The Magic of Ogontz
an except from UB: A Memoir, now available at The Bob Store
The magic doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time, but that does not diminish the importance of the first evening. Road-weary bodies fall out of their cars and toddle toward the registration office, and then to the reception at the welcoming circle of green-painted Adirondack chairs. Old friends burst forth with hearty halloos, hugs, and kisses, and new campers are introduced and enfolded. They will soon be old friends too. From the green chairs everyone sees the camp’s main attraction. Beyond a large open field and flag pole, and in front of several peaks of the distant White Mountains, rests the upland lake given the name Ogontz, and it begins to work its magic.
Painting by campers Leman Bronson and Melinda White-Bronson, 2004
Tea, fruit, and baked goodies are proffered – and within an hour everyone has been greeted by the camp owners Lynn Kent and husband George, who goes by “Bunky.” In a couple of leisurely hours, everyone orients to the camp facilities and their housing assignments, and they pick up any rented or purchased music. Over the week we will sing 20 sessions of 75 minutes each, and in addition be offered daily one-hour morning warm-ups and an option to sing or attend afternoon master classes. Oddly, by week’s end, most people haven’t had enough, and you may be surprised to learn that this schedule permits free time for tennis, swimming, paddling, or a hike.
The magic takes time. I know it’s a trite metaphor but I testify as an eyewitness. In a day or so the hard shells created by tensions of job and a fast-paced life seem to dissolve away. That trundle up the hill to the Rehearsal Hall is replaced by a more vigorous stride. One tenor took most of the week to be able to sing with a vertical neck and head, rather than the 20 degree list to the left he was using when he arrived.
The choral symposium was originally conceived of and managed by Bunky’s Chorus of Westerly, Rhode Island, and it was they and other camp staff, even more so than the setting, who were responsible for making it a special week. It was to become in one camper’s words an "annual once-in-a-lifetime experience.” After dinner on the first evening we attended, I found myself surrounded by six women from Westerly. You see, prior to camp, because it was a cooperative, we all filled out a form and checked off jobs we might be able to do. I saw a box next to “handyman,” and checked it, but then my conscience told me in all honesty to scratch out the handy part. I didn’t think about the possible interpretations of this act, but it was in fact why the six women wanted to welcome the one who signed up to be “man.” Ha! What a welcome – albeit tongue-in-cheek.
Topping off this wonderful experience was the man at the top, Sir David Willcocks of Cambridge, England. I knew about him only through his Christmas carol collections and the annual Christmas Eve "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" from King's College, Cambridge. I think we sang the Fauré Requiem on one of the very first evenings, and I volunteered to sing one of the baritone solos because I had done them several times for our chorus. It went well, but if I had known the breadth of Sir David’s life and musicianship, I doubt I would have had the courage to offer. In time, Claire and I came to know him as a friend, a wonderful teacher with the highest standards, and a fellow tennis player and paddler on the lake.
All mornings begin with a cooked breakfast among other lighter choices, followed by a brief period when many do their chores, cleaning or prepping the next meal. Non-handy men like me might be assigned to pull bent nails and try to replace them with straight ones. At 9:30 we warm up with the vocal coach, Paula Rockwell from Nova Scotia. She devotes much of this first session to having singers introduce themselves, tell where they are from, their jobs, hobbies, and something unique about themselves. In this session in the second year attending, I made the half-sincere comment that I came to camp to overcome my shyness. That brought on the guffaws, and since 1992, my handle has been “Shy Bob.”
Ogontz Camp was the summer retreat of the Ogontz School for Girls in Philadelphia. Through several decades of their gatherings, the girls participated in swimming, boating, tennis, the arts, and equestrian activities. By the 1960s, the camp was beginning to fall into disuse.
Sir David under the handy/music person mobile. Photo: Bill Wieting.
In 1990 the Chorus of Westerly members and their music camp participants began pounding those nails to help make Ogontz become a vibrant concern with solid bookings of music weeks and wedding weekends. There are Suzuki violin and singing camps for kids, other singing and instrumental camps, and folk dancing weeks. The Choral Workshop now operates on its own, independent from The Chorus of Westerly, and supported by its own non-profit arts organization.
Claire and I love to take a late afternoon break from the singing and the heat and paddle around the lake. We stop at the swimming dock and take a dip. On the short return trip we often catch Bunky and Charlie Kitchen playing their alpenhorns from the flagpole area. Their Tyrolean strains can be heard echoing through the valleys for several seconds after they stop playing – a most serene experience.
After the evening sing most are ready for the sack. Claire and I have a 30-minute drive home to ours. Night owls are invited to see what’s up in the dining hall. There may be cards, cribbage, dominoes, or just chats. Some might opt for star gazing from the spacious deck outside.
During Sir David’s 20-year tenure at camp, we tackled many large-scale works from his masterful achievements in performing with large choruses and orchestras. He would be at the piano seeming to have five or six hands while we sang Haydn masses, Brahms choruses, and contemporary classics. Of course, he would promote his English composers like Byrd, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Parry, and the works published by Oxford University Press, of which he was an editor emeritus. Another David, last name Hill, assumed the choral leadership in 2010. Under his excellent musicianship and perfect ear, we have concentrated on fewer, less familiar works, and we finish each week having learned much from him.
On an afternoon near the end of each week the dining hall, is closed to all but staff. The Camp Director would have made a plan for a dessert party for us and friends of the camp. In late afternoon we amble down to Ogontz Hall – a mammoth new structure near the lake shore – for an informal supper, and after, we hear Paula and her long-time camp accompanist, Geoff Wieting of Boston, give a recital. Paula has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice and a twinkle in her eye. She never fails to bring out the emotion of a song, and she always includes one or two that bring grins and laughter from us all. She has served us brilliantly every summer since 1994.
After the recital we queue up at the dining hall to see what the staff have cooked up for entertainment and desserts. We campers have been transported to places like ancient Babylon, Venice, Broadway, a beach, and Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden for a fresh tableau of a midsummer’s dream. The hall is filled with an array of sweet treats to accompany the show. All this, and there is yet the final morning sing to come.
Leaving. Pack it up and give the cabin a sweep. Paula sings a song she wrote about seeing her lovely Nova Scotia from the air after having been away. The chorus gives its final “private” performance of the week’s music. Paula and one of the Davids – Willcocks, now Hill – and the Kents, are thanked and congratulated. We all give our buddies long warm best wishes hugs, goodbyes, and it’s “see-you-next-year.” Many will keep in touch until then. It’s as family-like as yours or mine, to be sure.
Update 2021: Ogontz Camp has grown into a full service destination resort for weddings and other events. It continues to be a retreat for our choir workshop, for other arts activities, and for private functions. More information on the venue here.
Our choral workshop week was reduced to an abbreviated virtual one in 2020 and 2021, albeit led by the same wonderful personnel. We return to an in-person event in August 2022. See Ogontz Art Foundation for information.
Photo: Bill Wieting.