The Mt. Desert Festival of Chamber Music was started in 1963 at a time when Mt. Desert Island was culturally dormant. Not since the pre-World War I days, when Bar Harbor was vying with Newport, RI as the summer social center for the upper classes, had there been public concerts. In Northeast Harbor, the Neighborhood House, built in 1905 and which has been the home of the Mt. Desert Festival since its inception, had been the focal point of the town’s social life and still bore witness to its vibrant past (Paderewski and Fritz Kreisler were among notables who were heard in the hall). Balls, concerts, clubs, and theatrical productions had flourished there. By 1963, however, the Neighborhood House was an all but forgotten dowager, a relic of a golden age. When Matthew and Natalie Raimondi, founders of the festival, approached the shareholders of the Neighborhood House to use it as possible venue for an inaugural concert, a juke box glared in the lobby for the occasional cluster of teenagers, while the hall was used mainly as a basketball court or for a dance. The Raimondis saw, however, that the hall’s Neo-Gothic vaulted ceiling and wooden paneling provided the makings of a great concert hall that was acoustically ideal.
In 1974, Natalie Raimondi and Margaretta Iselin were largely responsible for making a major effort to raise enough money to begin renovating the Neighborhood House and making it again the cultural center of Northeast Harbor. By the 1980s, when urban renewal fever was replaced by restoration fever, a capital campaign by the Neighborhood House successfully raised funds to further restore the building and even add a new wing. Today the Neighborhood House is thriving and is home not only to the Mt. Desert Festival but to a variety of concerts, classes, art shows, weddings, auctions, day-care, and all sorts of other community functions.
In 1963, violinist Matthew Raimondi was a well-known fixture in New York musical circles. He had spent most of his professional life as a member of the internationally recognized New Music String Quartet, and as concertmaster for such luminaries as Igor Stravinsky and Maria Callas. Chamber music, however, was his passion and metier. While playing at the Hancock (ME) Chamber Music Series, Mr. Raimondi was approached by Clara Fargo Thomas, a Mt. Desert resident, about starting a concert series on the island. A select audience was invited to a “trial balloon” concert at a her home on Somes Sound. Along with Mrs. Thomas, people such as Gertrude Fay (daughter of the music publisher G. Schirmer) and Ellen Harrison (wife of the Metropolitan Opera architect) were among those in attendance who became long-time supporters of the festival. Within ten days, the Mt. Desert Festival of Chamber Music was formed (with Mr. Raimondi as music director, and Natalie Raimondi as executive director) and the concert was repeated publicly at the Neighborhood House. A mailing went out asking people to subscribe to a series in 1964, and by 1965 the festival was incorporated as a non-profit organization. At the same time, the Composers String Quartet was formed with Matthew Raimondi as its first violinist. The quartet, which became the nucleus of the festival, went on to an international career and was chosen to represent the State Department in many concerts around the world. They also became quartet-in-residence at New England Conservatory and Columbia University, and produced a large discography.
The goal of the festival was clear from the outset: to present a series based on the masterworks of the chamber music literature. Through its excellence and loyal list of subscribers, the festival became a premier institution in the state of Maine. Along with the Composers String Quartet, many well-known guest artists were invited to perform each summer. For many years, the series consisted of four concerts; as audiences grew, a fifth was added, although, as Mr. Raimondi often stated, his aim was for the festival to “blossom, not to grow. “In 1996, after thirty-three years, Matthew Raimondi retired as music director and was replaced by pianist Todd Crow, a long-time friend and colleague who had been a guest artist at the festival for almost twenty-five years. The artistic emphasis has remained essentially unchanged. While there is no longer a resident string quartet, Mr. Crow has invited some of today’s pre-eminent string quartets to perform as the core ensemble for individual concerts, among them being the Brentano, Miami, Borromeo, and Shanghai quartets. Some concerts feature chamber groups with diverse instrumental/vocal make-ups. The festival takes pride in presenting performers having national and international reputations and who are among the finest of today’s musicians appearing before the public.
We continue to expand the musical boundaries to include more music from the Baroque and pre-Classical eras, as well as contemporary and American works. At a time when many organizations are attempting to reach larger audiences by offering accessible and perhaps less challenging programming, it is the festival’s intention to continue the pattern of providing an enriching and musically intense listening experience for all who come to our concerts.