With great fanfare and circumstance, Rockport Music’s Artistic Director David Deveau, Chairman Thomas Burger, and Executive Director Tony Beadle inaugurated the 29th season of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on June 10 with the grand opening of its new performance venue, the Shalin Liu Performance Center, on Main Street in downtown Rockport. The new RM is across the street from the Rockport Art Association, its host organization for the prior 28 years. The opening concert of this year’s festival flaunted many of its new space’s features, not the least of which was its expanded stage capacity. Under the baton of Bruce Hangen, Rockport Music summoned a baker’s dozen of players (the old venue could accommodate six, max) for each of the bookending works, the Wagner Siegried Idyll and the Copland Appalachian Spring, each in its original scoring. In between, the more intimate sound of a piano trio—Bayla Keyes, violin, Michael Reynolds, cello, and RM Music Director Deveau, piano—featured in the premiere of Scott Wheeler’s Piano Trio No. 4, subtitled “Granite Coast,” commissioned for the occasion.
The concert, on the whole, was very good, but we need to put it in context of space and time. The new hall, built for RM on the site and in stylistic imitation of the Victorian, Second Empire commercial building that was there (at least on its street-side facade), is on the inside and on its harbor-facing exterior a stunningly beautiful building. Designed by architects Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein and acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard, the structure comprises three stories (a mezzanine houses the sound and audiovisual tech works), of which two service the concert hall and the top level offers a grand reception hall. The basement contains further service units and the green room.
The most immediately striking feature of the traditionally shoebox-shaped 330-seat hall is the huge window wall at the back of the stage, looking out into Rockport Harbor. On dreary Thursday, the rainy, brooding gray sky and turbid sea provided an arresting backdrop. Too bad the hall’s too small to stage Peter Grimes! Almost as striking is what you see if the sun is too bright, or the night too dark (reflections of auditorium lights too distracting), to keep the window in view: a magnificent set of screens of wood woven over metal verticals, slide (by hand for now, eventually electrically) across to cover it. This woven motif is carried over in the design of the balcony railings, and the woodwork in general, of fir and walnut, richly adorns all areas of the premises. The walls of granite brick, intended to echo the granite wharf outside the window, are set in a textured matrix so as to create an irregular sound-diffusing surface. All this is a fusion of the aesthetic and the practical, amid myriad other details ? the high volume/low velocity air system, the insulation between green room practice space, outside street noise, harbor sounds, and the hall, that enhance the acoustic properties of the hall and concentrate the aural experience of performer and audience. To this add the careful calibration of reverberation (1.5 seconds, 0.3 less than Symphony Hall), the open sight lines, the tuneability of the space, the clean and clear sound system for amplified or broadcast material (RM intends to use the space for Met simulcasts, movies, and other A/V purposes in the colder months), and you can readily appreciate that the generous donors to this extraordinary construction project in what we must acknowledge is an out-of-the-way locale have gotten a state-of-the-art facility that will entice many to come.
To say all this, which is high praise, is not to say that there aren’t issues. Sounds do not diffuse uniformly throughout the space. We noticed, along one side of the room, a boost to sounds coming from that side of the stage (in our case, the flute in the Copland) that were better balanced elsewhere in the room, per the testimony of other listeners. Sight lines in the sides of the balcony have not ameliorated the problems one experiences in the analogous spots in Symphony Hall, so RM has adopted the BSO’s solution, making those seats cheaper. The stage, which now can accommodate a small chamber orchestra, is not matched by the green room, which, while well appointed, is inadequate for more than a standard chamber group. Our unsurprising conclusion: nothing is perfect. We can all applaud the magnificence of what has come from the commitment of this organization and this community—exemplified by Shalin Liu herself, who addressed the audience and received its gratitude—without claiming for it the crown of perfection.
