Pianist Toby Blumenthal is that rare musician with a founding spirit. Wherever she has lived or worked, she has helped to establish successful chamber music series. One of the most long lasting ventures is the Luzerne Music Center, a summer camp for young musicians, which she and her husband, cellist Bert Phillips, founded in 1980 in Lake Luzerne, a Warren County village in the Adirondacks.
The skills for marketing and artistic management didn’t surface right away. Although she trained in music and won a concerto competition at 15 that gave her a solo piano performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Blumenthal backed out of the concert scene. She married a doctor, settled in Houston and raised five children. She kept busy musically by teaching piano privately, setting up a local chamber music series and getting her master’s degree. She also performed a solo with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
HER LAST SEASON
After her 20-year marriage ended and she married Phillips in 1978, life became focused on performance and travel — Phillips was a longtime member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Once the music camp was established, and later when Phillips retired from the orchestra in 1990, the couple divided their time between the camp from May to October and Sarasota, Florida, where they founded a hugely successful chamber music series held at three different venues.
Phillips died in 2008 and Blumenthal decided to move to the Austin, Texas, area to be near her children. It wasn’t long before her reputation became known and she was offered the directorship of CHAMPS, the chamber music program in the city’s schools, where she also began coaching six ensembles. Through all these years, Blumenthal continued to perform several concerts at the Luzerne Music Center. This year is no exception. She’ll perform next on Aug. 8 and Aug. 11.
But this is her last season at Luzerne. Next summer, she will form a piano trio for the Austin Chamber Music Series.
Q: How did the whole Luzerne thing happen?
A: We’d always come up to Luzerne in the summer and loved it. Bert thought it would be kind of cool to have a small education thing going. The camp grew from that idea. He was always interested in giving back. A friend, who was out canoeing, told us Camp Tekakwitha was up for sale. That was on the other side of the lake from where we were. Bert went up and took a look and bought it.
Q: What did you think about all this?
A: I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was not too hot for that idea. I’d never been to camp, or Bert. But we’d both established chamber music series — all of them long lasting, and I was good at marketing. The camp was in a shambles. So Bert took 1979-1980 off from the orchestra to set the camp up. Ricardo Muti [then Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director] let him go as long as he promised to come back. There was a hotel in Philadelphia that was being sold, so Bert went down and bought tables and chairs and toilets and carted them back to camp.
We were very energetic and creative and had a lot of fun. At concerts, we’d recruit kids for the camp. We had no money for backing, but Bert had a small inheritance and used that. The camp flourished with wonderful programs.
Q: After all these years, why do you think the camp did well?
A: I didn’t think it would work out as it did. But to see the progress in a few short weeks of the students because they don’t have TV or cell phones, and they socialize with other kids. It’s like a fantasy land.
The camp had its financial woes, which is why we sold the camp to a single entity as a not-for-profit and we now lease it. But things of value stay. It was a great mom-and-pop venture and 40 percent of the students go on into music. Even some of the staff were once campers and violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn [the current CEO and artistic director] was a camper for two summers. The camp is in amazingly good hands.
Q: But when you married Bert, you went from pretty much a hausfrau to a performer. How did you make that transition?
A: It’s just another one of my journeys. I just move on in my life. I go with the flow. I’ve been blessed with good health and I’ve never had problems with nerves. It’s stressful to perform. I played a lot of recitals as a kid but when I started to do chamber music, I stopped playing from memory. I still practice four hours a day if I have a concert.
Q: What about working with young kids?
A: I have eight students this summer. And I coach with three middle school and three high school groups in Austin. All my students win the competitions. It’s energizing to work with young kids. They soak up what I tell them. And most are Asian. Over the last five years, I’ve brought up to 25 kids to camp.
Q: The word was out that you were retiring from Luzerne.
A: Yes. I thought the getting was good. It’s time to move. I have 15 grandchildren and two great grandsons. None are musicians except for one grandson. Bert’s son is a singer, though. And I’m so happy to see that Bert’s legacy continues. I hope it lasts another 50 years.