A sold-out house enjoyed the third concert of the 60th season of Marlboro Music Festival’s opening weekend on Sunday, July 18, and judging by overheard conversations, many people in the 636-seat hall had happily made the long, winding, and hilly pilgrimage to this famous chamber music festival many times before.
My visit began auspiciously. A friendly young man and woman were smiling next to a cart of brownies and cookies, free for the taking. Any chocolate lover’s heart would have melted. If I took nothing else away from this revered festival, I rethought the meaning of brownie points: what critic can be impartial after such unexpectedly sweet pleasure? I posed a question to the young man: who is lucky enough to participate in Marlboro, written about so fawningly by Alex Ross in The New Yorker in June, 2009? He replied, “The people here are the top 1% of musicians.”
It takes a lot of confidence to state 1% with such assurance. Not 2 or 3%? Most people who love chamber music have known about Marlboro since its early days in the 1950s under Rudolf Serkin through the decade and a half under the dual rule of pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode. As Alex Ross pointed out, a successful career at Marlboro practically assures one of a significant career, and it always has. To those involved in the music-making, there is an awareness of existing in the midst of so much power and connections. It is exhilarating, playing with one’s renowned elders, and, one might guess, a tad scary. If you are young and at the bottom of the Marlboro food chain, there is a lot of pressure, which might account for the childish games and pranks Mr. Ross described, which presumably let off some steam. At intermissions and in the green room after the concert, Marlboro certainly appears to be the festival with the most effusive hugging and kissing, like a weekly summer camp reunion.
There are many wonderful Marlboro tales. Few have involved how young people get chosen. Richard Goode put it quite simply: “A certain technical excellence is a prerequisite. But you also listen for urgency, emotional reality.” It would seem it’s not that easy even to apply to be heard. Several decades ago, a violinist friend applied, who was quite well known in her city. She got a dose of “emotional reality” when, instead of an audition application, she received a ticket order form. Another applied four years before she, by then nine months pregnant, got her unsolicited reply: “You application has been looked at. You are too old now for Marlboro.”
Sunday’s concert, dedicated to the late, longtime Marlboro and Guarneri Quartet cellist David Soyer, was a typical Marlboro program, sort of a Talent Night for the Really Talented. Oddly, nothing on the program featured cello. It opened with the Haydn Piano Trio in C Minor, Hob. XV:27 (c. 1797) in a lovely performance, with a particularly delightful Presto Finale. Like the composer’s other piano trios, the cello part merely doubled the piano.
Regrettably, there were no program notes, nor was there a single word about the performers. The next pieces were Three Duets, Op. 20 (1858-60) by Brahms, sung gorgeously by soprano Susanna Phillips and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, with pianist Lucia Brown.
For this listener, the next piece, featuring the great young Israeli harpist Sivan Magen, was the concert’s highlight. This septet, considered by many to be a harp concerto, was called “Introduction and Allegro” on the program, but its real name is Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet. Magen, the first Israeli winner (2006) of the prestigious Israel Harp Competition and now a Pro Musicis artist, is in his third summer at Marlboro, which had the good sense to grab him before he was a big competition winner. Magen had a formidable technique, a lovely sense of color, and masterful musicianship. Like any great musician, he makes each work he plays his, and always convincingly so (I have heard him recently at a harp conference, at several of Berkshires chamber music concerts, and several years ago at Marlboro). Here his initially understated dynamics, quieter than one usually hears at the piece’s first solo, drew the audience in, building up gradually to a heart-stopping crescendo in Ravel’s brilliant cadenza. Harmonics were stunning, the accompaniment excellent, and the tempo quite exhilarating. The clarinetist, Moran Katz, was outstanding. Bravo to all seven players.
Dvorak’s beautiful Piano Quartet in E-flat Major (1889) featured pianist Richard Goode, violinist Joseph Lin, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. The violin and viola were often overpowered by the piano, leaving countermelodies and subsidiary melodies hard to discern. Often, the piece seems to want to break free of its piano quartet restraints and become a cello concerto; Thorsteinsdottir was certainly up to the task. The Dvorak got the standard standing ovation. Is there a summer concert that doesn’t end with one?