Sunday’s concert of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the third under its new music director, Barry Shiffman, continues the festival’s high standards while adding enough novelty, edginess, and unusual repertoire to make it quite remarkably new. One might say, it lived up to its r:EVOLUTION billing.
After speaking (in the pre-concert lecture) about the art of transcription and his lifelong fascination by Prokofiev, the superb pianist Frederic Chiu opened the afternoon with his own haunting transcription of Bach’s poignant aria pleading for mercy with violin obbligato, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from the St. Matthew Passion. Chiu has always admired the great transcribers for piano, Busoni and Liszt, and it turns out he’s learned a lot of his predecessors’ tricks. This crystalline voicing and sensitivity, set high the bar for the rest of the afternoon.
After moving years ago to Paris, Chiu met Prokofiev’s widow and two grown sons. We learned some truly unexpected things about this composer who was also a phenomenal pianist with a rather peculiar technique suited to his own compositions. Chiu explained that Prokofiev had meant his three “war sonatas” (1939-1944) to have been a monumental ten-movement work, but ended up separating them into Sonatas 6, 7, and 8. Then, ten years after his decision to return to the U.S.S.R., he set off for Hollywood where Disney offered him the job of composing Fantasia. Yes.
Prokofiev wrote his, Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, undoubtedly one of his most famous work for piano, in Tbilisi, where he took refuge from the German invaders; it constitutes his attempt to “embody the emotions of his life,” Chiu explained. Of its initially lyrical second movement, Chiu quipped, “the first part is like Edith Piaf, then it turns psychotic, like he’s in an opium house.” In the third movement, it seemed, “he made the piece lovable.” Anne Midgette has pithily described the third movement. “Its Precipitato finale is pure Jerry Lee Lewis, an explosive burst of rock’n’roll with a chromatic edge, written more than a decade before rock was born.” Sometimes referred to as Sviatoslav Richter debuted what some call “the Stalingrad” sonata, in January 1943 in Moscow. Two months later, Prokofiev received the Stalin Prize for it. Chiu, who has recorded all the Prokofiev sonatas, captured the chaos, the aching beauty, and the headlong, propulsive seven-beats-to-a-bar craziness of each measure in a brilliant, fiery interpretation I will long remember.
The elegant woven wooden shades were drawn closed to protect stage and house from the afternoon sun’s glare and heat. This disappointed some in the audience who consider the view as integral to the Rockport concert experience. Yes, they could see the same view while sipping wine on the third floor, but it’s really not the same. Others, who appreciate the ocean view during the golden hour, have defensively donned sunglasses for afternoon concerts. Also, when the sun is brilliant, the stage lights have needed to be turned up to max+ so the performers don’t become silhouettes. This made for perspiring players. Many appreciate Shiffman’s flexibility in this matter.
I did initially appreciate the absence of the obligatory warning to turn off cell phones. What a refreshing change. And yet, in the quietest moments at the concert’s end, we suffered the horrours of a lady who seemed not to know how to stop her phone from chiming obnoxiously for what seemed like an eternity. Were the rather lavish red and blue lights, deployed, I guess, to set a mood, really necessary? They seemed both insensitive to the music, and kitchy.
After an intermission, needed for those of us who were shaken by the ferocious power of the Prokofiev, the hall was completely darkened, and we were treated to Todd Palmer’s gorgeously played clarinet solo, “Abyss of the birds” from Quartet from the End of Time (1941-42) by Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992). Played from the back of the balcony, this lent an extraordinary moment of tranquility and beauty between two pieces (the Prokofiev and the Tan Dun) that felt like forces of nature. The clarinet solo was famously written in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia, after Messiaen discovered his love of bird songs at dawn, and began notating their chirping. It was written for an imprisoned French Jew, Henri Akoka, and became the starting point for his Quartet.
As in the first half of the concert, one piece melted into the next. Lights were turned out, a bit, and there was the wonderful cellist Andrés Diáz along with four percussionists and a flotilla of instruments taking up most of the stage for Tan Dun’s Elegy: Snow in June for Cello and Four percussionists (Matt Sharrock, Dave Burns, Aaron Trant, and Michael Williams). Like most- all but the Bach- of the music on this program, this piece was written either in extenuating difficult or, in or for, tragic circumstances. Tan Dun (born in China in 1957)’s piece is a tour-de-force for cello which features nearly 100 percussion instruments. Diaz, who has recorded it for Music @ Menlo, is exactly the right cellist for its striking, rather original cello writing. The score commemorates the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The Snow in June refers to the 13th -century Chinese drama by Kuan Han-Ching, in which a young woman, Sou Eh, is executed for crimes she did not commit. Nature itself cries out for You Eh’s innocence: he blood does not fall to earth, but flies upward, and a heavy snow falls in June and a drought descends for three years. He rededicated it for 9/11’s victims.
Tan Dun refers to much of the piece as “free variations,” which take place after an almost painfully emotional cello solo. Diáz played his challenging solo part lusciously, and the four percussionists were just fabulous. It was a most persuasive performance, and the audience seemed charmed. At moments Diáz seemed to catapult, cello and all, into a quartet of mad percussionists. One sat spellbound.
Then, the lights dimmed, and we found ourselves in Messiaen’s Stalag VIIIA. The percussionists were now in the dark, and the light focused on Diaz and Chiu, who gave a breathtaking account of “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” from Quartet for the End of Time. About halfway into this piece of mystery and enchantment, that rogue phone began chiming its own obnoxious tune. The duo kept their concentration, but I was preoccupied with dreaming that this woman would be barred for a year from any concerts. From beginning to end, this was one spectacular concert. Bravo, tutti.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.