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Collegial Mix at RCMF

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Blake Pouillot and Stephen Prutsman (Michael J. Lutch photo)

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival opened its 48th season, entitled “Source and Inspiration,” joining American Jazz standards with European reactions to the quintessentially American idiom. On Friday night at the Shalin Lu Center, some things worked phenomenally, some missed the mark.

The young Canadian violin-phenom Blake Pouliot and pianist Stephen Prutsman began with Ravel’s Violin Sonata. The composer joked that this work took so long to complete because the violin and piano are not compatible instruments, but the duo did a fine job reconciling their differences with nuanced shades of texture and long, arching lines. Pouliot, the 24-year-old up-and-comer who recently made a name for himself as a last-minute sub in the Brahms concerto in Dallas, displayed rhythmic surety and scrupulous technique, but failed to explore the many characters of the central “blues” movement. We heard moments of lucidity and “flow” in the duo’s interplay in this section, but it seemingly explored technical challenges rather than emotions. That said, the multi-layered first and propulsive final movement sparkled.

As the black velvet curtain closed-off the twilight view of Sandy Bay, Prutsman held the stage with a lovely piano solo effectively bridging the classical chamber music section to a cabaret style vocal set with Italian Jazz vocalist Cristina Zavalloni. She sang “Second Hand Rose,” “Stardust”, and “Ain’t Misbehavin’with all the semi-improvised banter one would expect between the songs. Zavalloni is a seasoned vocalist and recording artist in her native Bologna, and daughter of a jazz band leader. Clearly this music lived in her soul, but her stage manner was problematic. For the most part her pitch was spot-on, and her wide vibrato quickly became an accepted feature, but barriers arose from vocal timbre and pronunciation. Zavalloni possesses a naturally intense and somewhat brittle direct sound which seemed out of place singing standards which many of us know from the roundness and warmth of a Fitzgerald, Vaughan, or Holiday. The microphone/mixer did not help take the edge off. The other issue approaches the touchy subject of artistic (or cultural) authenticity. This author is no jazz expert, but can say without hesitation that Zavalloni’s non-native English actually created a disconnect. The audience had to climb over perfectly enunciated T’s and R’s while mentally adjusting vowels to make the lyrics fit to songs we already knew. It wasn’t just the music that was affected; some of the comedy (such as an overlong mock cellphone call in Italian to her jealous husband) and 20s-style vamping fell flat too. However, hearing her describe her childhood infatuation with Polvere di Stelle made one realize that ironically, these American tunes would have sounded more authentic if she has sung them in Italian. Her timbre and style sans microphone much better suited the Sorrentino folk song encore.

The Parker Quartet joined Prutsman (who really had a full evening, playing essentially the entire concert) for the piano quintet version of Milhaud’s La Création du Monde. The quartet brought a bright, biting sound to the rhythmic interplay of the many movements, and cooled the tone down to a more obscure, dark fuzziness when needed — in short, they performed exceptionally, as we expect of them.

Vera Quartet, Prutsman and Keaton (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Sometimes you don’t miss something until it’s gone, though. Milhaud’s own quintet reduction from his larger original, replete with winds (including a saxophone) and percussion, loses a lot of the most satisfying moments. What is left is what Ravel referred to as the “irreconcilability” of the strings and piano — the dynamic between the instruments became the main feature of the piece, rather than the harmony and linear interplay at work as Milhaud first wrote it. In making the reduction, the composer crafted something like a monochrome Matisse.

After intermission, the Vera Quartet, quartet in residence at Curtis, joined Prutsman for his own score to Buster Keaton’s College. For the sake of a possibly authentic experience, as well as to add some fun, Prutsman encouraged audience reaction and participation; at one point as our bookworm hero tries out for the baseball team, the whole house joined in on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The combination of Keaton’s onscreen antics and the inventive score made this half of the show fly by. Prutsman compiled a collage of 1920’s film score styles, standards, and classical references, some of which could only be described as Easter Eggs for their brevity and oblique allusions (everything from Bach to Monday Night Football). The Vera foursome, making its Rockport debut, rewarded us with amazing energy and laserlike accuracy, as well as comfort with just plain fun. At one point they would navigate a jaunty tune which modulates, Prokofiev-like, up by half steps while it continues to unfold, the next they are on their feet soloing on kazoos and slide whistles, putting their all into it. At the end, the audience applauded as much for Keaton’s victorious character as for the accompaniment. Mission accomplished!

From shout-out-loud movie watching to a cabaret set, American jazz performed by a European, and European interpretations of jazz performed by Americans, these “Sources and Inspirations” made for a different and effective way to open a festival season. Many of the performers will also appear Saturday at 7:30pm and 10pm.

See BMInt’s related interview [HERE] for more on the artistic director Barry Shiffman’s second season.

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