Think of a music camp, and you think, first, of Tanglewood, in the Berkshires. Think of a second one, and you may well think of the National Music Camp, at Interlochen, Michigan.

Well, they used to call it “the National Music Camp,” for many decades. Now, apparently, it’s “the Interlochen Arts Camp.” To have called it the National Music Camp was no boast. Since 1928, the camp has taught thousands upon thousands of music students, from coast to coast, and from all over the world, too.

That, of course, is one possible explanation for the name change. Perhaps the camp fathers didn’t like that “national,” when the place is so clearly international. (According to Interlochen literature, campers come from 41 different countries.) It is also evident that someone didn’t care much for that “Music,” favoring the broader “Arts.” True, there’s some ballet, some theater, and even some “creative writing” at Interlochen. But the place is mainly, gloriously, for music. To stretch the name to “Arts” is a little like calling a Democratic bill “bipartisan,” simply because Connie Morella, Chris Shays, and Pete King voted for it.

Interlochen is in northwestern Michigan, just below the pinkie, if you’re using your hand (as Michiganders habitually do). It is just south and west of Traverse City, and south of the famed Leelanau Peninsula, home of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. The “lochen” that Interlochen is “inter” are Green Lake and Duck Lake, or Lakes Wahbekaness and Wahbekanetta, to use Indian language (not that anyone at Interlochen these days would say “Indian,” without penalty). The camp is now celebrating its seventy-fifth season. You recall seeing a photo of little Lorin Maazel, in shorts, leading an orchestra? That was at Interlochen. In 1962, the Interlochen Arts Academy was established on campus, the first “independent fine-arts boarding school” in the country.

It is an ideal setting for music-making, and music-learning. Something like 20,000 kids per summer go about their rounds—practicing, having lessons, eating, romping, rehearsing, practicing again—in their uniforms, which are dark blue pants and a baby-blue button-down shirt (white on Sunday). (There are other variations too, but a uniform is insisted upon at Interlochen—same goes for faculty and staff.) The campus is dotted with practice rooms, from which comes a joyous and determined cacophony. Some of these rooms are hot cinder blocks, resembling prison cells. But hardly anyone is unhappy to be there.

Part of a camper’s education is the constant stream of concerts that take place on the grounds. Some are by established stars, who come from the outside; most are from those at the camp itself, teachers and students. There are orchestra concerts, band concerts, choral concerts, chamber-music concerts, instrumental recitals, vocal recitals, master classes, a pops concert or two—just about every kind of musical presentation there is. This is an opportunity, rarely repeated in life, to learn vast amounts of repertory. You may never again hear some of the music you hear at camp—but it sticks, somehow.

The main concert venues are the Interlochen Bowl, an outdoor facility, as the name suggests; Kresge Auditorium, a massive structure, covered with a roof, but open at the sides; and Corson Auditorium, a proper, winter-friendly concert hall.

On a recent, uncharacteristically hot Sunday afternoon, there happened to be an organ recital, taking place in a chapel/recital hall. At the top of the printed program were the words “95th program of the 75th season.”

The organist was David Dockery, a young man who works in a church in Detroit, and a graduate of both the camp and the academy. He gave a neat, appetizing program, beginning with Bach’s Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564. It was rather amazing to hear it played on the organ. How can that be, this being an organ work and all? Well, there is a famous Busoni transcription of it for piano, favored by virtuosos for years. Evgeny Kissin, for example, played it just last season.

Was it well played, by David Dockery? It was adequately played, but that’s not the point. The point, really, was to absorb Bach—to commune with Bach again—in that setting. To experience the healing power of his C major. To be in awe once more.

The organist continued with a piece by Louis Vierne, the French organ master. This was the “Claire de lune” from Vierne’s Pièces de fantaisie. It doesn’t bear much relation to Debussy’s adored “Claire de lune,” except that it makes nice use of thirds. The most familiar “Pièce de fantaisie” is the “Westminster Carillon,” found on “organ spectacular” albums and heard at weddings.

