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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Tuesday Listen: CPE Bach

One of the many Bach children, Carl Philip Emmanuel, was perhaps the greatest composer (worthy of comparison with JSB, and honored by Mozart among others).  He is best known for keyboard music full of imaginative color and flights of fancy.

Here is one of hundreds of his keyboard pieces, the evocative farewell to his Silbermann Clavichord.  (Here in a piano performance.)

Evocative–and to my ears–some elements of a modern improvisatory feel.

He also wrote lots of ornate showpieces, for the piano, then a relatively new instrument, such as the piano lesson favorite Solfeggietto in C Minor (sorry about the weird open).
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Borodin: Symphony #2

Reminded today of one of my favorite, and not very often heard, symphonies today. Borodin’s Second. A professional chemist and avocational composer who left us a small number of wonderful works.  Check out particularly the elegiac slow movement that begins at 12:21. 

Here in a performance from Amsterdam, a bit rough and ready perhaps, but still enjoyable.

A Little Ravel for Tuesday

Ravel’s piano music is known for its colorful palette, and its staggering technically difficulty. One piece that is within the reach of mere mortals is the Mother Goose Suite, a set of five character pieces for piano four hands (and later orchestrated as was often the case with Ravel). Although it was originally written for children, it has found a lasting place in the concert hall as well in the hearts of amateurs. (I even performed it in college as part of a student-faculty recital.)

Here it is in a nice performance from Cleveland with pianists Orion Weiss and Roman Rabinovich (who was just in town playing superb Rachmaninoff and interesting if not totally convincing Chopin). Although it is not impossible to imagine a six and seven year old (the ages of the original dedicatees) getting their fingers through this pieces, it isn’t really a beginners’ piece. The subtle touch, and reticent style that these two bring to it, not to mention the impeccable control, are things it seems you’d need some life experience to conjure.

The Health Value of Choral Singing

As a long-time choral singer, I appreciated these tidbits that came across my reading last week:

1) Philosopher J.D. Trout on one way he managed to stay out of trouble during a tough adolescence.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the all-volunteer group that supports the Boston Symphony Orchestra

I was able to steer clear of trouble in part because I was involved in activities that crowded out a lot of the unpleasantness that kids face. Choral singing is incredibly wholesome, and doing it well imposes a discipline that frustrates the temptations of idleness in a permissive world. I know that sounds Victorian, and it is, in a way. But it is also a contingent fact about humans that they form (mal)adaptive preferences, learning to like the often objectively bad practices in their orbit. Staying busy with work and singing, and having thoughtful, captivating, and funny friends, left little time or desire for idle, pointless wondering about whether my life could be better if I learned to steal money, enjoy cocaine, or sleep till noon. None of that ever sounded very fun to me, nor was I much in the orbit of its pull.

From the interesting series, “What’s it Like to Be a Philosopher?”

 

2.  Daniel Pink, who has praise for choral singing in his new book on timing, When.

Q: Share with us a striking insight from your research on timing.

Pink: Let me offer two:

  • People are twice as likely to run their first marathon at age 29 as they are at age 28 or age 30. Forty-nine-year-olds are three times more likely to run a first marathon than 50-year-olds. Endings—simply being aware of an end—dramatically shape our behavior.

  • Choral singing is the new exercise. Research shows that the benefits of singing in a choir (not singing alone, but singing together) are massive: higher pain thresholds and reduced need for pain medication, increased production of infection-fighting immunoglobulin, reduced symptoms of depression, increased sensitivity toward others, improved mood, and much more. There’s something about synchronizing in time with others that is profoundly human. 

Three by Dvořák

A little Dvořák to end the weekend:

First, the autumnal glow of the Romance for Violin and Orchestra, in the capable hands of Kyung-Wha Chung and Riccardo Muti’s Philadelphians. (Sorry about the bad break in the file…when it goes to 2 of 2.)

Next, the folk-inflected slow movement of his Sonatina for Violin, played by violinist Josef Suk, Dvorak’s great-grandson, and Rudolf Firkušný, not a household name, but revered by pianists.

And the third movement from his Symphony No. 8, Allegro Grazioso, a tender dance, gentle shimmering nostalgia, Manfred Honeck and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Dwyer plays Debussy

Gramophone (a classical music monthly from England) devotes its cover story to Debussy this month, and mentions in passing a wonderful performance of one of his most familiar pieces, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, reminding me of Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the principal flute of the Boston Symphony, one of the first female principals in any orchestra and a magical player.

