During the summer “off” season you will find on BMInt listings for concerts far afield from our usual geographic range, as much of the classical music world rusticates in cities, towns and hamlets all over New England. Moreover, our listings don’t even catch all the festivals and series that attract top professional talent. One such miss is the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, now in its 46th year, and since 2016 under the artistic direction of Mihae Lee, familiar to Boston audiences for her years with the Boston Chamber Music Society. SLLMF presents a four-week series at the open-window, barn-like but acoustically well-designed Deertrees Theater in Harrison, Maine, as well as several “run-out” programs in other towns in Maine’s lakes region and sometimes even farther off. We’ve known about this series for some years, but found ourselves in the right place at the right time to take in their July 31st offering.
Lee’s imaginative programming displayed itself immediately with Villa-Lobos’s 1950 The Jet Whistle, a three-movement duo for flute (Susan Rotholz) and cello (Eliot Bailen). At a time when Villa-Lobos was dabbling in more advanced harmonic procedures, this amiable piece reminds one of the wind duo Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6, with its folkloric associations and exploitation of the extremes of its instruments’ registers and textures. In the first movement the flute indulges in avian chirping while the cello line is like a Baroque continuo, then more or less vice versa. The second movement is atmospheric and languid (and, dare we say, a bit draggy), while the finale erupts in a jolly chase in which the cello goads the flute into rapid and ever-higher and intricate runs culminating in a couple of overblown shrieks that give the piece its name. Rotholz was elegant and, save the acrobatic ending, unflashy, and Bailen deployed a light yet sure touch.
The forepart of the program seemed devoted to late works by their respective composers. That theme continued with the Fantasy for Violin and Harp, op. 124 (1905) by Saint-Saëns. In one movement with five distinct sections, it offers, like the Villa-Lobos, a series of contrasts and inversions of the instruments’ characteristic capabilities. After a sustained opening featuring an intensely lyrical line in the violin (Movses Pogossian, with a strong, resonant upper register) against a harp part (Stacey Shames) that is idiomatic without cliché. Things perk up from there in passages suggesting a Sarasate violin showpiece, with many a Spanish inflection, though the harp gets in many intricate licks. Seldom were the parts conventional melody-plus-accompaniment, both being, and fully executed as, strong, independent, coincident lines.
The first half closed with one of the concert’s two universally acknowledged masterpieces, the Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Rotholz was joined by Shames and violist Mary Hammann, the latter two of whom are members of Auréole, a trio of the Debussy instrumentation that has recorded this sonata. It’s familiar enough, and formally so resistant to easy description, that we won’t attempt to do so, but a quick refresher can be found here. In the first movement Pastorale, Rotholz was smoky, Sharmes dark and mysterious, and Hammann wispy with delicate tracery (she was, alas, covered for a great part of this movement’s ensemble sections, perhaps a miscalculation of the open-air acoustics of the hall). The “minuet” carried on dreamily from the musical materials and expressive content of the Pastorale, now to a more lilting beat (if you can speak of things like a “beat” in Debussy), with more opportunity to perceive Hammann’s elegant and controlled line. The finale was generally perky and well accented, and we admired the ensemble’s precision, though on the whole it seemed a bit underpowered.
One could not come up with a greater contrast the the light and ethereal quality of the first half than the brooding, anguished ardency of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34. Moreover, one couldn’t have anticipated a more radically contrasting performance. It burned with a white heat that nearly melted the stage and all those on it.
We have not heard, nor do BMInt’s records disclose, a performance of this quintet by Lee, with BCMS or otherwise, in Boston; she was clearly out to make a statement with it here. At a somewhat unusual instrument, a Petrof (the Czech firms is considered the largest-by-volume European maker, but we’ve never seen a US concert performance on one), and abetted by a quartet consisting of Varty Manouelian and Pogossian, violins, Hammann, and Bonnie Thron, cello, Lee went big and bold, even to the point of miking the piano. In the first movement the support she got from the strings was variable—firm in the big climaxes, lacking in power and sometimes cohesion elsewhere. The slow movement, taken at a somewhat brisker pace than usual, nevertheless seemed to lack the long-breathed sense of line that makes this such a successful relaxation from the intensity of the other movements. Lee herself was not the problem: her phrasing and dynamics were well judged. However, the somewhat rushed tempo left little breathing room for the strings.
That, however, was as nothing compared to the scherzo, which, like that of the Piano Concerto No. 2, is a grim and determined “anti-scherzo.” The trouble, if you regard it as such, began when Thron, setting the pace with the cello’s pizzicato lead-in, took it about 50% faster than customary. Planned that way? Pure adrenaline? We don’t know, but what followed, pace the more restrained trio, was, as our notes put it, “hell bent for leather.” On this Indianapolis Speedway there were some narrowly averted flame-outs, and the expressive quality invoked Hindemith’s famous tempo indication, “Tonschönheit ist Nebensache,” beautiful sounds are [distinctly] secondary. It was undeniably exhilarating, but we hope the players’ mothers weren’t watching the no-hands careering. The finale wasn’t quite on the brink of disaster like that, but it, too, forwent subtlety for great waves of sound that broke like detonations on the shores of Long Lake and brought the shocked and awed audience to its feet.
The SLLMF season continues on August 7th and 14th. Those in the area should consider checking out what further excitements Lee has arranged for them. The August 14th concert will repeat August 17 on the Chestnut Hill Concerts series in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.