Chestertown Suddenly Home for 180 Musicians

Chui Ling Tan, a National Music Festival at Washington College percussionist from Malaysia, says the first thing she noticed about Chestertown was the Canada geese on the river.

Vijay Chalasani, a violist from San Francisco, is pleased that Chestertown is home to Washington College. “Chestertown is open and welcoming,” he said. “I like the feel of a college town.”

 Vijay Chalasani & Ivo Bokulic

Vijay Chalasani & Ivo Bokulic

Trumpeter Alex Rensink loves the architecture of historic places and says Chestertown reminds him of Charleston, South Carolina, the second oldest city in the South.

But for Kuan-Ting Chang, a horn player from Taiwan, her first impression of Chestertown took root as the car she was in passed acres of freshly plowed fields in northern Queen Anne’s County.

“There weren’t any buildings,” she said. “It’s very beautiful here.”

The four young musicians are among the 180 “apprentices” and “mentors” who arrived on June 1 from all over the United States and the world to learn, teach and play every day, until June 15, as part of the National Music Festival at Washington College.

Disregarding jet-lag, they started rehearsing and performing almost immediately, delighting Farmer’s Market patrons and a voice and violin recital audience at Emmanuel Church on Saturday, and playing to full houses at Emmanuel Church and the Garfield Center for the Arts on Sunday.

Every day, until the festival ends on June 15, NMF musicians will offer scores of open rehearsals (all free of charge) and dozens of recitals and concerts (some are free; tickets to others are $10, $15 and $20) to audiences of every size. There will be performances in Chestertown, Rock Hall and Betterton, though most will be on the campus of Washington College.

(For performance listings and ticket information, go to or stop by the Festival Headquarters at the Chestertown Visitors Center.)

“We’re so happy that the Festival has partnered with Washington College,” said Laura Wade, chair of the National Music Festival’s board of directors. “The College’s performance spaces—Decker Theatre, Tawes Theatre, the Hotchkiss Recital Hall and the Johnson Fitness Center are all fabulous, and it’s wonderful that we’ll be able to use 30 dorm rooms, too. We couldn’t be more appreciative.”

Wade said it was fun last year, watching music lovers fill the auditoriums and rehearsal spaces as word got out that the quality of the Festival’s music was outstanding.

“It took the first week before the buzz got around,” Wade said. “But once people saw the musicians in our restaurants and shops and heard from friends how wonderful the music was, they started filling up the rehearsal spaces and concert halls. By the second week, we could tell that the community was embracing us.”

This year, Wade said, 87 area residents are hosting musicians, and so many have purchased Festival Passes—guaranteeing a seat, even at the most popular concerts—that the Festival Passes have sold

 Kuan-Ting Chang (horn apprentice) & Chui Ling Tan (percussion apprentice)

Kuan-Ting Chang (horn apprentice) & Chui Ling Tan (percussion apprentice)


Throughout Chestertown and the surrounding area on Saturday, volunteer drivers dropped off musicians they’d picked up, mostly at Philadelphia and BWI airports, at host homes and soon after, the apprentices and mentors started to check in at the Visitors Center in Chestertown. All seemed eager to begin making music.

“I started playing seriously pretty late; I only had my first private lesson on timpani when I was 17,” said percussion apprentice Chui Ling Tan, the young woman who spotted the Canada geese on the Chester River. “It was great—I loved it—but I knew it wasn’t economically practical to be a musician, so I studied biology for two years until I realized I wasn’t happy at all, and I realized I wanted to do what made me happy.”

Tan will work with percussion mentor Michelle Humphreys for the next two weeks, and she can’t wait to get started. “I like timpani the most,” she said, “but there are endless possibilities with percussion. Did you know that every minute, while we are speaking, a new percussion instrument is being invented?”

The young trumpeter who likes historic towns, Alex Rensink, said he’s recently started thinking of himself as a musician, rather than “just” a trumpet player.

“I think when we say, ‘I’m a pianist or a trumpet player,’ we’re putting ourselves in the singular,” Rensink explained. “It’s like an athlete who talks about having a certain skill in a particular sport. But calling yourself a musician—being a musician—puts all of the qualities you have together and makes it something more complete.”

For viola apprentice Vijay Chalasani, the Festival is all about learning the orchestral and chamber repertoire, an enormous body of music that he knows he must learn if he is to have a career as an orchestra violist.

“The amount of material that we’re performing in two weeks is the equivalent of what we’d perform over a full semester at the conservatory,” Chalasani said. “Here it’s more compressed, and we must trust our mentors to help us succeed. Still, it’s a lot of work, and there’s no time for excuses.”

Lowell Greer, Festival Horn Mentor

Lowell Greer, Festival Horn Mentor

Ivo Boculić, who studies with Chalasani in California, is returning to the National Music Festival for the second year, and he agrees that the apprentice-mentor relationship is what makes the festival work. Viola mentor Caroline Coade is the third chair violist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Boculić says she offers both time and advice generously here at the festival.

“Caroline is so giving,” Boculić said. “She’s the reason I came back. When we perform, she sits in the section, in the second row just behind the (apprentice) section leader, and during rehearsals she gives advice while we’re taking breaks. She’s fantastic.”

At the Visitors Center, as apprentices and mentors arrived, old friends found each other and new friendships began to gel.

Lowell Greer, the Festival’s horn mentor, has known National Music Festival Artistic Director Richard Rosenberg for 25 years, from a time when they both taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Greer mentored during the Festival’s first year, when it was in Floyd, Virginia, and returned last year, when the Festival moved to Chestertown.

“I return because of Chestertown and the scenery and the Bay area—for the crabs, of course—and because of the music, the young people and the old timers,” he said. “The mentors go for a year without seeing each other—we’re in other places—and then we return and work together intensely. It’s quite an experience.”

Greer lives in Ohio, but says he’s come to like and admire the people of the Eastern Shore. “There’s kind of a profile to the people who live on the peninsula,” he said. “The people here are somewhat aristocratic. They’re concerned with things of heritage, and yet they’re forward looking. They like the good things of life, but they’re also concerned with the future.”

Greer said he’s always been impressed with the way National Music Festival mentors work and perform with the apprentices, helping them get ready to make the shift from student to professional.

“I think there’s something almost out of the fifth dimension that takes place here,” Greer said. “I think the apprentices are trying to learn the things that can’t be taught, and while they are here they can

Laura Wade, Festival Board Chair

Laura Wade, Festival Board Chair

sometimes get a glimpse of that. The apprentices don’t merely ape what other musicians have done before, but they find an entirely new way of expressing themselves with their music, and that keeps the art fresh.”

Rehearsals and performances will be at the Gibson Center for the Arts and the Johnson Fitness Center at Washington College as well as in Chestertown: in Fountain Park, the Garfield Center, Emmanuel Church, Music Life, Bookplate, the Carla Massoni Gallery, RiverArts Gallery, Robert Ortiz Studios, the Kent County Library, K&L Services and Heron Point.

Rock Hall concerts will be at The Mainstay, Java Rock and the Rock Hall Volunteer Fire Company. There will be a concert at St. Paul’s Parish, Kent, and another at the Betterton Community Center.

For the horn player from Taiwan, Kuan-Ting Chang, however, the venue she hopes to play some time during the next two weeks isn’t in any of Kent County’s towns. A city dweller all her life, Chang says she’s hoping to find a perfect spot, away from rehearsal spaces and concert halls.

“I want to play my horn in the woods,” she said. “I think it would sound very nice.”