What sorts of images and associations does the term ‘halcyon’ bring to mind? Honey-colored light and dappled shade? Warm summer zephyrs? Nostalgic yearnings? A new chamber music festival wearing that poetic moniker took flight Thursday evening in the ornate and traditional confines of Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. Founder and Artistic Director Heng-Jin Park noted in her introductory remarks that ‘halcyon’ can actually refer to either blissful bygone days or to a large, colorful kingfisher bird. Both music and venue of this fledgling venture conjured all manner of glowing and colorful imagery and emotions.
Tonight’s maiden voyage consisted of a trio, a quartet, and a quintet, in ascending order. Each piece utilized an entirely different array of players; in all, a dozen of the festival’s 17 artists took part in tonight’s inaugural festivities. Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Terzetto in C Major, Opus 74, scored for the unconventional combination of two violins and viola, proved to be a rousing curtain-raiser. Succinct backstory: While in his mid-30s, Dvořák and his family were living under his mother-in-law’s roof. Sharing this roof was a boarder who was both a chemist and amateur violinist. Dvořák, an accomplished violist, overhearing this fellow with his teacher, envisioned a stimulating musical collaboration. Just one week later, his uncommonly structured trio was born. This evening’s rendition was brought to life by violinists Grace Park and Miki-Sophia Cloud, with Shokhrukh Sadikov assuming the role of Dvořák. All three of these young artists performed with verve and highly polished virtuosity, with the earthy tones of the violist proving to be particularly appealing. This expressive, coherent, and graceful realization took us on what seemed to be a bucolic journey through the countryside (featuring perhaps a wild carriage ride during the syncopated Scherzo). The sweet, somewhat nostalgic, highly halcyonic, gas-lamps-and-doilies music proved utterly apropos for both occasion and venue, with the big-boned old church aglow in the rays of the westering sun.
More Romantic-era music of the most quintessential sort followed in the form of Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) Piano Quartet in c minor, Opus 15. As delineated in an articulate preface by cellist Sasha Scolnik-Brower, this sumptuous, passionate composition reverberates with the turbulence of the composer’s romantic life at the time, which featured a mercurial relationship that eventually culminated in a broken engagement. This piece puts the listener in an emotional throttlehold from the first note with its gravitas and immediacy. In addition to cellist Scolnik-Brower, who played with poise and maturity that belied his youth, violist Robert Meyer contributed a precise, professionally undemonstrative presence, violinist Ayano Ninomiya’s remarkably crystalline tone added sparkle, and Heng-Jin Park’s robust piano work supplied panache and substance. The result was a sophisticated, velvety rendition that exuded emotion and depth. One micro-reservation involved the auditory balance of the players: with its lid fully open, the piano had a tendency to overshadow its fellow instruments. This minor quibble, however, certainly did nothing to detract from the overall power of this riveting performance.
After heading outdoors for an invigorating dose of borderline-nippy air (Mother Nature may have been in a preternaturally beneficent mood but the expansive interior of the elegant 19th-century church still retained the summertime sultriness of the past few days), we returned from the break for the pièce de résistance: the String Quintet in C Major, D. 596, penned by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) just two months before his poignantly premature death. This monumental work, Schubert’s parting gift to us across the generations, was originally ignored by publishers, not appearing in print until a quarter-century after its creation. This is music to be savored, and savored it was apparently by both listeners and musicians alike. Its somewhat unconventional instrumentation, featuring two cellos as opposed to two violas, adds depth and meatiness to the lower register. The cellists in this evening’s performance, Jan Müller-Szeraws and Loewi Lin, were diametrically opposed in terms of soundscape and approach: Müller-Szeraws’s yin to Lin’s yang, the smooth, rounded tones and caresses of the former contrasting with the angular notes and attack of the latter. Though exquisitely realized by all, with the performers seemingly breathing as one, the gutsy performance of Lin tended to overshadow those of his compatriots, throwing things a bit out of kilter. Big-picture experience, however, remained unaffected: the copious cascade of precisely crafted notes left this listener in awe as to the profound beauty humankind is capable of creating. Following a scintillating finish at breakneck tempo, the prolonged standing ovation seemed to indicate that I was far from alone in this sentiment.
Making one’s dream a reality is often a daunting task, most especially when that dream consists of a venture as complex and ambitious as a seven-concert classical music festival. One thing immediately apparent, as evidenced by everything from the distinguished artist roster to the consistently refined and vivacious playing to the thoughtfully considered choice of venue, is that Heng-Jin Park and her fellow musical dreamers have crafted an admirably vibrant, professional, high-caliber, and high-octane addition to the New England musical firmament. Brava and bravo to all!
The Halcyon Music Festival continues tonight and tomorrow, and through Saturday, August 2nd.