The hottest days of the year found me at the beautiful campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA, for a weekend (July 21-23) of concerts by the faculty and students of “The Art of Chamber Music” festival organized and staffed by the Cambridge-based Longy School of Music of Bard College. There was too much wonderful music to review every piece in the four concerts, one by faculty and three by students. Overall the programming and the performances were excellent — well worth the trip from Boston. Who could turn down a few days of music and the Berkshires, particularly lake swimming and a dip in Bash Bish falls with Masumi per Rostad, a visiting artist from the Pacifica Quartet?
A few pieces in the Thursday faculty concert stood out for me – some familiar, some entirely new. Karyl Ryczek and Wayman Chin surprised us with Schumann’s Sieben Leider, Op. 104, settings of poems by Elizabeth Kulmann, a child genius who died at the age of seventeen in St. Petersburg in 1825. She wrote poems in Russian, German, and Italian, and was popular in all three languages. The poems set by Schumann are extraordinary – an unusually mature view of life, the beauty of nature, and the unkindness of early death. Schumann’s settings — and the performance by Chin and Ryczek – brought out both the poems’ beauty and their pathos. These lieder are seldom performed, and Chin – who programmed the workshops and the concerts – was excited to get a chance to bring them to light.
Another pair of treats in the faculty concert was the two performances by Marco Granados on flute. The first — with Miriam Eckelhoefer, cello, was Jet Whistle by Heitor Villa-Lobos. The piece was entirely new to me, and fascinating. But the real surprise was the amazing playing of Granados. It is extraordinarily strong, with a rich and even tone over the entire range of the instrument. His sound is robust, powerful, and unusually engaging. The piece that followed, Martinu’s Sonata for Flute and Piano H.306, with Hugh Hinton, piano, was equally eye-opening.
The Friday evening concert was a delight of both programming and performance. The first piece, the well-known Serenade for flute, violin and viola, Op.25, of Beethoven, was driven by Granados’s flute and was well supported by Christine Binzel, violin, and Andrew Salo, viola.
The two Brahms viola songs, Gestilte Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied, were sung with sensitivity and clear diction by the young mezzo-soprano, Kaley Lane Eaton. She was accompanied with skill by Salo and Atsuko Kida, piano.
A great surprise was the performance of Three Songs from William Shakespeare by Stravinsky. Written in 1953 for a concert series that featured serial music, these are the first art songs Stravinsky set in English. They exhibit a somewhat uncomfortable serial technique. The music is dry, technically challenging, often unintelligible, but performed with such gusto that I could not help being sucked in. The performance featured faculty members Ryczek and Granados, as well as Juan Ruiz, clarinet, and Yoni Battat, viola. The two faculty members led the performance, and Ruiz and Battat showed some amazing chops. The performance was a welcome antidote to the largely Romantic programming.
The final concert on Saturday morning also held some real pleasures. Eaton and Christopher Orzech, piano, performed five of the eight lieder from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben one of my favorite works. Orzech’s accompaniment, sensitive both to the singer and the text, was a treat to hear. Once again Eaton sang with diction and heart, although the wide vibrato sometimes obscured the pitches. I loved hearing these songs again.
An unusual find was the Fantasie Quartet for Four Violas, Op.41, by York Bowen, an unfairly neglected and prolific English composer who lived from 1884 to 1961. A respected piano performer, Bowen also performed on organ, viola, and horn. He has written chamber music, piano music, four piano concertos, a viola concerto and four symphonies. The Fantasie Quartet, enthusiastically performed by Andrew Salo, Alyssa Roggow, Yoni Battat, and Jing Chen, is written in romantic style.
Ruiz, accompanied by Alyssa Roggow, viola, and Sara Troxler, piano, played the Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K. 498, by Mozart. The three played together with sparkle and excellent balance. Besides having wonderful intonation, Ruiz plays with a great variety of dynamics and phrasing. My father was a clarinet player and a fan of this piece. It was a pleasure to hear it played so well.
The last piece in the concert joined Ruiz, Orzech, and Lindsey McChord, flute, for Barn Dances, four indescribable pieces for clarinet, flute and piano by Libby Larson. Written in 2001, the pieces are each based on different steps used in cowboy dances. The harmonic language is tonal, but in other ways the music is constantly surprising. Both McChord and Orzech balanced the pyrotechnics of Ruiz phrase by phrase.
Overall the concerts were a delight, a great example of the synergies coming from the merger of the Longy School of Music and Bard College.