In its forty-three seasons, the Newport Music Festival has never failed to intrigue. This season, the first under the management of Mark Malkovich IV, son of the late, long-time artistic director, Mark Malkovich III, is no exception. In addition to the attractions of stellar artists from the world over and the chance to hear music in some of Newport’s fabulous cottages, this year on July 13,offered an unusual first: the chance to experience a concert of chamber music in the recently restored Casino Theater, a jewel box designed by Stanford White in 1897. Having a visually pleasing amalgam of classicism, basket weave and Stick Style, the auditorium supported the projection of a warm and satisfying sound from the ensembles on stage.
The concert consisted of a Malkovich miscellany of sixteen works by ten composers connected by the thematic rubric “Notturno, an Evening of Rare and Unusual Nocturnes.” That some of the works must have looked better on paper than they sounded to our ears is one of the risks inherent in musical dredging from the past. Sometimes there is good reason for neglect.
The nine performers delivered fast-moving samples of the Festival’s charms and limitations. At an important venue one doesn’t expect to hear familiar Chopin nocturnes played rather straightforwardly from the scores, and one is glad that some lesser Liszt went by quickly. But because of the musical chairs format, one did not have to wait long for some real pleasures. Parenthetically, the only chair that stayed put was the one belonging to the overqualified page turner, Elmer Booze. For thirty-eight years, beginning before the reign of Mark Malkovich III, Dr. Booze has held the very important position of the Festival’s research librarian as well as its proofreader. Once senses a bemused Beckmesser at the side of the piano bench.
Of the sixteen works on the program twelve were for solo piano, and there were five pianists. The sentimental audience favorite seemed to be John Bayless, who was returning after a debilitating stroke had forced him to take up the left-hand repertoire. He offered two improvisations — one combining the Brahms Lullaby with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and the other built on Sondheim — A Little Night Music and Send in the Clowns.
The other pianist who impressed as a soloist was the nineteen-year-year old Claire Huangci. She managed better the four other pianists to coax colors from the rather monochromatic, though well tuned and regulated, seven-foot Yamaha. Her performance (from memory) of Chopin’s Nocturne in c-sharp minor op post. was quite free and poetic, as was her Clair du Lune — perhaps an inevitable piece in a concert of night music.
Four individuals positively shone in the night setting:
Eric Ruske’s noble French horn sensitively negotiated three demanding and virtuosic pieces (by Franz Strauss, Reinhold Glière and Prospre van Eechaute) with nary a clam.
Cellist Sergey Antonov, the winner of the 2007 Tchaikovsky competition, was soulful and emotive in Pablo Casals’ El Can Dels Oscells with pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald. This was a show- stopper. Antonov also took part in a spirited performance of Ernest Bloch’s Nocturne for Cello and Piano (Tempestuoso) with Nai-Yun Hu, violin and Kevin Fitz-Gerald.
The evening concluded with Nocturne and Tarentella, op. 28 of Karol Szymanowski. Violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist Daniel del Pino opened the piece with the appropriate reflective sinuousness and absolutely nailed the tarantella finale, utterly clearing the moist night air with their musical lightning.