The Gluck Berlioz connection

Composers frequently find touchstones in earlier composers, but few seem to manifest as direct a lineage (or in some ways as surprising) as Hector Berlioz’ connection with the music Christoph Willibald Gluck, whom he venerated above all opera composers.

“There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck. The former’s realm is that of infinite thought, the latter’s that of infinite passion; and though Beethoven is far above Gluck as a musician, there is so much of each in the other that these two Jupiters form a single god, and all we can do is to lose ourselves in admiration and respect for him.”

In his study and scholarship on the Gluck scores (already old-fashioned in Paris during Berlioz’s era),  a musical revolutionary composer found common cause with a master of classical equilibrium. Here is Gluck from Iphigenie en Tauride, Regine Crespin singing “Cette nuit … O toi qui prolongeas mes jours“) (Iphigenia always brought forth magic from him–he pretty much owns the doomed classical heroine fach.)

And then, from Berlioz’ The Trojans (as classical a theme as Gluck could have wished for), the duet for Dido and Aeneas that closes Act III. More doom, more beauty and radiance.) A performance with Susan Graham and Gregory Kunde.

“I assure you, dear sister, that the music in Les Troyens is something noble and elevated; it is also compelling and truthful, and if I am not much mistaken there are a number of novelties which will arrest the ears of musicians throughout Europe and perhaps make their hair stand on end. It seems to me that were Gluck to come back to life, he would say of me on hearing the work: “Here in truth is my son.” Hardly modest, you will say. But at least I am modest enough to admit to be lacking in modesty.”

Three Tenore di Grazia

Inspired by the quiz during last Saturday’s Met b’cast, here is a quick hit of “tenore di Grazia,” that is, graceful tenors, not the heroic breed required for Wagner or heavy Verdi, but the elegant perfectly controlled sound that makes bel canto music shine.  (Tenors of any kind are a rare breed, and a true tenor di grazia is a particular treasure.) Javier Camerana, one of the current ideals of this type, named three of his favorites during his quiz appearance. Here’s a sampling of all three:

The German tenor Fritz Wunderich, golden sound, perfect production with evenness of tone across the whole range, and attentive to the words.  Here in a deceptive simple Handel aria. If you don’t have a feel for cantilena, the long singing line, this number falls flat.

Talk about a long line, and not one moment of vocal pressure!

Next, the great Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, spectacular range, sensitivity to text and ability to inflect it to a ‘part per million’ and the fearlessness required to sing softly when the piece calls for it. (Harder than singing loud for most opera singers, and why “can belto” is so frequently applicable in the opera house, or these days in Broadway musicals.) Here he is in Roméo’s aria from Gounod’s Roméo & Juliette, a role he owned during his very long career.

Finally, a tenor from an earlier generation also beloved by Javier and many others, Cesare Valletti. Here he is in an aria from Massenet’s Werther, exhibiting an almost superhuman poise, while singing in the highest range of voice. You hear the heartsick obsession of the young man, it seems to pour out of him in a single breath. And this was live on the radio!

Finally, for good measure, here is Javier himself, who set me off on this enjoyable visit to tenore di grazia of yesteryear. An excerpt from  his performances in Rossini’s Semiramide currently at the Met (live March 10 on the radio).

Wonderful line, agile, warm sound, with a smile in his voice. Love to that in the great tenor tradition, has to stand on a box to sing his high note so as not to be shorter than his love interest. (Tenors, dear reader, on the whole are shorter than those they woo. It’s just how it goes. I know whereof I speak.)

Happy Wednesday!

 

 

 

Brendel’s Haydn

One of the many benighted opinions of my youth was a certain disdain for Franz Josef Haydn.  Somehow I bought into a line of thinking that Haydn was the epigone of Mozart (just as Dvorak was the epigone of Brahms), with the result that their glories were overlooked.  Now I couldn’t live without either one of them.

Part of that is because of Alfred Brendel’s (and others’) advocacy of the piano sonatas. Here he is in a favorite.

The conductor Christopher Hogwood had a nice line about Mozart versus Haydn in a radio interview I heard years ago. To CH, Mozart was like a great master chef, whose mysterious ways were hidden in a kitchen you could not see, you received these fantastic meals of impossible polish and technique and couldn’t figure out how such a thing could have been devised. Haydn let it all hang out, he cut up the ingredients right at the table, and cooked all the food in front of you–no cosmic mystery, it’s all right there, and you listen along as he has his, often humorous way, with everything–you included.

The result, delightful, moving, and well crafted, is deeply satisfying and soul enriching to listen to.