Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, just beginning its 104th season, has some unusual features this year. Its Sunday concerts are all classical music. This year, though, they are all string quartets until Trio Solisti plays in the final week. Saturday evening concerts have typically been a mixture, but this year they are all non-classical except for the annual Maverick Chamber Orchestra Concert on August 24th (conducted by Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt). The remaining Saturdays are taken up with Jazz at the Maverick (4 events), “folk/contemporary” (a tribute to Pete Seeger on July 6th), an evening of “music and meditation” (the music supplied by classical pianist Frederic Chiu) on July 27th, and Indian Ragas (August 10th). I have no value judgments about these plans, since I enjoy most of this music, but I do note what’s going on with interest.
Another interesting feature of this season, although it didn’t start in the first week, is the inclusion of all the string quartets Dmitri Shostakovich composed during the 1960s. Maverick is somehow tying this in with the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, which of course didn’t occur anywhere near Woodstock. (Bethel is 60 miles away, and takes nearly two hours to reach from here unless you have a helicopter.) I’m not sure I get the connection, but it will be exciting to hear all that Shostakovich in one summer.
Yesterday featured the return of the Shanghai Quartet, the longest running ensemble in the current Maverick schedule. This group is especially popular, not surprising. Before the concert I noticed that apparently more than half the seats inside the hall were marked RESERVED, a higher-priced option that must be bought in advance. At some Maverick concerts nearly all of the audience sits inside, but for this one there was a substantial contingent in the outdoor seats. Some people actually prefer to sit outdoors, perhaps for the (literal) atmosphere, but I hear better inside.
Being familiar with the Bohemian Quartet’s 1928 recording of Dvořák’s “American” Quartet (I reissued it on my own Parnassus label), I have a good idea of what 19th-century Dvořák style sounded like. Few contemporary ensembles attempt the flexible rhythms, portamento, and other hallmarks of this style, and the Shanghai Quartet certainly doesn’t. With its more contemporary style, though, this group gave us a lovely performance of the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51, as beautiful a piece as Dvořák ever wrote. I was gratified to notice the composer’s ingenuity in transitions and other elements as emphasized by the players. Their tone was creamy rich but that richness didn’t blunt the sharp execution of rhythms, especially in the dancy finale. Oddly, the violist articulated the opening theme of the finale more clearly than the first violinist (they are brothers), but this wasn’t a problem, just something to notice.
Tan Dun will probably become a major presence in the Hudson Valley’s music life, as he has recently been appointed Director of Bard College’s Conservatory of Music. He is an old friend of the Shanghai Quartet. The ensemble had been asking him for something new to play. Instead, he undertook a major revision of a piece he wrote as a student, “Feng Ya Song” (“Ballad–Hymn–Ode), the first piece by a Chinese composer to win a prize in a Western music competition (Dresden, 1983). The new 2018 version has been considerably shortened (down to 22 minutes) and revised. It must have seemed very radical in 1983 China (and was in fact not performed there), since it is largely atonal in style. To me the most interesting element of the music was the combination of atonality and Bartókian dance rhythms. It may not be a masterpiece, but it held my attention, and it was obviously being played with dedication. (We got the “New York state premiere,” the fourth time the Shanghai Quartet has played the piece.)
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12, in E-flat Major, Op. 127, opened with a startling attack which struck like a hammer blow, and continued to deliver surprises and shocks. This was obviously deliberate and it’s a legitimate reading of Beethoven’s score, which remains enigmatic and magnificent through almost two centuries. (No doubt we’ll be deluged with Beethoven next year, the 250th anniversary of his birth―a delightful prospect.) The Shanghai Quartet was doing its best to keep this music from sounding pretty, including an obviously intentional roughening of its tone in much of the music. This didn’t prevent the cantabile second movement from singing, although I found its tempo a bit on the quick side. I’m not certain the hectic opening of the Finale was entirely intentional, but it didn’t distract from the power and mystery of the music, which overall received a performance which delivered the kind of wonderful mystery I want to hear.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.