her assessment of the evening).
As a result of the success of that first concert we decided to try to raise enough funds so we could program 3 concerts of American music for the summer of 1998, the Bi-Centennial of the town. We received 67 donations that year and thanks to Yamaha Artist Services were able to have a wonderful 9-foot concert grand simply for the cost of the move from New York City to Windham and back. After that successful second season, we made a series of decisions that helped to grow the festival.
In 1999, with the help of the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts we filed and received our 501(c) (3) status and went from three to six concerts. We were able to record the first concert that summer, and local public radio stations WMHT/WRHV and WJFF played selections from it.
By 2000 our list of donors climbed to 112 and we received our first grant from the Greene County Council on the Arts. We began recording all of our concerts and National Public Radio featured us for the first time on "Performance Today." Local businesses were beginning to pay attention, and while the Town Supervisor admitted that he didn't understand what we were doing inside the building, it warmed his heart when he drove by and saw all those cars crowding Main Street.
In 2001, we formed a partnership with Peter and Sarah Finn and the Catskill Mountain Foundation, a relationship that has been a great asset to our continued survival, and we also started raising funds under town auspices in order to purchase a concert grand piano. By this time the festival had become an established event attracting listeners from a one-hour radius and beyond, and individuals and local businesses became more generous with their donations.
Our 2002 season was one of the most fulfilling to date. We presented seven concerts, the donation list reached 158, NPR chose 3 selections for broadcast, the Piano Fund reached its goal, and the town purchased a wonderful Yamaha 9-foot concert grand for year-round use. Yamaha also donated a rehearsal piano that is housed in the Windham Fine Arts Gallery just across the street from the Performing Arts Center. The gallery is now used for rehearsals as well as receptions following each concert. And, oh yes, the Town Supervisor attended his first concert!
We're very fortunate in our friends who have joined us on this journey. Perhaps if there's a lesson to be learned here, it's a simple one, and that is: to have the courage to dream, to share that dream with others, and to work together to achieve that dream.
We have been fortunate as well in 2003, for National Public Radio chose five 2003 season performances for broadcast nationwide. The wonderful soloists in those performances included Tara Helen O'Connor, flute, Deborah Hoffman, harp, Sharon Meekins, english horn, Mark Gould, trumpet, the Zapolski String Quartet, as well as the Windham Festival String Orchestra. With the continued support of our contributors, it is our hope and belief that the 2004 Windham Chamber Music Festival season will continue to bring many musical riches to the Northern Catskill Region.
For more Windham Chamber Music Festival history, you can browse through previous versions of this site: