After two straight days of rain, the clouds parted Friday to provide the Rockport Chamber Music Festival audience with the perfect seaside setting for a Romantic chamber program of Verdi. It is a challenging to produce a program that is accessible to classical music novices while avoiding banality for connoisseurs. RCMF’s Verdi/Giannini program successfully struck that balance. Verdi is essential for Italian opera lovers, but much less so for chamber music audiences.
The program opened with Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor (1873), played by violinists Joana Genova and Heather Braun, violist Ariel Rudiakov, and cellist Sophie Shao. Composed in three weeks from some previous sketches at a point in his career when he had come into full maturity; upon hearing it, one infers that Verdi was obviously inspired, as well as technically prepared from previous experience and study, to produce a gem in short order. The themes are as stylistically Italian as his songs and arias (and that of his operatic predecessors), but in the traditional form of Mozart and Beethoven in four movements (Allegro, Andantino, Prestissimo and Scherzo). Its performance was very solid, played by a group of capable musicians who did not go by any quartet name, but who were clearly very experienced and comfortable playing this piece as an ad hoc ensemble.
The quartet began fine intonation and well-blended tones, leaning securely into dissonances with clear dynamic distinction. Their overall ensemble was excellent; delicate and sensitive to each other with clean transitions and runs. But the pianissimo sections could have used a little more energy and brightness; voicing was lost to blend in places where individual instruments playing out more might have effected greater color contrast. Although to be fair, Verdi’s instrumental voicings tended to sit in the mezzo registers.
Mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell filled out the middle of the program perfectly with her beautiful vocal quality, expressive musicianship, and sharp dramaticism. She was equal parts expressive in affect, athletic in stature, and stunning in physique, dressed as she was, in a summery satin frock suitable for a recital of arias from Madame Butterfly. Everything about her was effortlessly pleasing to the modern ear and eye while true to its stylistic roots. Her sense of comedic timing was brilliantly expressive. Pianist Keun-A Lee was unfailingly supportive, often in the thankless position of providing a steady vamp while empathically breathing with the soloist.
The program offered no translation of the three songs O’Connell performed, “La Seduzione (The Seduction), “Stornello” (Rhyme) and “Brindisi” (Toast—not to be confused with the aria from La Traviata). Although Verdi is well-known for his large vocal works, he wrote only around two dozen songs, a few at a time over the course of his life. The first, “Seduzione,” was the ballad of an innocent but fallen woman, in a Bellini-like style of lyricism, the second, playful and teasing, like traditional German lieder, and the last, “Brindisi” (Toast), possessed a light-hearted dance rhythm that could be easily orchestrated into a Viennese waltz.
In O’Connell’s performance of “Vieni! T’Affretta” from Macbeth, one could not have asked for more naturally spoken stage delivery or more perfect Italian diction. A fine mezzo-soprano and brilliant actress with flawless technique and sensitive musicianship, O’Connell is the kind of singer who could turn an opera skeptic around.
The concert concluded with with Vittorio Giannini’s Quintet for Piano and Strings (1932) which violist Ariel Rudiakov described as “a masterpiece.” Hearing it for the first time, one is inclined to agree. The first movement opens with a gently rocking, pentatonic 5/4 viola solo theme, in which piano and strings would then modally sweep up the listener into soaring flight that seemingly draws influence from both Debussy and Brahms, like a sailing and diving sea bird; stormy in places as the scene behind them turned to nightfall. Pianist Adam Neiman was particularly expressive in his singing approach to the material. Sophie Shao’s cello entrances were noticeably lyrical and engaging.
In the second movement a quiet pattern in the strings accompanied an ethereal piano solo with a gentle richness in the entrance of the strings. The third movement exhibited finely executed play between first violinist Joana Genova and second violinist Heather Braun, with skillfully dramatic fortissimos and exquisite duet between cello and viola.
It is hard to believe this work is relatively little known and had to be recently “discovered”. It was simply a stunning end to a very enjoyable evening that fit very eloquently with the opening Verdi half of the program.
Artistic Director David Deveau expressed in an interview on the Rockport Music website an ambition for Rockport Chamber Music Festival to attract musicians and performances “second to none.” If this program is any reflection, they are succeeding in their mission.