Oh yes, there was a concert that took place here. The concept behind the program, articulated by Deveau, was the consecration of the house. While the stage was not big enough to seat an orchestra to play Beethoven’s overture of that name, the pieces presented all related to the idea of “new house, new beginning.” For openers, the Wagner Siegfied Idyll, written to commemorate the Wagner family’s new house on Cosima’s birthday (Christmas, yet), was presented in the original scoring for the 13 players arrayed on the staircase leading to her bedroom. As the first public test of the hall’s acoustics, the performance conformed to the room: clear and warm. The players, including the Borromeo Quartet and many BSO principals, were both clearly individuated and richly blended, as if combining the defining characteristics of digital and analog recording. The room plainly loves the strings—not a bad proposition for chamber music—and it brings out the richest of bass sonorities, both from bassist Edwin Barker and cellist Yeesun Kim. A good thing, we thought, that chamber music does not as a rule require multiple contrabasses. There were a few instances of first-night jitters, especially from the brasses, but overall we were pleased with the calmly flowing output from the ensemble and Mr. Hangen’s lucid direction.
After the (relatively) large ensemble demonstrated the hall’s capacity to differentiate and blend sonorities, the first half of the program concluded with the type of chamber ensemble for which the Rockport Chamber Music Festival has made its reputation, in Scott Wheeler’s piano trio, whose title and creation give witness to the occasion. Full disclosure: Mr. Wheeler and your correspondent are long-time friends and colleagues. Having said this, candor requires that we declare “Granite Coast” one of his strongest scores. As is his wont, the composer has structured the work around a bit of technical trickery, in this case the musical spelling of the names of Ms. Liu and Mr. Deveau. This resulted in a motif he described as fanfare, characterized by a descending major third and a following major second, snapping back. Another feature was a figure of a descending and ascending fourth, often in a dotted rhythm. From these, Wheeler spun a compelling developmental structure to the first movement. The work’s title gives the idea of where Wheeler is going with this, and the stony rendering of the fanfare in piano octaves is brought forward in extended dry pizzicato passages for the strings. The slow movement is slow in pulse, but not gentle, and it makes many references to Chinese pentatonicism and sonorities of traditional Chinese instruments, in tribute to Ms. Liu. The finale returns to the melodic ideas of the first movement and develops them with reference to Rockport’s aqueous environment, in rhythmically vital ways, notably with a rocking motion in the lower piano range while the strings float about in choppy waters, with the occasional suggestion of a sea shanty. It all comes to an end with a wonderful imitation of seagulls. Wheeler is ever willing to let the circumstances of an occasion suggest the ideas for a work, but at his best, as he was here, he seizes these ideas and makes of them an abstract composition of enduring value.
The big band (a slightly different one, no brasses this time and multiple strings, plus piano) returned for the program’s finale, the original chamber scoring of Aaron Copland’s great masterpiece, the ballet score to what was eventually called Appalachian Spring. This 1944 work was the distillation of Copland’s Americanist idiom, and although the circumstances of its creation are only ambiguously related to the dance scenario to which it was ultimately put, the story line of Pennsylvania Shakers who build and occupy a new house neatly fits the occasion of this concert. Mr. Hangen led a tight, controlled yet lively performance. Paula Robison’s flute solos and descants were gorgeous, though we suspect that peculiarities of the hall’s acoustic gave them greater prominence in our seating area than they may have had elsewhere.
For the sake of our narrative we have mostly avoided listing all the performers, but now is the time to scroll the credits for those we have not previously mentioned. The Wagner ensemble comprised Ms. Robison; John Ferrillo, oboe; William and Catherine Hudgins, clarinets; Richard Svoboda, bassoon; Eric Ruske and Laura Carter, French horns; Thomas Rolfs, trumpet; the Borromeo Quartet (Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins; Mai Motobuchi, viola; Ms. Kim, cello) and Mr. Barker. The Copland ensemble consisted of Ms. Robison, Mr. Hudgins, Mr. Svoboda, the Borromeos plus Sarah Peters and Li-mei Liang, violins, Stephanie Fong, viola, Jing Li, cello, Mr. Barker, and William Ransom, piano.