Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music

Spotlight: Mike Kelley

MikeMike Kelley, violist in the Apple Hill String Quartet, answers a few questions via email, about Apple Hill tours, learning new music, and winters in New Hampshire. Apple Hill just got back from a week-long residency at Arizona State University that included master classes at the music school, talks at the business school, and a concert. What were some highlights for you of this tour? It was a wonderful trip, and it's been a wonderful collaboration. The quartet and Lenny have been working with three amazing guest musicians: Sally Pinkas, a pianist and summer faculty member, composer Kareem Roustom, and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, also on our summer faculty and one of the first Playing for Peace Scholarship recipients, way back when Elise and I were also summer participants! Lenny and Sally began talking about working together a few years ago, and the ideas grew into quite an incredible project -- the commission of a new piece, residencies at Dartmouth and Arizona, lots of teaching and playing together. As you said, there were quite a few panel discussions with many different constituencies -- theatre students, business students, Religion and Conflict Studies, the music department, Art and Social Change classes... I love talking about how chamber music is a really PRACTICAL vehicle for demonstrating how people need to listen, adjust, adapt, to work together successfully. It was also great to see Apple Hill's work reflected through all these different perspectives: Kinan talking about how his life changed as a result of attending Apple Hill back in the early '90's, Sally's much more recent views of the organization, Kareem's creative process. I also think Colleen, as our newest member of the quartet, appreciated getting bombarded with a lot of Apple Hill's history, theory, philosophy! I definitely learned as much as I hope I was teaching… The students were amazing, energized and positive with some fantastic players -- I hope some more attend our summer program. So, the residency was great, but hanging out with Kinan, Sally, Kareem, the quartet, Lenny, talking about music, life, art... selfishly, that was my favorite part! Also: the weather. One of the works you performed during this tour, Traces, by Kareem Roustom, is a new work, commissioned specifically for Apple Hill. New commissions and lesser-known works are important components of the Apple Hill repertoire. What is it like to learn a brand-new piece of music? Can you tell us about the process you go through, both individually and as a quartet? When Lenny became Director, he made commissioning new works a priority for us, which is fantastic, and you're right, it is important. Some people think of classical music as being from the past, so it's our responsibility to keep making art that reflects, informs, delights our current world. We've commissioned pieces by Dan Sedgwick (an Apple Hill alumnus), Christine Southworth, John Harbison, and, along with Dartmouth and the Gammage Hall at Arizona State University, this incredible piece by Kareem. You can't rely on recordings obviously when you're preparing a new piece, you've got to look at the page and try to go beyond it into the implied, what you imagine the composer wants -- that's difficult but liberating. When we worked on this piece, in the early stages, we had compressed schedule (6 people, playing all over, it's hard getting nice big blocks of time together), so we wanted to get Kareem involved early, so we could get to the heart of what he heard in his head, but… not too early! It's a difficult piece with a lot of interesting extended techniques, but I think, without exception, the audiences connected to the expressive, deeply moving emotional core of the work. Kareem is a renowned film composer, so he talked about often having a visual component in his head while writing -- in this case, his inspiration had to do with a pre-Islamic poem, two lovers meeting at the convergence of traveling tribes, and the fruitless search by one for the other after their camp had been broken down, moved on… and this story as a metaphor for the Syria he once knew, now gone. Our process -- well, it was great to have multiple performances over 6 months, for Traces to seep "into our bones"… it's amazing how it takes time for new music to become "natural" to both the performer and the listener... the professional life doesn't always allow for that, which is part of why I think new music is difficult for some audiences. We need to become as emotionally connected, as facile, with a new piece as we are with Mozart or Brahms. I've played pieces of Kareem's that used different Arabic modes and tunings (maqams) -- it's really hard if you haven't grown up with it in your ears! He didn't give the viola much of that this time-- I think he learned his lesson! Apple Hill’s Playing for Peace program means that the Quartet does a lot more than a typical string quartet might – not only do you rehearse, teach, and perform, but you do those activities all over the world for really diverse venues, audiences, and students. What is that