“Music in the Mansion” A TOTALLY Unique Winter Camp

There are many ways an organization can mark a Silver Anniversary: splashy advertising, promotions, signage… We could have done that.

Instead, The Philadelphia International Music Festival notched its 25th year in 2022 with enhanced online programming that drew record numbers of participants; a beefed-up curriculum at its summer camp as it welcomed students from overseas again as well as from all over North America; and a dazzling work-hard play-hard Solo Music Intensive for violin and cello at a luxurious south Florida estate to end the celebration year on a high note.

And such a high! Violinist Alexa Hudson summed it up: “Best music camp EVER!”

Twenty-five (there’s that number again) young violinists and cellists were selected by audition to attend PIMF’s Music In The Mansion winter break program at an elegant property in the Miami area from December 26 through New Year’s Day. The sprawling grounds featured an assortment of garden nooks and charming outbuildings for photo ops and private practice (participants committed to 5 hours a day) as well as abundant harmless wildlife to serenade on a whim (no alligators, but plenty of iguanas and a roaming flock of 70 – 70!!!—peacocks.)

The mansion itself offered indoor and outdoor spaces for private lessons and studio classes with faculty that included  Kimberly Fisher (Principal Second Violin of The Philadelphia Orchestra), Richard Amoroso (First Violin of The Philadelphia Orchestra), Madison Day (Assistant Artistic Director of PIMF and Artist in Residence at Temple University), Huifang Chen (Concertmaster of The South Florida Symphony), and John Koen (Cello, The Philadelphia Orchestra), as well as daily workouts and coachings with piano accompanists.

The days were packed with laser focus on skill building and technique refinement, while the evenings were opportunities to perform and be challenged in Master Classes. And throughout – a spectacular gourmet menu, complete with daily High Tea prepared by Chef Daphnee Francois. (Shoutout to whoever planted all the avocado trees, which made for frequent quacamole from fruit straight off a branch!)

Tastebuds and tummies coddled, the students, ranging in age from 7 to 17, could attend to the demands of the curriculum and their own personal goals for the week.

Violinist Sandhya Saravanan traveled halfway around the world, from Singapore, to be part of Music In The Mansion.  “By going overseas I’m able to expand my boundaries and learn so much more,” she told us, “and grow as a musician in skill and the whole mental aspect.”

The 17-year-old is up to her chin-rest in college applications these days and is considering pursuing a degree in music at a university in the U.S. or the U.K. Though she’s performed widely at home – including tens of thousands in the stands for Singapore’s massive 50th Independence Day celebration in 2015 – PIMF’s winter mini-camp was a chance to see how her music education measures up against her American peers.

“It’s not about comparing yourself to others, it’s more about your own journey as a musician and about how you want to be the best musician you can be,“ Sandhya told us. “I’ve never been to a camp like this before and it would be easy to worry that everyone is judging you, or that you’re not up to standard, but it’s clear that we’re all here to learn, to improve as a musician, not to compare.”

Sandhya says the camp surpassed all of the goals she set for it: “To improve my sound, to make friendships, and to gain new insights into not just what I’m playing but what other people are playing. Learning so much not just from the amazing students here but members of the Philadelphia Orchestra that I can apply not just to what I’m playing now but pieces I’m going to play in the future. I’ve never really had an experience like this – it’s just surreal that I was able to take part in this camp!”

In the words of John Koen, “Music In The Mansion “was also a unique experience for me as a  teacher.” Mr.  Koen worked daily with all eight cellists and remarked on how the mini-camp layout fostered the total immersion aspect of the intensive, allowing for more interactions with students between lessons. “It was great to see the students play for each other in the common areas — the mansion had a large inner courtyard with enough shade to facilitate continued collaboration.”

The Mansion’s grounds had ample space to work and practice individually while keeping faculty and students in helpful contact across their schedules.

“Walking from one student’s practice area to another’s, I might pass a student working on something we discussed in a prior lesson,” Mr. Koen recalled, “and I can offer a quick five-second suggestion, or, often, encouragement for doing a good job. Some students might be working on a new piece, and I can offer tips for preparation, especially when building on a concept from a previous lesson, master class or performance studio class.”

An entirely new way to study their craft, PIMF’s Music In The Mansion program helped these young musicians jump-start 2023 with fresh insights and inspiration, new connections, and glowing memories.

“The culmination of this was seeing so much improvement from all of the students in just six days!” John Koen said. “I know some close musical friendships were developed, and I’m certain the students are continuing to benefit from their experiences in the Mansion!”

“Bravo” to the festival’s visionary creators, Sandy Marcucci and Kimberly Fisher!