Rockport Chamber Music Festival

Took advantage of a long weekend in Massachusetts to go up to Rockport and take in the opening weekend of the annual chamber music festival held at the remarkable Shalin Liu Performance Center.

Rockport itself is one of those post-card ready beach towns on the North Shore, it is the smaller, tonier sibling to Gloucester just down the road.  Among its charms is a remarkable concert hall. It sits right on the water built inside an old building, and with windows that open up to the harbor. It has remarkable acoustics, a charming feel, and gives a sense of being in and outside at the same time (birds circling as twilight overtakes the sea).

The hall boasts a wide range of performances. But I was there for the opening of the chamber music festival, now directed by Barry Shiffman, a noted violinist. This was his first season, and he is clearly swinging for the fences with an eclectic range of concerts on the theme of r:Evolution. (Weird orthography, it’s not just for rock bands!). Osvaldo Goljov is the composer in residence, and the over the five weeks there is a wide range of his work, balanced by mainstays of the chamber repertoire. Artists are frequently musicians’ musicians rather than starry names (although Pinky Zuckerman, Dawn Upshaw, and the Emerson St. Quartet will all be bowing).  And judging by the weekend it’s going to be quite a month.

Friday night, I caught a rather overheated Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence (seems like you can overplay or underplay this piece, never get the middle ground: moments of grace & repose were a little lacking). Still the playing was at a very high level technically, and their enthusiastic way with the piece was its own justification somehow. The song cycle Ayre formed the second half–part world music, theater/dance piece, expressive poetry reading, with Golijov’s trademark variety of traditions, with everything from electronica to ancient folk tune taking their place. The instrumentalists included Boston institution Claudio Raggazi (whom I heard just a week before in a tribute to the late Mili Bermejo at Berklee). It was nice to see performers like Todd Palmer and and Andrés Diaz who have given notable performances in DC that I enjoyed back in the day.

Most of all, the evening belonged to Miriam Khalil, the singer in Ayres, described as a soprano in the program, but that’s sort of like calling Niagara Falls a water feature. She had a range in notes, and expressive scope far beyond the usual soprano, a sense of drama and motion in her voice, in her whole body that was utterly captivating. It was nearly a one-woman show, a cycle of politics, love, folklore, tragedy and ecstasy.  As somebody who previously was an admirer rather than a lover of Golijov’s music, I was won over. It takes a performer like her to tie together what can seem to be a bit too much of curation rather than inspiration. But she found the thread. Worth hearing more of on all counts.

I didn’t see Kafka and Son, the one-act play with music that followed the next day. Did catch a more conventional program, the Melrose Piano Trio, with Barry joining . Opened with Turina Piano Trio No. 22, a little naive but abundant charm;  the Mendelssohn Second Trio followed. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker dazzled in this mini concerto.  I personally can’t deal with the Brahms Piano chamber music any more. Like reading James Fennimore Cooper for me, but they have a vigorous (to the point of string breaking) performance of his first piano quartet. The sell-out crowd loved it.

The best performance for me, by a wide margin, was Sunday afternoon’s show. This kicked off with a angular arrangement of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (a moment in art that has been described as the beating heart of western musical civilization.) The performer was the arranger, Frederic Chiu, who was austere, not showy. His approach fit the theme of the concert, the musical materials themselves, spirit not rhetoric, ideas first, embodied in emotion.

He proceeded, without pause to give a skinned alive performance of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata, facing up to the rebarbative moments, of this piece of high modernism with calm authority. The piece’s percussive context provided color and shape. It’s tempting to cheat this in the direction of note spinning (there are clashing moments of music that would seem to demand superhuman virtuosity and stop there.)  Chiu found the power in the musical ideas, particularly the rhythms, taut, even explosive and without any hint of sarcasm.  Or so it was in Chiu’s hands. He seemed born to this piece, with it in his bones, and convincing you that the take no prisoners musical world of the war years was something he knew and could make us want to listen to every molecule of.

Magical performances of excerpts from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with Tan Dun’s Elegy Snow in June sandwiched in between wrapped up the second half. Dun’s work has a political subtext, but performed with the Quartet seemed a distinctly spiritual piece,  with a stunning array of expertly scored percussion parts played with nearly fine ensemble. Palmer was back doing a clarinet solo to open, and the weekend ended with the Diaz’ cello and Chiu’s piano movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” from the Messiaen. Timelessness is evoked by the steady chords in the piano, around which the cello line curves, through, over, under, somehow inside at times. Diaz was superb, and even managed to keep his concentration when the Enternity of Jesus was interrupted by a cellphone ringing. Probably exactly what will really happen in the end days. Still a remarkable performance and a great opening for series that looks to be wonderful. If you are anywhere near, and are interested in this kind of rep, go check it out. They are up to something exciting.

 

 

 

 

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