Then came Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C Minor, Op. 65, No. 2, an arresting piece, relatively little known. Its Adagio puts one in mind of the composer’s famous Songs without Words. Its Allegro maestoso makes you sit up and pay attention, pulsing with nobility. The Fuga, of course, is Bachian, a reminder of Mendelssohn’s great affinity with that master, and of all he did to revive his music.

Last came a piece by Jehan Alain, who lived only from 1911 to 1940. He was the brother of the renowned organist Marie-Claire Alain. His “Litanies,” perhaps needless to say, is an intensely religious work, persistent, suppliant. David Dockery played it with true sympathy and understanding. The students present may indeed never hear Alain’s “Litanies” again, or anything else by that tragic composer: but they should remember it.

So, this was a way to ennoble a Sunday afternoon. And at 45 minutes, the recital was the sort of thing that really hits the spot. A recital need not be longer than that to be utterly filling.

At 8 o’clock, there was a concert of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, composed of the best of the campers. The program said “97th program of the 75th season.” Something must have happened between this and the organ recital.

The concert was held in Kresge Auditorium, which has a motto emblazoned in huge letters at the back of the stage: “Dedicated to the Promotion of World Friendship Through the Universal Language of the Arts.” This is a harmless bit of PC; it may even, in some sense, be true.

The kids warmed up excitedly, with some brass whooping through the famous motif from Die Walküre. The large audience was made up of fellow campers (the bulk of the crowd) and faculty and staff, along with locals, parents, tourists, and assorted others. At exactly five minutes to 8, a great shushing came from the campers. Then, for the next five minutes, there was near-total silence. At the stroke of 8, the conductor, a Briton named David Lockington, walked out. Remarkable.

The orchestra struck up the Star-Spangled Banner, as the audience stood and sang. It carried extra meaning, in wartime. Maestro Lockington chose to play it in A flat, rather than the customary B flat, which was perhaps too bad, as the low notes are awfully low, and not necessarily worth the easier time one has on the high(ish) E flat, rather than the F.

The orchestra then played Britten’s Sea-Interludes from Peter Grimes, well. It must be a thrill for each of these players to be playing with other good players. Each is probably the best in his home orchestra, or home section; the experience of this sort of camp is elevating for him.

Then—without an intermission—came the Symphony No. 4 of Brahms, a work of the fully mature—indeed, the twilight—Brahms, played by people near the beginning of their musical lives. The kids played with admirable maturity. Some of the woodwind players seemed as though they could step right into a professional orchestra. The first hornist, an excellent player, boldly flubbed an important entrance—just like the first hornists in the best orchestras everywhere!

After the final notes, and the rapturous cheering of the campers, the conductor handed the baton to the concertmaster, in keeping with an Interlochen tradition. This tradition has the young man (or woman) leading the orchestra in the Interlochen Theme, which is a lovely, haunting snatch from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2. (Hanson was affiliated with the camp.) There is to be no applause afterward; indeed, as the Theme nears its end, the audience lights come on, and the stage lights dim. Yet some inevitably attempt to applaud, and the campers shush them down viciously—rather spoiling the effect, actually. Better to allow the smattering of unknowing, sincere applause.

Music in the woods, by the lake, has a long history. Composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler loved it. The countryside, the forest, the mountains, have always summoned composers and other musicians, especially in summertime, when some of the best composers got some of their best work done. One thinks of the MacDowell Colony here in the U.S. It hasn’t produced much enduring music lately—but the idea’s nice.

If I may end with a personal memory. It is of the playing of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony in the Bowl. It is a warm-cool summer evening, with the breeze singing through the trees, and the occasional bird joining in. Beyond the orchestra shell, one can see the forests, Green Lake—the “New World” itself, being expressed in that music (though, to be sure, Czechified). It is one of those perfect moments, perhaps unrecapturable.

And afterward, as the (legitimate) applause swells, a little kid in front of me—he’s maybe eleven—turns around, points to his watch, and exclaims, “That was a really long song!”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 11
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