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Caramoor: An Intimate Experience

No one today knows the origins of the name Caramoor. When Walter Rosen acquired the sprawling estate outside of Katonah, N.Y. in 1928, it already bore its romantic appellation, but little did anyone imagine what was to happen to the verdant property in the rolling Westchester hills during the decades that followed. This is the story of one of America's most intimate gems of natural, artistic, and humanistic beauty.

The Caramoor Music Festival marks its 40th anniversary this year and has been, for each of those years, an undisputed highlight of the metropolitan area's summer. Little more than an hour's drive from midtown Manhattan, it is easily accessible also to Long Islanders, northern New Jerseyans, and people from nearby Connecticut. Word, however, has gotten around in cultural circles far wider than the New York area and, with a minimum of self-advertisement or hoopla, Caramoor has attracted countless visitors from all over the country and abroad.

And small wonder. Quite apart from the scenic beauty of its pastoral setting and the magnificence of the art treasures it contains, Caramoor's music festival has maintained a mixture of professionalism and imagination that would be hard to rival anywhere. The Spanish Courtyard and, more recently, the Venetian Theater have offered a variety of musical fare ranging from full-scale opera productions to orchestral concerts, from chamber music performances to solo recitals, from ancient music to the most contemporary, and surprisingly much of the finest music in between. Traditionally, the festival begins on the last Saturday night in June and continues for six weeks, although this year's schedule, as an anniversary salute, calls for an additional musical offering to close the season.

Walter Tower Rosen, lawyer, banker and art patron, was born in Berlin in 1875, came with his parents to the United States at the age of ten, was the youngest member of his class at Harvard, and in 1901 joined the international banking firm of Ladenburg, Thalmann and Company, staying with this firm as a senior partner until his death in 1951. In business, he was a specialist in railroads and he served on the boards of many of the nation's leading corporations. It was in his personal, his inner life, however, that he seemed to be most vitally engaged. He played the piano exceptionally well and, during his Harvard years, was invited by Mrs Jack Gardner to do his practicing at Fenway Court, now known as the Gardner Museum. It may well have been in these surroundings that he developed his refined but catholic taste for the arts and his absorbing passion for collecting. Widely traveled, Walter Rosen made friends all over the world, and it was no coincidence that his most nurturing relationships sprang up in the artistic community. The Rosens' social circle was a great gathering of musicians — both composers and performers-as well as painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, and theatre folks.

In 1914, just as World War I swept over Europe, Walter Rosen married the beautiful Lucie Bigelow Dodge, and his friend Pablo Casals joined the throng offering wishes for a long, happy, and productive life together. The fates and muses must have responded sympathetically. Walter and Lucie became the toast of the many towns they frequented, but most especially of the great town house at 35 West 54th Street into which they settled.

When Lucie told her husband that it would be so good to have a little place in the country to which to escape on weekends and summers, Walter, who could never deny her anything, came up with Caramoor. Michael Sweeley, Caramoor's president and executive director, likes to say that the great house was built from the inside out. It was intended "to encase the complete rooms, the architectural elements and the fine and decorative arts that Walter T. Rosen had amassed during many years of passionate collecting. Over a decade a small, busy army of craftsmen worked to finish it, while Mr. Rosen supervised every detail." The building surrounds the Spanish Courtyard, and it was here that the Rosen family, servants, and guests stayed after its completion in 1939.

The Rosens had a son, Walter, born in 1915 and killed in action in World War II. Following his death, Mr. Rosen established a foundation to which Caramoor would eventually belong "as a Center for Music and the Arts for the Town of Bedford and The State of New York." Their daughter, Anne Bigelow Stern, is an active member of the Board of Trustees, often contributing illuminating insights into her extraordinary heritage to the pages of the souvenir book and elsewhere.

Strolling through house and grounds, the visitor is at once aware that this is no lifeless repository of objets d'art but a remarkably beautiful home in which people lived until recently — Lucie Rosen lived at Caramoor until her death in 1968-and which is still being actively used by the administrative staff and guests. The good life and a sense of beauty were the very raison d'être of Caramoor and continue in that vein as concerts and lectures are once again being held in the music room, and dinner parties are given for invited guests in the dining room with its exquisite blue and white handpainted wallpaper decorated with birds and flowers, and its red lacquer chairs. Many of the pieces from the New York town house were moved here after the house was sold following Mrs. Rosen's death. Some 15,000 people come each year to gaze at and relish the Rosens' summer home and its opulent appointments. The home, in fact, is open to the public most of the year, on a daily basis during the summer and by appointment in the off-season. Anne Bigelow Stern tells us:

"The architecture of Caramoor was conceived by Walter Rosen as a frame to enhance his collection. The building enfolded his treasures as a subtle background. Every column, pilaster or entablature, ceiling or panelled interior and all the variety of sculpture, tapestries, suites of furniture, paintings and rugs fell into place in accordance with the plan nursed in his mind over many years.

