The First Twenty-Nine Years of
Fluting at Wildacres: A History

By Anna Thibeault


Chapter 1 - The First Six Years

Two things happened in 1976 that led to there being flute masterclasses at the Wildacres Flute Retreat. The first was an invitation to my then-husband, Patrick McFarland, by Joe Robinson to be the resident repairman at the very first John Mack Oboe Camp. Fortunately, there was space for our entire family, so we, along with our two young daughters, Kim - 8 years old, and Kerrie - 3 years old, set off for the North Carolina mountains. From the first moment we were there, I loved Wildacres, and still do, more and more each year.

The second event that same summer of 1976 was the National Flute Association convention in Atlanta. William Bennett played and taught a masterclass there. I had never heard a flute played with so much expression or such a gorgeous sound. I had no idea it was even possible to make such amazing music with a flute.

Our entire family returned to Wildacres in the summer of 1977 to the second annual John Mack Oboe Camp. There was a gentleman sitting on the porch next to me and we were talking small talk, as you do in a friendly, relaxed place like Wildacres. I told him that I had heard a spectacular flutist from England at the NFA Convention the previous summer and it would be wonderful to start a flute masterclass with him as the teacher at this beautiful place. To my total shock, his reply was, “Let’s do it. I own this mountain!” It was Herman Blumenthal I had been talking to.

I was thrilled and terrified, all at the same time. How in the world would I have the nerve to approach this William Bennett and how should the class be organized? Well, Joe Robinson had done it for John Mack, so I would follow his proceedures.

When we got back home, I procrastinated in making contacts. Herman Blumenthal kept writing me letters, asking me what I had done. He knew I was intimidated and he had to keep pushing me into action. Finally, I wrote to William Bennett and he accepted on the condition he could bring his own pianist, Clifford Benson.

The National Flute Association supplied me with a list of flute players and my students at Georgia State University and I sent out brochures to those people as well as every flutist we could possibly think of. Within days the application started arriving, and by the April 1st deadline in 1978, we had applications and deposits for 75 people who wanted to play in the masterclasses for "Wibb," plus a few more who wanted to just listen.

There was really only room for two dozen people to actually play in the masterclasses, so the next task was to listen to the 75 cassette tapes that had been submitted and pick the best 24. Since everyone who wanted to, played in the John Mack masterclasses, I couldn’t follow Joe’s lead there. It’s really difficult to not be seduced by a beautiful booming sound when trying to determine who is the best player. Some people record in studios which have the equipment to enhance sound, so listening for musicianship is very important.

As we listened, - when I say we, it was the entire family as I had no head sets - we put the tapes into three piles; yes, maybe, and no. The “no” pile was eliminated and we listened to the “maybe” pile and made an order. The best went in with the “yes” pile until we had 30 performers - 24 to play for sure and 6 alternates.

The next job was to inform everyone of their status. Telling the people they could play for Wibb was easy, but informing the “nos” was altogether a harder job. About half of those refused to come to Wildacres, if they couldn’t actually play in the masterclasses. At that point we were down to about 55 attendees.

Three weeks before Wibb and Clifford were due to fly from London to Asheville, I got a call from Wibb’s manager, Lillian Wick, asking me where their visas were. My question back was, “What’s a visa?” The first real panic set in. I had never been out of the USA, didn’t have a passport and knew nothing about such matters. I had done nothing about the paperwork necessary to bring them to the USA to earn money. What to do?

I always heard that, if you were in trouble, call your congressman. Sam Nunn was my senator at the time and I did call his office and explained the situation. Bless him and those people who work for him. They arranged for me to see the head of the immigration services, who gave me the paperwork. A few days later I turned in the forms and they got their visas. Whew! That was close!

Speaking of Clifford Benson, who sadly passed away this past August, I was unhappy initially to have to pay for the plane fares and salary of a pianist from England when I knew some fine pianists in Atlanta. After the first masterclass session I understood why Wibb had insisted on having Clifford there. His playing was sublime, even on the poor quality piano we had provided. It was a sad day when he died.

Speaking of the very first masterclass, Eldred Spell was the very first person to play in the very first masterclass. One tape had stood out as really excellent. It was this Eldred Spell from South Carolina. I phoned him and said, “Just who are you, anyway?” He had just graduated from Furman and was trying to figure out what to do with his life. He lived close to Wildacres and he was good, so he got to be the first person to ever play in a flute masterclass at Wildacres. Very nerve-wracking for him, so he told me.

The first flute masterclass at the Wildacres Retreat, which was called the William Bennett Masterclass, was a howling success. Not only were the masterclasses superb, Wibb and Clifford played a mini recital for us every evening after the class was over. Classes were in the morning and evening, so we could swim every afternoon at the Carolina Hemlocks. There was a party every evening into the small hours of the morning. By the end of the week we were exhausted, but totally inspired.

By February of 1979 we had 90 people registered to come to Wildacres and I had to put some of them on a waiting list. Tena Hess, who had studied with Wibb the previous year in London, was hired as the teaching assistant. We had an new category of “participant” for people who had a private lesson with Tena and played on a 5:00 PM recital. Chris Potter ran these recitals, often making her introductions in a bikini as we had all just raced in from the “swimmin’ hole.”

To be continued