experience like, and how do you think it makes the AH experience different from other string quartets? Well, I think one of the misconceptions coming out of the conservatory education, now changing, is that you'll end up "just playing" as a professional musician. If you're in an orchestra, you're on the contract negotiating committee, or planning outreach, if you're the resident quartet at a university, you're teaching students and working on recruitment, filing grades, etc… if you're working for a nonprofit, you're helping with all the day-to-day details of running an organization. Rupert and I are on the Facilities Committee, Elise is on the Development Committee,  and I work with Amelia all year long on the Summer Program, my colleagues are all helping to research repertoire, book travel, organize tours, connect with other schools, presenters, organizations. So I think that's pretty normal for a string quartet these days. It's true though, that Apple Hill has a wide reach, and of course it's in our mission that we value diversity: age, race, cultural background… and that we try to practice that ourselves, in our quartet, in our summer faculty, in our participant body. So to make our program diverse, it's important that we cast a wide net, that we find places that might not have access to what we do, and go there, serve those communities, connect them with our own. And our philosophy -- that music is transformative, and that the process of learning chamber music can lead to better connections through the achievement of a shared task -- that's a very broad philosophy. So the demonstration of those concepts -- we have a lecture-demonstration where we show how that works in a very concrete fashion -- is relevant to a wide range of people. The business students were interested in the team-building aspect, the theatre department in how our art impacts our local community, the music students about how moving, breathing together increases the technical manifestation of the art. It's a rich, engaging job, and there are multiple lifetimes worth of amazing chamber music repertoire -- I love it. [caption id="attachment_1534" align="alignleft" width="163" caption="Mike, as a young participant at Apple Hill"]Young Mike[/caption] Your first summer at Apple Hill was when you were 12 years old. What has it been like to grow up at Apple Hill, then join the faculty, then become a member of the resident string quartet? Well, I joke sometimes that I'm basically still doing what I was doing almost 30 years ago, playing chamber music all summer in that old barn! But I have made progress: I no longer play the violin. Seriously though, I'm lucky, to see the organization evolve, to try to continue to grow and improve, and always, always, keep the core, the things that make it such a special place, consistent and alive. It's a double-edged sword: I love when alumni come back, see the pictures of the former Chamber Players, the old cabins, their names written above their bunk,  the group shots in front of the Gazebo, and think of those days... then they see the new Hoffmann auditorium, the new Bath and Shower Barn, the NEW cabins, the red roof of the barn, and wish they had had those back then, while being simultaneously outraged that we could ever have changed a splinter of their mouse-ridden Yurt. Come on, people! I remember, back in the 80's, getting my music in the mail (that I'd be playing that summer) and then running to the barn when I finally got to Apple Hill to see who else was in my groups, who my coaches would be... now it's all online and posted three months in advance! It loses a bit of the whimsy, or the magic, I suppose. But there are advantages too, like, for example, you can START PRACTICING YOUR MUSIC EARLIER. I'm also not alone in all of this… the number of musicians who have come here since the 90's, or 80's or 70's… there are actually a lot of us! What other projects are you working on this winter, outside of Apple Hill? Elise and I bought a house together in Harrisville last summer and, like the rookies we are, came back after Christmas to a 20-below, Polar-Vortex-busted pipe. So recovering from that was a project (the cat was ok). The winter is beautiful up here, but we have to work to not be isolated as it drags on, so we try to fill our weeks with lots of good cooking and evenings with friends, after rehearsals! But we are out of February, spring isn't far now, when the woods turn into the most magical place on earth, and you can go out running in them surrounded by the lime greens and the pinks and purples... and the mud! The whole quartet will perform sonatas with Maura Glennon, one of our dear friends and an amazing pianist, in about a month -- I'm doing the Rebecca Clarke viola sonata, one of my most favorite pieces, so I'm working hard on that. The concert is at Keene State College on April 4th… my 40th birthday! Argh! This interview is over.

One Comment


    hi Mike, Had no idea you were a 12y.o camper. What year. 1976 was my first – in the 5 week session days. My very best to you and all @ Apple Hiil – I’ll be there for a session – the one in mid-jul;


Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.