IN: Reviews

Fivesparks Hits the Spot

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Judith Eissenberg (Susan Wilson photo)

Volunteer-based local fine arts events, be they theatrical, orchestral, choral, have always found a place in my heart. And so this summer’s challenges to gathering prompted me to ponder the survival of such entities.

Then I happened upon the “3rd Annual Harvard Music Festival”, curated last week by Fivesparks, an organization dedicated to the culture of Harvard, MA. Like all of their events, this music festival was free and publicly accessible. Despite its homegrown essence and contained focus, the teachers and presenters who presided over the week-long festival came from the highest levels of professional expertise and together drew from their impressive artistic resources, not only in the Boston area but also from all around the world. The primary director, Mark Mikitarian, maintained a level of organization and technological fluency throughout the week that would put many, much higher-profile institutions to shame. Although this year’s festival had to happen exclusively in virtual spaces [primarily Zoom], I was astounded by the infrequency of hiccups and the ease of my experience.

Every morning was divided into three recurring sections, each led by one of the festival’s directors. First, Judith Eissenberg spoke meditatively on mindfulness and acceptance, with assistance from the Alexander Technique specialist, Deborah Adams.

Alexander Technique offers a system of exercises practiced for the betterment of body posture and muscular efficiency while engaged in quotidian activities, such as sitting, walking, or even practicing an instrument. With primary focuses on self-awareness and achieving mind-body unity, these are not dissimilar to yoga or even tai-chi. Practicing Alexander Technique was a wonderful way to start each morning together, and in this session more than any other, participants would volunteer personal insights and reactions, allowing us all to form deeper relationships with one another.

These magnificent women never failed to bring all of us to new levels of intimacy, both with each other and with ourselves. That genuine intimacy could be achieved over Zoom is astounding and testifies to the guides’ supreme capacities. A daily warm-up session followed with the renowned cellist, Rhonda Rider. Her segment, “Say ‘Good Morning’ to your Instrument” showed an openminded approach and novel intuition, providing unprecedented physical refreshment. Usually beginning with some sort of scale exercise, participants were encouraged to gradually push against their habitual methods of handling fingerboard and bow and explore familiar exercises with brand new sensibility. Slight adjustments to hand behavior or augmented awareness of distant body parts [back, legs, feet] invited me to interact with my viola more efficiently and deliberately. “Ease,” a theme of the week in these warm-ups, provided us no little help in relaxing with our instruments.

Finally, pianist Judith Gordon hosted a “Detangling Session,” addressing through ingeniously moderated discussion, some of the more difficult complexities of practicing and rehearsing. This segment frequently included some live exampling from Gordon along with piquant anecdotes from her thrilling performative life.

The more varied afternoons always involved some combination of stimulating demonstrations from players and composers on their recent work and scholarly lectures on various musical topics — led not only by the festival directors, but also by esteemed guests, as in Rhonda Rider’s presentation of her awesome “Grand Canyon Project,” a unique residency experience at the canyon which resulted in the collection and performance of new commissions from a spectrum of composers for solo cello on themes from the national park [BMInt review HERE]. An even mixture of performers and musicologists enriched each afternoon and evening with deep insights into diverse music [from Beethoven, to Shostakovich, to contemporary premiers] and kindled discussion among the participants.

Since in-person chamber music rehearsals and coachings have become impractical, we truly valued this year’s virtual format for performance and instruction. Every day, the directors made themselves available for triage sessions, to which individual participants could bring their practice and performance questions. Then, these same directors conducted masterclasses on two of the evenings, available to all participants for observation. Such daring application of the Zoom technology, no matter the imperfections, delivered something akin to the familiar masterclass.

At the end of the week, I met the familiar sense of instant nostalgia that typically accompanies a last day of summer camp. Despite the impediments — eye-strain, compromised sound quality, and intangible venue — the summer festival atmosphere thrived, thanks to an amazing feat of directorial ingenuity and overwhelming conviction from the participants.

How lucky I feel to have been invited and included in the festival, especially during a year in which my cherished yearnings for community have met with such daunting challenges. The community of Harvard, MA, at least, is vibrantly alive; I hope that its example will serve as a model. My confidence in the continued celebration of local culture through community organizations reinforces a central tenant of my being. And I am confident that, in harboring these sentiments, I am not alone.  

Eric Hollander is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. His research is focused on musical realizations of poetic texts and oral traditions.

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