Newport’s Breakers mansion and lawn, the venue for Newport Music Festival’s opening on Thursday evening July 8th with the Grammy-nominated chamber orchestra A Far Cry, could well have been the setting of a gothic novel, shrouded as it was in such dense fog that patrons needed to be individually escorted to the completely enclosed performance tent. Inside, however, the warm personal greetings from the festival hosts helped settle everyone in for an hour of extravagant beauty and unabashed romanticism from a vibrant and brilliant ensemble. They played without conductor, yet effectively negotiated nuances of the ebb and flow of the varied musical selections, executing some of the most difficult passages with precision and technical brilliance, while intuiting the expressive components with the intimacy and interconnectivity one associates with a much smaller chamber music group. The ensemble sounded bold and aggressive, lush, resonant, rich with color, sensitive and expressive without being overly sentimental. The festival’s reinforcement gear and shell enhanced a natural sound—a rare occurrence for events held out of doors.
Introductions from the governor of Rhode Island and the mayor of Newport, preceded a welcome from the festival’s newly appointed director Gillian Friedman Fox [see BMInt interview HERE]. Rhode Island has fully and apparently safely reopened for live events, having been one of a handful of states to have reached the national vaccination goal on time. And the orchestra noted this as its first performance in front of a live audience since February of a year ago. Thus, the significant ceremony accorded here received justifiably warm applause from performers and audience alike.
In Edvard Grieg’s celebrated Holberg Suite, the orchestra displayed tremendous virtuosity, handing off the most difficult passages seamlessly and effortlessly, while evocatively capturing the folk character of the Nordic landscape and its peoples with poignancy; the fiddle-tune elements and appropriately stylized country dances came across with lilt and grace. One would expect the bowings of an elite group to be uniform, but beyond that, the ensemble choreographed its moves naturally as well as uniformly. In other numbers, little to no extraneous movement whatsoever seemed evident, again as appropriate to the selection.
The configurations for each composition changed as well, with players not only switching chairs, but also even switching between 1st and 2nd sections in the violins, and between solo and concertante parts. This more democratic approach to staging fostered a human connection with the audience, now bonded as one for the delightful rendering of Joseph Bologne’s (Chevalier de Saint-Georges) Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, op 3 no 1. This delightful product of the son of Senegalese slave from the island of Guadeloupe featured two solo violins as the concertante or solo group, sometimes playing together in parallel motion, sometimes against each other as in a dialogue. As this dialogue began, a songbird from outside the tent joined in this delightful song, rendering a most treasured moment of joy in the collusion of mankind and nature.
Sturm, the earliest-published score from Lower-East-Side New York composer Jessie Montgomery, featured soaring lyric lines set against a background of plucked strings, representative of a banjo or perhaps a mandolin or balalaika orchestra. Beginning with the strumming alone, a solo cello makes its first appearance, followed by a second line on a violin, lines being gradually added, the solo lines being transformed into fully orchestrated and sonority that seemed to take wing as if a migration of avian creatures. The strumming also transforms into short, bowed motives reminiscent of the beating of wings. The entire flock seems to settle for a moment of lyrical respite and fun play, before resuming its flight. While the bird analogy belongs to this writer, the composer wrote of the work: “Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”
Out of silence, and with seemingly no physical movement or gesture of any kind, