Friends and family of composer and conductor James Bolle agree: Music was in the man’s blood.
In New Hampshire, Bolle is perhaps best known as the founder of Monadnock Music, an annual festival that brings chamber musicians to the Granite State to perform in a series of summer concerts. The longtime Francestown resident also founded the N.H. Symphony Orchestra and headed the organization for 29 years.
Bolle, who most recently lived in Harrisville before moving to a retirement facility in Massachusetts, died April 14, 2019 of complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to his obituary. He was 87.
Monadnock Music began in 1966 when Bolle invited a group of chamber musicians to the area to make some recordings and perform a couple public concerts in local meetinghouses and churches. At the time, his family was living in the Chicago area but summering in Harrisville, where the family of his wife, Jocelyn Bolle, had a home on Silver Lake.
Bolle had been inspired by the region’s historic buildings, which he saw as ideal performance venues, his wife said, and in 1968, they moved to Francestown to live in New Hampshire year-round. Today, more than 50 years later, the organization that grew from those first concerts, Monadnock Music, is still in existence — and Bolle’s impact on the region and the state is clear.
“One of the things that has impressed me has been the number of emails and notes I’ve had from musicians who’ve played at Monadnock Music and the New Hampshire Symphony over the years saying what a profound influence he had on their musical life and their careers,” Jocelyn Bolle said.
Bolle’s family plans to honor that legacy with a tribute concert this summer to be held in Nelson, where Monadnock Music first began. Though details are still being finalized, Bolle’s daughter, Susanna Bolle, said her father was specific in his wishes that his son, blues guitarist Ned Bolle of Reading, Mass., perform.
The family has been working with oboist Basil Reeve, who was one of the musicians who came to New Hampshire to perform that first summer in 1966, to organize the concert. Reeve, who lives in Minnesota, went on to serve as principal oboist of the New York City Opera and later the Minnesota Orchestra.
Reeve said the two formed a longtime friendship that continued to Bolle’s death, and that one of Bolle’s final compositions, “Sinfonia VI,” was written for Reeve to play.
Bolle’s depth of musical knowledge was unparalleled, Reeve noted.
“He had the vision of the history and the course of music history constantly going on in his brain,” Reeve said. “You could drop a name with him, and immediately, he had something to say about it, something knowledgeable to say.”
A native of the Chicago area, the conductor-composer’s interest in music began at a young age, according to his family. One Sentinel article from 1972 recounts the first concert he conducted, an impromptu lunchtime performance in which he led his 8th-grade classmates using a drumstick.
He went on to study French horn, viola and violin, along with conducting and composing, and attended Harvard University, Antioch College in Ohio and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. While still living in Illinois, he founded the Chicago Community Music Foundation, his wife said, and also started several other music festivals and series throughout his career.
He was also a guest conductor for orchestras in the U.S., Canada, Israel and Europe.
Bolle could certainly be critical of his musicians — and his children — his daughter, Susanna Bolle, said, but it was always rooted in the desire to help them succeed. He encouraged his three children to find something they believed in, she said.
“I think conductors have a reputation — and I think a well-deserved one — for being dictators,” she said. “And he certainly had very, very strong opinions, but he really wanted all of us to have very strong opinions too, and he respected difference and differences of opinions.”
He also had a knack for recognizing musical talent, according to Edith Milton, a longtime friend of the Bolle family and a former board member of Monadnock Music.
“The music was wonderful, and he was terrific at choosing music, terrific at choosing the artists, the people who played it,” Milton, of Peterborough, said. “… He brought the most amazing music and the most amazing people to this area.”
He wasn’t a “flashy” conductor, his wife said. But when he’d get especially excited, he did have one conducting quirk — he’d jump in the air, sometimes leaping what seemed like a foot off the ground, she explained, laughing.
For Susanna Bolle, who now lives in Brookline, Mass., a highlight of her childhood growing up in Francestown were the summers, when musicians would arrive from all over the world and the country. She noted that the informal setting of meethinghouses and churches felt unique compared to the “stuffy” atmosphere of concerts in Boston and New York.
“It was an interesting thing just for people in the region to be able to go to a local meetinghouse and hear really adventurous programming and really great musicians,” she said. “It was a special time.”
With the tribute concert this summer, Bolle’s friends and family hope to celebrate that spirit, Reeve said.
“Like many highly gifted and intense people who have done a lot of work, he’s not as well known as he should be,” Reeve said. “Very often of course, as you know, this happens after life is over for the artist, but I hope that he does not fall into the realm of the forgotten.”
Among the things Milton remembers of Bolle is that he was a unique friend — smart and kind.
“He was certifiably a genius. And he was so unlike anybody else that one knew. That’s rare, that you meet somebody who’s totally who they are,” Milton said. “And I think the musicians adored him, they really did.”