When pianist Constance Emmerich came to town in June 1982 to play in the first Rockport Chamber Music Festival, she told co-founder David Alpher, “If you stick with this for ten years, it will succeed if for no other reason than it becomes a habit.”

Succeed it did—over and over again. Commencing its 35th season, the Festival is proof of an enduring brand loyalty: Superb music in a seaside setting is a welcome habit for many.

The Oral History Project of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (RCMF) interviewed many who helped shape the organization in its first decade. Townspeople and summer visitors alike set up seats and sold tickets; baked dozens of cookies; or like many innkeepers, provided rooms for visiting musicians. Finances were usually scant, sometimes critically so, but volunteers persisted in efforts to keep the little music box afloat.

The first two-week season opened June 3, in the gallery of the Rockport Art Association. It featured the Annapolis Brass Quintet, An die Musik (Ms. Emmerich’s group), the American String Quartet, and the New York Bach Ensemble. Just three or four tickets were sold in advance, yet 80 people paid six dollars at the door and sat on wooden chairs in the unairconditioned room. At intermission, cookies went for a dollar. Torrential rains accompanied much of the Festival, lending staccato notes from the roof of the gallery, a former barn.

Nothing could dampen the optimism of the three founders, the late Lila Deis, a performer with a luscious soprano voice; Alpher, a composer/pianist; and businessman Paul Sylva, who raised the seed money.

Sylva shares a story from the early years: Cellist Daniel Rothmuller, of An die Musik, came in one day with his Stradivarius. When Sylva remarked how beautiful the instrument sounded, Rothmuller said, “It should. It’s {worth} about two and a half million dollars.” Sylva asked him when he was going to get the scratches on the rare instrument taken care of. The cellist said he couldn’t, because “They were made by Napoleon.” So I said, “Napoleon, like Bonaparte?” Rothmuller said one of Napoleon’s generals had owned it.

Deis and Alpher, the co-founders, eventually stepped down from their Festival posts—Alpher in 1991, and Deis in 1995. In 2010, Lila Deis died of cancer.

Over the decades, the Festival blossomed creatively, showcasing new works along with music at the heart of the chamber music repertoire. Fund shortages would on occasion be worrisome. No matter. The board, the co-directors and volunteers would see to it that the Festival not only kept going but continued to explore new creative horizons.

Unforeseen was this: Their achievements would one day make possible Rockport Music, an organization that would build the $20-million Shalin Liu Performance Center. Situated just kitty-corner across from the Art Association, this acoustically splendid venue at the sea would promote multi-genre music programs while staying true to its chamber music roots. Soon, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter would help let the world know that performers like Yo-Yo Ma, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, and The Kingston Trio would be coming to town.

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Collected and written by the Rockport Music Oral History Project: Michael Pardee (writer), Nina Fieldsteel, Christina Doyle, Pamela Bynum, Jean Woodbury, Ruth Shane, Margaret Ziering, Jean Rees, and Eileen Mueller

The above is an excerpt from the first article in a series based on the Oral History Project’s interviews with people involved in the Rockport Chamber Music Festival over the past 35 years.