The Rockport Music Festival celebrated its development from a modest gathering of talent on rocky shores into a nationally-recognized mecca for world-class music, as well as the farewell season of Artistic Director David Deveau, who is largely credited over the past 20+ years as the architect of the festival’s arrival on the national scene. And what better way to kick off such a season than with an electric performance by two virtuosos powerful enough to carry you away but also short enough to just carry you from the cocktail hour to the gala dinner. Even music festivals have to pay the bills, and it’s a testament to its success that Rockport has reached the point where it can accomplish the necessities in a spirit of joy and elegant self-celebration.
While Deveau was the spiritual star of the evening (and one would believe his whole final season), the eye and ear were soon drawn to the evening’s dual mega stars, Joshua Bell and Alessio Bax and the short but relentlessly intense program of Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, and Sarasate.
The promotional materials listed a somewhat different and much longer set of pieces (including 2 more sonatas); while one lamented the omission of the promised rarities like the Debussy and Ysaÿe Sonatas, the length of the presented program, especially as taken without intermission, was fine.
The show opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 2, from Op.12, a piece Joachim’s grand-niece, the violinist Jelly d’Aronyi, thought deserved the moniker “Spring” as much as the more famous “Spring” Sonata (No. 5); the duo played to this point convincingly. A gentle pop opened a multilayered landscape and upwardly organic modulations. Bax played liquid ivory throughout, and the duo unified on (nearly) all of the notoriously slippery 16th-note scales. In the second movement, the dialogues intertwined more than dovetailed to great effect, as if writing down a memory while reliving it, all the way to the evaporative ending. The finale sprang to birth in vital triple meter, and the duo pulled off a charming close of pure joy.
In Brahms’s Scherzo in C Minor (Sonatensatz), both piano and violin conjured up an orchestra’s worth of fire and drama at the pulsating beginning, and both parts continued to sparkle and spark throughout—even when in a supporting role—so the fire never went out.
Unbelievably, this marked the halfway point of the evening’s presentations, but even more unbelievable was that the duo took only short breaks (less than a minute) between the pieces, turning what would have been a concert in miniature into a marathon undertaking. Grieg’s C Minor Sonata (which one suspects supplanted the Debussy) best displayed how the two soloists can bring a united voice to chamber music. Bell exhibited his trademark dynamic power and lyrical nuance over the complete compass of the violin, and Bax was and equal partner in both execution and interpretation—in this both instruments performed as one, the highest effect of chamber music rarely achieved. The sentimental song which starts the middle movement could have come from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, and the central folk melody was so effective that, when the “too soon” ending had passed, a unison bemused sigh arose from the audience, as they were rocked from their gentle reverie.
Before the official closer, Bell and Bax performed a pre-encore, which was wise not only for pacing but also audience endearment. One was unsure how Bax felt about playing the accompanying figures to a violin arrangement of Chopin’s C-sharp Minor Nocturne, but the performance was a lovely palate pleaser. The electrifying Carmen Fantasy of Sarasate turned out to be the last work we heard, and one understood the necessity of substitution to bring the event in on time.
One doesn’t expect much to go wrong with musicians of this caliber, and not much did; the few missteps mostly came mostly communication lapses and tempo slips in the finale did little to deface this gem. Bell owns this showpiece and was at home with its arsenal of effects: the broken octaves, harmonics, broken octaves with harmonics of the opening entr’acte, the notorious multiple stop section of the Habanera, and the sheer velocity with which one must execute these effects and change between them.
As if those few hair-raising moments were not enought to keep listeners and performers on their toes, a cheesy cell phone rang out, not once but twice, during the Gala, eliciting a bemused smirk from Bell as he tried to craft the ending of a charming Beethoven allegretto. “Eh, what can you do?” He seemed to say. Shalin Liu Performance Center’s phenomenal acoustic occasionally made Bax’s pedaling more audible than his left hand, but “Eh, what can you do?” If you are the Rockport Music Festival under Deveau’s leadership, you can do a lot.