"The museum contents fall into a number of distinct groups representing Walter Rosen's diverse interests. Here one sees 18th century lacquer furniture, both Italian and English; 16th century Italian Renaissance furniture; Chinese cloisonne enamels of the Ming and Ch'ien Lung periods; 17th century English oak chairs. And textiles: among these are tapestries and embroideries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, rugs of the 17th and 18th centuries as well as exceptional examples of 17th and 18th century needlepoint chairs and sofas. Finally, there are the lovely period rooms that are disposed throughout the main building and the new wing, which range from the Gothic to the Neo-classic period."

The Rosens' music-making originally took place mainly in their New York residence. Only after so many of their friends and acquaintances asked to be present to hear a great succession of distinguished artists perform under such lovely and informal circumstances did Walter Rosen think of transferring the locale to summertime Katonah. Among the participants of that first summer (1946) were the Koutzen String Quartet, Saidenberg Little Symphony, lutenist Suzanne Bloch, cellist Janos Scholz, oboist Mitchell Miller, and organist Marcel Dupre.

Informality reigned during the first few seasons. Lucie Rosen was herself heard as soloist on the Theremin, featured one summer along with such names as Nadia Reisenberg, Phyllis Curtin, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. By 1955, New York Times music critic Howard Taubman was urging Mrs. Rosen to make a "real festival" at Caramoor, one which would be more widely available to the general public. Alfred Wallenstein was engaged as Caramoor's first music director (1958), followed by Walter Hendl (1962), and Julius Rudel, who came in 1964 and remained for 16 years. He is still a staunch supporter, regular guest conductor, and member of the Advisory Council. In 1982, Michael Feldman was engaged as musical advisor and brought with him the core of Caramoor's splendid orchestra, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble. In 1983, John Nelson became music director.

The Caramoor Music Festival looks with pride on the staged productions it has presented. The Spanish Courtyard was the site for an Abduction from the Seraglio, Coronation of Poppea, Dido and Aeneas, and the two delightful children's operas especially commissioned by Caramoor, The Ballad of the Bremen Band and The Daughter of the Double Duke of Dingle by Dennis Arlan and James Billings. The American premieres of all three church parables by Benjamin Britten, Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, all took place at Caramoor, under the direction of Julius Rudel. While the Venetian Theater was being built, a production of Cherubini's Medea took place in the Field of the Columns, and presentations in the Venetian Theater have ranged from Cavalli's L'Ormindo, operas by Monteverdi, Handel and Mozart to contemporary spectacles by Britten, Orff and others. In recent years, opera production has been discontinued for financial reasons, but it is the fervent hope of the musical and administrative staff that funds may be found specifically earmarked for the presentation of stage vehicles.

Funding, in fact, is a constant concern of the directors and Friends of Caramoor, the latter a group of some 1,600 devoted and loyal patrons who have given of their time, money, and energies to keep Caramoor vital. Michael Sweeley, an arts administrator and writer, was asked by Mrs. Rosen to "professionalize" the place and has been running it since 1958. He is today assisted by an administrator, curator, and development director, but there is a twinkle in his eye as he says: "We run the place with as many volunteers as possible." Those squadrons of invaluable helpers see to it that the media are kept informed (and, in turn, inform the public), that the facilities are kept in good operating condition, and that notices go out to each of the 32,000 people on the (now computerized) mailing list developed over the 40 years of the Festival's existence. Sweeley points with considerable pride to the 57% of the Festival's cost covered by ticket sales, a creditable achievement for any concert hall, but quite extraordinary when one considers that so much of Caramoor's gate receipts depends on the weather. Only protected seats are offered in advance, and there are only 400 of them in the Courtyard and less than 900 in the Theater. The remainder of the seating is put on sale on the actual concert day, making for small audiences when it rains, as it did relentlessly in 1984.

About 10% of the income stems from government sources, including the National Endowment, the New York State Council for the Arts, and Westchester County. The rest must be provided by corporations, foundations, and private donors. Businesses have recognized the enormous contribution that Caramoor makes to the quality of local life, and such corporations as Philip Morris, Reader's Digest, Union Carbide, Yves Saint Laurent, and Ciba-Geigy (to name just a few) have responded with vision, generosity, and enthusiasm.

Everyone is agreed that artistic standards be kept high; no one wishes to turn Caramoor into a mass playground, a receptacle for huge audiences or platform for popular appeal. "Caramoor must be an intimate experience," Lucie Bigelow Rosen said many years ago. And so, with its enchanted gardens and gazebos, its courtyards and theaters, its home-museum and festival, it is: an intimate experience and a place of beauty.

For information, write to the Caramoor Festival, P.O. Box R, Katonah, NY 10536.

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