Jane Hamilton and members of her quintet
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Delahunty
In recognition of our approaching 50th birthdays, four college friends and I, all living far away from each other, tossed around several ideas about how best to celebrate the strange accomplishment of having become so old. A spa with a sweat lodge, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a crash course in skydiving?

"Why not chamber music camp in New Hampshire?" the violinist in our crowd suggested.

Some of us were dubious. Four out of five of us, musically speaking (cello, violin, string bass, recorder, and piano), are dabblers or bumblers or now-and-againers. In the decades since college we've played through our little repertoire every so often strictly for our own pleasure. If years pass between our private concerts the pieces always sound reassuringly the same: the same errors, the same dips where the instrument isn't in tune, the same omission of a difficult run. And yet, somehow or other the violinist was able to talk us into applying to the camp, which has the ambitiously warmhearted mission of bringing people of all ages and nations and skill levels to make joyful noise.

In January of 2007, with July serenely far off, we sent in our applications and our sketchy tapes. A few weeks later we each received enthusiastic letters of acceptance. For some reason, the idea of five 50-year-old rusty dabblers was an excitement to the administration. We couldn't help thinking that they were desperate to fill session three, or the drear winter had gotten to them, or they didn't often get applications from people who weren't also wanting scholarships. We had our initial panic in March, when an e-mail came, sternly instructing us to learn our parts for the Telemann overture that had been assigned to our group. We dutifully ordered the music and tried—we did try—to practice. By the time we were slowly driving up the gravel hill to the camp for ten days of chamber music incarceration, all of us were unsure of the wisdom of the plan. Libby, the bass player, said, "Remind me why we didn't go to a spa?"

We carried our duffels down to our cabin in the woods, which had the unmistakable bitter smell of mouse urine and the more concrete evidence of black sprinkles on the floor. The old pine floors were crudely planed and splintered, the windows, most of which did not open, were smudged, and there was a careless patchwork of drywall. There were the essential five narrow beds, five hooks, five shelves. We noted the great distance between our cabin and the one bathroom. Still, the beautiful meadow and woods, the mountain views, and the dark gray cedar barns did jibe with our sense of what real camp should be, a rustic place of both industry and tranquillity.