Kneisel Hall brings chamber music to Blue Hill

Violinist Rebecca Benjamin (left), pianist Anna Han (center) and cellist Frankie Carr rehearse together. PHOTO BY JESSICA PIPER

For seven weeks every summer, some of the nation’s most gifted young musicians flock to a wooded campus just off Route 15 in Blue Hill. The Young Artists, as they are officially titled, are mostly college students or recent graduates. This summer, roughly half of them come from The Juilliard School in New York City.

Since its opening in 1902, Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School and Festival has been a summer hub for talented string players, pianists and the occasional clarinetist. Instructors and students alike describe the school as an idyllic retreat, a one-of-a-kind learning environment — and a chance for visitors to hear the future of American quartets. The school also is a haven for visitors and local residents to hear classical music at open concerts through Sept. 2

Laurie Smukler, a violinist and artistic director of Kneisel Hall, also serves on the faculty at Juilliard. She has been coming to Blue Hill for 22 summers, and cites her colleagues’ talent as well as the inspiration of eager students as two factors that make the place unique.

“I feel like a major portion of my development as an adult player and an adult musician has happened here,” she said.

The school’s musical pedagogy centers around small ensembles — trios, quartets, quintets and a few sextets.

Kneisel Hall Artistic Director Laurie Smukler (left) and Executive Director Ellen Werner.

It’s a style that dates back to the institute’s beginning. Franz Kneisel, the Bucharest-born violinist who was the school’s namesake and founder, was credited with the creation of the first professional string quartet in the United States.

Current Kneisel Hall students find value in the small group dynamic.

“With solo, you’re able to express your own voice. In an orchestra, you’re part of a big team,” said Rebecca Benjamin, a violinist from Warsaw, Ind., and a master’s student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She is in her second summer at Kneisel Hall. “But with chamber, it’s kind of the best of both worlds, where you get to work closely together with individuals, but you still are getting to express your own voice.”

Anna Han, a pianist from Chandler, Ariz., who recently completed her undergraduate degree at Juilliard and will return there for her master’s in the fall, is at Kneisel for the second time. Like Benjamin, she finds the chamber music setting helps her musical expression.

“There are a lot of ways in which string players express themselves that pianists often don’t think about,” Han said. “So to be able to work with musicians of very different backgrounds and instruments really makes you think about music in a much more holistic way.”

There are 52 students at Kneisel Hall this summer — 21 violins, nine violas, 14 cellos, seven pianos and a single clarinet. Acceptance into the program is competitive, and those who attend receive full scholarships.

The seven-week program is divided into two three-week sessions. Students rehearse pieces in small ensembles, then perform concerts at the end of each session. These Young Artist concerts are free and open to the public. Visitors can hear composers including Beethoven and Mozart, as well as 20th-century artists like Dmitri Shostakovich and Béla Bartók, whose names likewise carry high prestige in classical music circles, but are less recognized on the outside.

Executive Director Ellen Werner emphasizes that, although the Young Artist concerts last several hours, anyone can attend, and staying the full duration is not required.

“The music is not informal by any means; the music is phenomenal and real,” Werner said. “But we really don’t expect people to stay five hours, although we have some community members that do.”

Han and Benjamin, along with cellist Frankie Carr, have been rehearsing Beethoven’s Opus 70 No. 2 as a trio.

“It’s a great piece. It’s not easy,” Smukler said.

Franz Kneisel (third from left) founded the first string quartet in the United States. He spent his summers in Blue Hill.

New this year is a quartet program. The endeavor brings together four students, who have the chance to practice and train at the Hall, learning from instructors and fellow Young Artists. The goal is that the ensemble will move forward as a professional quartet.

“At least in American quartets and some international quartets, in just about every important one going on, there is somebody from Kneisel Hall,” Smukler said. “Sometimes more than one member.”

She hopes to expand the program in the future.

In addition to the Young Artist concerts, Kneisel Hall’s Festival Concert Program features performances on Fridays and Sundays by faculty and guest artists, many of whom are school alumni. Visitors also can attend open rehearsals on Friday mornings.

In addition, students also perform at community venues, such as the Blue Hill Public Library.

Besides the Young Artists program, Kneisel offers two- and five-day summer programs for Maine middle and high school students. A few of the Young Artists come to Blue Hill early to help instruct. Benjamin was among them, and said she found the teaching experience valuable.

At the end of the summer, the school runs a program for amateur adult musicians, who have the opportunity to play alongside the Young Artists. Smukler noted that many program participants come back year after year, drawn to Blue Hill and the chance to play chamber music.

“I’ve always thought of Kneisel Hall as the basic reprieve from regular life,” Smukler said. “We all became musicians for personal, emotional, intellectual reasons, and we get to be reminded of why we’re doing it here.”

Kneisel Hall is located at 137 Pleasant St. in Blue Hill. For more info, call 374-2811 and visit https://kneisel.org/.