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South Mountain Concerts

Nestled in the Berkshire hills just outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts is the site of the South Mountain Concerts, one of the nation's longest-standing chamber music presenters, having been founded in 1918 as the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music by the great American music patroness, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953).

Earlier concerts actually began in her summer home on West Street in Pittsfield in 1916 when she established the Berkshire String Quartet. The South Mountain property was purchased in 1916 as a gift to her son, Albert Sprague Coolidge, whose boyhood dream it was to own a mountain. Two years later, Mrs. Coolidge built a new summer home and studio for herself on part of the property and also built the "Temple of Music," the present concert hall. The hall, seating 440 and listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, was specifically designed for chamber music concerts and built in a colonial style using timber from an old textile mill. A Mountain House at the top of the mountain was subsequently built as a wedding present for Mrs. Coolidge's son and his wife.

Mrs. Coolidge's visits to Blue Hill, Maine, where the Kneisel Quartet enjoyed a summer residency, inspired her to establish the Berkshire Quartet (Hugo Kortschak and Sergei Kollarsky, violins, Clarence Evans, viola, Emmeran Stoeber, cello) were engaged from Chicago. The Elshuco Trio (Samuel Gardner, violin, Willem Willeke, cello, Richard Epstein, piano) was formed in the first festival year as well. Willeke, a noted Dutch cellist and member of the Kneisel Quartet, later was to become director of the festivals. The early festivals were spread over three consecutive days with morning and evening concerts that included not only the quartet and trio but visiting musicians we well.

From the very start Mrs. Coolidge, an accomplished amateur pianist and composer, gave simportant commissions to composers of eminence and promise. Through her efforts to encourage composers and promote the performance of new music, Mrs. Coolidge was described by W. W. Cobbett as "the fairy godmother of chamber music." Several new works commissioned by and dedicated to Mrs. Coolidge had premiere performances at South Mountain. Among their composers can be found the names of Ernest Bloch, Frank Bridge, Alfredo Casella, Roy Harris, Francesco Malipiero, Bohuslav Martinu, Ottorino Respighi, Wallingford Riegger, Carlos Salzedo, Arnold Schoenberg, Leo Sowerby, Ernst Toch, and Anton Webern.

Festivals were held annually from 1918 through 1924, and then in 1928, 1934, and 1938. During the early years, the concerts were supported wholly by Mrs. Coolidge. In 1935, the South Mountain Association, a non-profit organization, was incorporated to continue the chamber music concerts and other cultural activities of South Mountain. Included in their responsibilities was the maintenance of the concert hall and other South Mountain properties that had been donated by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Sprague Coolidge.

During the years of World War 2, with the rationing of gasoline, concerts were moved to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield in 1943. Festivals returned to the concert hall in 1949 with a series of three concerts. Some time was to pass before the present format of five concerts was established.

Willem Willeke died in 1950 and was succeeded as director by his second wife, Sally. Under her determined and dedicated guidance, South Mountain prospered and maintained its distinguished musical tradition. In 1955, under Mrs. Willeke's direction, South Mountain launched a new educational venture with the sponsorship of Young Audiences Concerts. Three concerts were offered the first year and today visiting artists perform 30 concerts annually in public schools of Berkshire county, offering live musical performances to thousands of young people.

Beginning with the year of Mrs. Willeke's declining health in 1980 and following her death in 1987, Lou Steigler assumed the responsibilities of director. These years have witnessed a significant upgrading in the performance quality of the concert series with the corresponding result of sold out houses for virtually all of the concerts.

In 1983 South Mountain established the first awards in the Willem Willeke Memorial Scholarship program designed to benefit gifted string players who reside or study in Berkshire county, and who are pursuing careers in music. While preference is given to high school seniors, eligibility extends to the applicant's 25th birthday.

In celebration of its 75th anniversary in 1993, South Mountain commissioned two American composers, Paul Epstein and Ned Rorem, to compose string quartets for performances by the Emerson String Quartet. The composer to be honored as the recipient of the 2004 commission was Ronald Perera, whose work was premiered by Boston University's resident Muir String Quartet.

Internationally distinguished artists who have appeared at South Mountain include Leonard Bernstein, Gary Graffman, Leontyne Price, Alexander Schneider, Peter Serkin, Rudolf Serkin, the Beaux Arts Trio, and the Cleveland, Emerson, Guarnieri, Juilliard, and Tokyo String Quartets. Her undying commitment to composers and chamber music performers and her bountiful generosity have assured Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge a permanent place in the annals of American music philanthropy at the Library of Congress as well as South Mountain.

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