Peter Meckel

By Scott MacClellandtimeline photos

NEED HE BE REMINDED, Peter Meckel, who founded Hidden Valley Music Seminars more than a half-century ago, is these days routinely visited by alumni from back when they were, like Meckel himself, youngsters. They now drop by his office in Carmel Valley as senior citizens to share fond memories, some as far back as HV’s early years at a spot called Hidden Springs in the Angeles National Forest between LA and the western Mojave Desert. “Last weekend, two ladies from our first year visited. One of them is a wonderful singer and sang at the Carmel Valley Chapel,” Meckel told me last week. “They brought their very powerful spirit from those days, and have gone forward as substantial advocates of music education.”

Starting in Southern California in 1963, HVMS, as the name suggests, concentrated on high school summer music programs and, by dint of Meckel’s persuasive personality, won the participation of many eminent musicians and music educators there, several of whom tagged along, with their students, after HVMS moved to the Monterey Peninsula in 1967.

“It was easy to see they could move much faster through the basics of learning music than was being done in high school, college, even grad schools and conservatories.” In the early years Hidden Valley conducted two five-week summer sessions. “The orchestra would read 75 major works, then would spend the second five weeks bringing their work up to performance level.” Each day also included two and a half hours of classroom study in history and theory. “Kids went away with an astounding exposure to music.”

Once in the Monterey community, HV conducted its seminars for two years at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach and three years at York School in Monterey. Then in a search for a permanent home Meckel discovered the White Oaks Theatre in Carmel Valley, where HV has remained to this day. “It had been built by Sally Church in 1965. Then she discovered that she had MS and had to leave the project,” Meckel explains. “When I came here in ‘71 it had sat vacant. Walking down the driveway I found a gardener trimming ivy around the theater who lived in Cachagua. He told me about Sally whom I had not met. I only met her when she called from LA. She said I know I can never return to the theater. She was involved with a production of Tennessee Williams’ Rose Tattoo and wanted to bring it to White Oaks. On the final performance a big Cadillac drove up, outfitted with a gurney. I was told that Sally would like us to have the theater and gave us a bargain price. The Packard Foundation helped by purchasing and holding the property until Hidden Valley could afford to acquire it, which it did in 2003.”

In an effort to broaden the scope of its offerings, Hidden Valley began expanding into theater, first with a children’s theater group and then with a series of musicals presented in 1972 and 1973, the year the Dance Center was launched. Not only did this new plan develop Hidden Valley into a year-round Institute of the Arts, but eventually led to the establishment of the Opera Ensemble in 1974.

Peter Meckel grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, and later in Minnesota and Illinois. His father was a Congregational minister, which no doubt influenced Peter’s own polished style of public speaking. After high school, he began college in Rockford, Illinois. But it wasn’t until his father was engaged by a church in the LA suburb of La Cañada that he was able to attend Occidental College in nearby Eagle Rock. He had long since developed a love of performing arts and was, and is, most excited by their educational opportunities. “Proposition 13 eviscerated the supply of young performing arts students,” he says. “But we’re blessed by having such resources and opportunities of this extraordinary community.”SR & RD2

1972 was also the year Meckel married his second wife, Adrienne Maravich, an educator, who became stepmother to Christina and Christopher and who bore their own two children, Moya Anne and Jon-Peter. Adrienne was taken by illness in 2010. A talisman of the Hidden Valley legacy—“a signal of an important time”—emerged in the form of the James Agee poem, “Sure on this shining night,” and its ‘miraculous’ musical setting by Samuel Barber (who was a guest of Hidden Valley in the ‘70s.) “We sang it on our 40th anniversary when Leon Panetta was the keynote speaker.” The verse was recalled at Adrienne’s celebration of life and, more recently, the retirement of international opera and orchestra conductor Stewart Robertson, who began his American career at Hidden Valley. (Above right, Robertson with Opera Ensemble stage designer/director Bob Darling.)

To hear Barber’s “Sure on this shining night,” sung by Jaqueline Bolier with pianist John Arida at Juilliard, in a 2013 recording, click the video.

One of Hidden Valley’s early alumni is Nancy Starmer, since 2000 head of the George School in Pennsylvania. “She reminded me of the importance of what’s being done in education today, of the dynamic time of life of youngsters if you can give them some sense of the possibilities. And the techniques of negotiating very serious problems that require thought and constructive action.” In citing that conversation, Meckel, who serves on the board of Youth Music Monterey County, had in mind Youth Orchestra Salinas (YOSAL) and those youngsters who have access to the Hidden Valley campus for rehearsals.

“The older I get the more I understand those dynamics. It requires putting the purpose and programs under the kind of fire that tempers steel,” he says. “It’s very important to recognize that the basis for all great esthetic experience is knowledge. It came to me in the early days of Hidden Valley. I realized that it was really the knowledge that enabled me to have the intense esthetic experience. But it doesn’t trouble me when people’s first impression is ho-hum or even agony, because I know that in due course they will find enough hooks to discover their own way to be affected. We make this place as unthreatening as possible. We’re not going to force people to love what we love.”

Now nearly 75, Meckel has thought about succession. “I think that what’s important is that the original vision is still there, so that people in HV’s future can adapt it, expand it, adjust it. Once I’m finished here I’ll stay away from anything day-to-day. Founders who stick around all the time mess things up. Whoever is chosen I will teach for a year or so how to avoid making all the mistakes that I’ve made.” He’s also thinking about writing two books, one, the history of Hidden Valley, and the other on the creative community here that included Steinbeck, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Ed Ricketts and Joseph Campbell from that era of the 20th century.

In 1983 Hidden Valley joined the Elderhostel programs. Within four years, it became one of the 75 “supersites” in America presenting at least 40 Elderhostel/Road Scholar weeks per year. “The interaction between the older and younger students has become one of the exciting aspects of the campus life here.”

Coming up, the Hidden Valley String Orchestra, with concertmaster Roy Malan, will perform April 2 at Hidden Valley and April 3 in Aptos.