SONGS OF A SUMMER’S DAY
One of the Upper Valley’s great, and affordable, pleasures is taking in a Sunday afternoon concert at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. During the summer, the U. S. National Park Service hosts ten concerts with content ranging from jazz and Celtic music to chamber music and formal singing.
But it is not just the quality of music making that makes attending a concert at Saint-Gaudens so special, it is the sum of the experience. The world renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens bought the 80 acre property in 1891 and proceeded to move there to pursue his sculpting career. Today, in addition to the main house, one can view over 100 pieces of Saint-Gaudens’ work including some of his most famous pieces like “Robert Gould Shaw Memorial” and “The Mystery of the Hereafter” a sculpture commissioned by historian Henry Adams to memorialize his late wife Clover.The grounds, however, are what make the concert experience so satisfying. The performances take place in “The Little Studio” that sits just 20 yards from the main house. Patrons can sit inside to view the performers or sit just outside under the vine-draped pergola that serves as the studio’s front porch. My wife Nancy and I prefer to arrive well before the concert begins to stake out a place to enjoy a picnic on the grass in the tree-shaded sunken garden that adjoins the studio. It is said that Saint-Gaudens enjoyed resting here in a hammock while listening to a water fountain that features a Saint-Gaudens designed statue of the god Pan playing his pipes. Nearby are formal gardens bursting with summer flowers. Between the pergola’s columns is a fine view across an expansive lawn of Mt. Ascutney’s hulking dome. This past weekend we met with friends and enjoyed a picnic before a vocal concert that would feature selections from Opera North’s upcoming season. Singer’s from the company’s “Young Artists Program” performed works by Bernstein (West Side Story), Copland (The Tender Land) and Mozart (The Abduction from Seraglio). Also on the bill were operatic pieces that came from sheet music in Saint-Gaudens’ music library. In addition to being a world famous sculptor, Saint-Gaudens apparently was a very capable musician who enjoyed playing the flute. He also was known to sing opera while he worked. We savored the music, sipped wine and were beguiled by the bucolic setting. “What does this have to do with birds,” you ask? Well, the grounds are a park, and, as you might imagine, there is quite a bit of bird activity. Not surprisingly, I had my ears open not only for operatic arias and duets. I also listened for songs of an avian nature. Passing overhead could be heard the bright, bubbly call of an American goldfinch. From one of the nearby gardens came a song sparrow's languid, raspy series of whistles and trills. Behind the “Little Studio,” there is an “allee” of hardwoods that during our visit, attracted tufted titmice, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. From one of the nearby, tall hedges came a male northern cardinal’s piercing whistle. Experienced birders will recognize this compulsion to identify and register birds present no matter what the setting or occasion. You just can’t help yourself.