In Telluride, the name Michael Palm is practically synonymous with the Telluride Chamber Music Festival, although the two did not hook up until midway into the more-than-three-decades old festival's long history.
"When I met Michael" in the early 1990s through a mutual friend, "I knew he loved classical music," recollects San Miguel County Commissioner Elaine Fischer, who has been on the festival's board of directors for more than twenty years.
He both loved it and played it. Palm was a classical pianist in his own right, with two baby grand pianos in his Manhattan apartment near Lincoln Center, and another that was helicoptered in to his Telluride home on Sunshine Mesa.
"I know he was very good," says Chamber Music Festival Co-Director Roy Malan, "although he would never play for us."
Palm preferred, instead, to surround himself with musicians.
Fischer met Palm when, as luck would have it, the Telluride Chamber Music Festival was in town.
Right away, the wheels began turning.
"The first person I introduced Michael to was Robin Sutherland," Malan's codirector. "There was an instant connection," Fischer remembers.
Soon Palm's vast home on the mesa had become a sort of de facto festival headquarters.
Every year during Palm's tenure on the board of the Telluride Chamber Music Festival (a post he held from 2002 until his death, in 1998), Fischer organized an elegant fund-raising dinner at Palm's mesa home, which could accommodate up to one-hundred people.
"We held this wonderful event in his home – dinner, chamber music," she recollects. "We were the first ones to instigate the idea of having a marvelous dinner and then a performance," for which attendees paid "more than they'd normally pay," those funds earmarked to continue the festival's long-standing goal of affordability.
Fischer sounds wistful when she describes those evenings: "The graciousness; the kindness; everyone there had a good time – and the music was wonderful."
And while the Michael D. Palm Theatre, being officially inaugurated tonight with a night of classical music, will not be a regular chamber music venue – chamber music is, by definition, up close and personal and meant to be played in intimate spaces – it will carry on the tradition of bringing great art to Telluride that Palm so generously endowed.
"He was not someone who expected great accolades," Fischer says of Palm, who died from complications due to HIV/AIDS at the start of the August 1998 Chamber Music Festival. "He really felt the arts from his heart; he was inspiring like that.
"As a philanthropist, he was very hands-off," she adds. "I loved that about him."
Only once, she says, did Palm even "ask to see the menu" for the dinner party he was hosting.
In the late summer when the two-and-a-half-week festival came to town, Palm would host visiting musicians, as well.
"Robin and I loved to stay there with two or three other musicians," Malan reminisces.
"We'd carpool into town" for rehearsals and performances.
As to Palm's input on the program, Malan says: "Oh, we would talk about it every summer; we would ask him what his favorite things were.
"Sometimes, he would drop just a hint. His taste was extremely classical – he wasn't crazy about contemporary music, he adds.
Under Palm's benevolent watch, the festival flourished. For once "we were able to pay the musicians," Fischer says; not much – just $50 a performance – and also to adhere to Malan and Palm's belief that "anyone who wants to hear the music should be able to."
As with so many Telluride festivals, playing and listening to chamber music became a tradition, with performers and audience members making sure to come back, every year, for more.
"All of us are busy professional musicians," Malan says of the family of classical musicians that assembles every year in Telluride for two-and-a-half weeks of late-summer chamber music.
"Chamber music is our dearest love," he explains. "We may get the chance to play it three or four times during the year" together, and so it's a little slice of heaven to be in Telluride having "to do nothing but play chamber music all day."
On top of what is already "an enormous blessing," Malan adds, is the musicians' chance "to play where people are so appreciative."
Chamber Music Festival board member Warner Paige remembers his first time at the festival vividly.
"It's the main reason I moved to Telluride," says Paige, who owned a music store in Indiana at the time. "Chamber music, and the ballet, but chamber music especially.
"When I went to my first chamber music concert and read who was going to play, and their credentials, and then heard it, I was just flabbergasted. For a little mining town....."
Pressed to articulate just what it is about chamber music that those who love it find so compelling, Page thinks for a moment.
"It's the intimacy," he says. "It's so up close and personal for me, listening to the works of composers that you never hear.
"The Archduke Trio is one of the greats of all times," he says, by way of example, "and Telluride Chamber Music is the only place where you're going to hear that. And then to hear it live and here, in an intimate setting like the Opera House...."
He hangs up so search for a "perfect description" of chamber music, which is soon faxed over to The Watch.
"Chamber music," it reads. "Musical compositions for ensembles of from three to eight instruments, traditionally performed without a conductor and usually written for performance in a room or reception hall before a small audience or indeed only for the pleasure of the players."
Is chamber music a threatened institution?
"I think it has been threatened ever since Mozart," Paige says with a chuckle, "mainly because the nature of it is not going to appeal to everyone.
"We'd like to pack the house, but we're not going to do that."
On the contrary: "Our attendance has gone down the last few years," he confides. "I think the ticket prices went up a little bit, because we were tending not to fill it," although the board has decided to keep prices down for the 2005 festival.
Malan reminisces about the time he and his Stanford String Quartet played at Princeton, then headed up to Manhattan to see Palm for what would be one of the last times. "He was unwell at the time," Malan recalls. Knowing that "Michael loved the early Beethoven quartets," the quartet played them for him "in his living room."
"He was miraculous," says Fischer, of the festival's patron saint, and his loss "has been huge. He helped us define our mission, which is to make sure that the festival remains very open to the public, and not at all exclusive. Michael believed in giving people access to music they otherwise wouldn't hear, and that's made a difference."
After Palm's death, Steve and Judy Gluckstern, Manhattanites with deep roots in the Telluride community, wanted a fitting memorial to their longtime business partner and dear friend. Naming a performing arts center in Palm's honor was appropriate for someone who gave not only to the arts in Telluride, but to the Manhattan Opera and Carnegie Hall as well.
"He liked to plant the seeds of creativity in the community," says Performing Arts Center board member Ron Gilmer. "He was really generous with a lot of the arts groups."
"He had a good understanding of the arts of all kinds," Fischer recollects.