Joyful and fluid music-making, the cheerfully hopeless entanglement of art and life: New England’s host of summer music festivals allows musicians and audience members alike to loosen the cummerbunds and ditch the heels, maybe grab a bottle of wine and swat away mosquitoes as they receive familiar strains with senses freed from the conventions of the city concert hall. But more than the novelty of fresh air and trees, the true summer festival spirit is one of musical freedom: experimenting, ignoring the barriers of a typical concert season, pursuing that special, elusive moment in which the boundaries between a musical masterpiece and its execution dissolve into spontaneity and life.
The concertizing at Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Sullivan, NH proudly includes a dirt road and a repurposed, cozy barn with a surprisingly warm, crisp acoustic in which to showcase an eclectic Tuesday night concert series featuring an equally varied array of consummate chamber musicians. Last Tuesday’s offering, the highlight of the annual summer gala, was truly unique: beloved Boston tenor Frank Kelley performing Schubert’s dark chronicle of obsessive love and loss, Die schöne Müllerin, accompanied by the Apple Hill String Quartet in a world premiere arrangement by Jeff Louie. It was a fittingly vibrant retelling of a classic story to center an evening at which patrons enjoyed gourmet food at picnic tables before settling into the worn wood paneling of the barn facing a stage framed by wildflowers and the setting sun.
The best performers of song cycles, among which Kelley undoubtedly numbers, elevate the genre above mere singing to an experience of intense emotional drama. Every good story relies on characterization and interaction, which is why the savvy listener appreciates the lieder pianist just as much as the one singing the words. The accompaniment serves at once as the singer’s illustration, shading, mirror, and antagonist. Kaleidoscoping this accompaniment into four individually voiced parts is not a task for the faint of heart, but pianist/composer/arranger Louie, tackling his assignment in collaboration with Kelley, is clearly a well-organized creative mind who realized the pair’s deep understanding of Schubert with a delicate yet bold distribution of motives and color.
Contrasted with the minutely calibrated homogeneity of the piano, a string quartet might almost seem like a circus act of cartwheeling voices. Louie and the four members of the Apple Hill String Quartet embraced this diversity, going so far as to designate different instrumentalists as characters in the story. Violist Mike Kelley received the lion’s share of notes as the voice of the brook—as Louie explains, “much of the ‘watery’ passagework in the piano sat below a violinist’s range, and I needed to keep the cello free to establish the bass lines”—yet it seemed a natural choice for more than practical reasons. Kelley’s rich tone, even amongst constantly active arpeggios, seemed a perfect fit. This was clearly one of the most awkward piano-to-string transpositions, yet he never shied away from angular corners and piquant intervals. As a result, the brook’s sinister, occasionally aggressive aspect was apparent from the beginning—no sweet nature idyll this, but a symbol of life’s inexorable march, crony in the narrator’s fits of anger and jealousy, mocker of his sorrows, and ultimate arbiter of his death by drowning. I have to admit I had never fully noticed the brook’s omnipresence in the cycle (addressed by the singer in nearly every song) when rendered by piano—the flowing passagework ironically too idiomatic—yet transposed to viola I appreciated it in all its anthropomorphic glory.
Second violinist Colleen Jennings took a surprising but effective turn as the miller’s daughter—in Louie’s interpretation, “an object of admiration/vehicle for self-hatred for the singer.” Allowing the second violin to rise lyrically out of the texture is an intriguing choice not just in terms of color but (in live performance) in terms of visual expectation and perception. Appropriately, Jennings’s tone had hints of shadow and strain in comparison to the simpler clarity of first violinist Elise Kuder, serving to highlight the miller’s daughter’s veiled identity as an idealized romantic target turned fickle two-timer—perhaps truly just a shallow, flawed human given immortal aspect by the narrator’s love-feverish brain.
Cellist Rupert Thompson grounded the flow and mood of the songs with a bass line of warmth, elasticity, and impressive accuracy given its gymnastic requirements. Not being able to achieve the range of the piano’s bass, Thompson exchanged registerial weightiness for vibrancy, lending an impetuous character to the proceedings. And perhaps because many numbers featured the players sparring and bouncing off each other, their instances of unity were striking and invigorating—occurring most noticeably during rare hopeful songs: Ungeduld (“Impatience,” the singer’s love bursting from his heart) and Mein! (“Mine!,” the brief moment of love’s triumph). The quartet achieved, in key moments, a brashness foreign to the sound world of the piano yet utterly appropriate to the disquieting, manic-depressive psychological landscape of the work.
Masterminding the action, of course, was Frank Kelley, who, with his impassioned, tightly coiled energy and magnetic stage presence, was the perfect embodiment of the tortured, unhinged romantic, the unreliable narrator who leads the listener through the seductive circles of his doomed inner life. Positioned at the back of the setup, between second violin and cello, he clearly thrived on the energy flowing from each corner of the quartet. His duets with Jennings in the final songs, post-betrayal, channeled a special stage chemistry.
Arranging Schubert: sacrilege or brilliance? Although I admit to the bias of a string player, I’d vote for the latter, and further propose that such a daring, occasionally unruly performance is best assayed in a barn on a midsummer evening. Kelley, Louie and the Apple Hill String Quartet tapped into something dynamic, unsettling, and dramatic at the core of Schubert’s musical-narrative genius—an exhilarating example of chamber music exploration at its best.
The remainder of the Apple Hill summer concert series can be found here.