Editor’s note: This article is by Candace Page, a Burlington freelance writer. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
EAST CRAFTSBURY –- Dairy farmer Morris Rowell was a widower with five children when he married Mary Anthony Cox in 1974.
A more unlikely marriage — a more unlikely meeting — is difficult to imagine. He grew up in South Albany, Vermont, milked cows and ran a farm equipment business. She was a daughter of the deep South, a Paris-trained classical pianist with a life in Manhattan and a career as a teacher at Juilliard, America’s premier music school.
They met after summer residents of Greensboro enticed a group of classical musicians to Craftsbury from Manhattan in 1966, to spend July and August making music in Vermont’s cool hills. Cox was a founding member of the Craftsbury Chamber Players and returned every summer.
The Players’ 49th season of classical chamber music opens with afternoon children’s concerts and evening performances on Wednesday in Burlington and on Thursday in Hardwick.
In time, the Rowell-Cox marriage – and the Players’ music — helped propel two Rowell daughters out of the Kingdom, to college degrees at Juilliard and highly successful careers as professional musicians.
Today, the exchange of music and marriage between Manhattan and Vermont has come full circle. As the Players prepare to celebrate their 50th season in 2015, those daughters, Frances and Mary, have become the heart and the future of the group.
“In Craftsbury, I’m Franny of the Rowell clan who went to Craftsbury Academy, as well as an artist returning to make art,” said Frances Rowell, 54, a cellist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. “Those are different people elsewhere. Here, they’re the same person.”
“This is my chance to be home, to actually live in my house,” echoed her sister, Mary Rowell, 55, who remembers driving a tractor to violin lessons as a young girl.
Mary Rowell is a busy freelance violinist who has been described by the New York Times as ”a performer of hyperactive brilliance.” She specializes in contemporary concert music but plays gigs that range from rock groups to acting as concertmistress for Broadway musicals and the Radio City Music Hall holiday show.
“I will tell you that Frances and Mary are as good as they come,” their stepmother told a recent visitor to her home in East Craftsbury. She’s a stern-looking woman with short iron-gray hair described by some of her former students as the toughest, but best, teacher they ever had. Her look and her voice brook no disagreement when she pronounces.
The Rowells, along with Cox and the Chamber Players’ local board, will chart the group’s future, which is complicated by increased competition for summer audiences and changing public tastes.
For the artists, the Chamber Players’ season has always been part concert series, part summer camp. The group expands and contracts around a small core of players for each performance. Visiting musicians fill many of the seven bedrooms in Morris Rowell’s rambling farmhouse, sharing dinners and Rowell’s famous apple pie around the dining room table.
The house will echo with the sound of a piano in the back room, a violin in an upstairs bedroom and a horn wailing from a nearby pasture.
“We go for creemees after rehearsal or go to my house for barbecue,” said Mary Rowell, whose wildly wavy hair makes her seem taller than her 6 feet. “We all know each other, we’ve played together for a long time.”
The result, she said is a kind of freedom to “go for it” musically.
“With a lot of groups, the music never blows up; there’s never that risk-taking, that different voice, because they have learned to play together so carefully,” she said. “We go for it … rev the engine and head on down the road.”
Mary Rowell describes herself as a kind of big-picture player, going for the right shape and feeling of the music. Her sister is more analytical, more focused on technique, but she says much the same thing.
“Boy, do we have fun,” Frances Rowell said, as she took a break last month from rebuilding the steps on the little farmhouse Mary owns and they share in the summer. “Instead of looking for perfection, we’ll look at each other and say, ‘I’ll go for it if you will.’”
For an audience, the result can be enthralling.
“They create a music of joy,” said Connell Gallagher of Underhill, a longtime audience member who has joined the Chamber Players’ board.
“They have this magnetism among them because they know each other so well – it’s almost a family,” he said. “They don’t have long to rehearse, so they aren’t always as polished. Sometimes some in the audience are critical of that, but they have a real following that loves them.”
Natalie Neuert, director of the University of Vermont Lane Series which brings internationally known artists to Burlington, says, “They are certainly world-class performers. They both challenge their audiences with new music and make the audience really happy with the big classical stuff. These are people who have kept up with everything and have a huge knowledge.”
For Frances and Mary Rowell that journey to excellence began early. Their mother, who came to Craftsbury from New York City as the secretary of a wealthy resident, insisted all five children take piano lessons. She died in 1973 when the girls were in their early teens.
As children, their lives resembled other farm kids’, helping to feed the calves, muck out the barn and bring in the hay. The arrival of the Chamber Players broadened the girls’ musical horizons, providing a window into the possibility of a life dominated by music.
“It is unlikely I would have ended up as a professional musician. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that it was a job, because there was not a model here,” Frances Rowell said. The Players, and her stepmother, provided that model.
As the two teen-age girls became more skilled, Cox helped connect them with teachers at Juilliard. For several years, the girls took the train on Friday nights from Montpelier to Manhattan for Saturday lessons.
Cox, 82, retired from teaching last year after nearly 50 years. An arthritic thumb ended her performing career with the Players, although she remains as the group’s music director.
One attraction for visiting musicians is Cox’s approach to programming. At the end of each season, performers are invited to submit proposals for pieces they would like to play the next. Some are classics, but there is a good dose of seldom-played or contemporary pieces.
From the collection of suggestions, Cox fashions each of the six concerts, usually sandwiching less familiar music between classics by Beethoven, Brahms and the like.
“This is a place to come together and make music,” Mary Rowell said. “That’s the only reason we’re here. It’s not about money or career opportunities. It’s genuine love of music and playing together.”
For more information about the Craftsbury Chamber Players summer series, go to www.craftsburychamberplayers.org
Candace Page is a Burlington freelance writer.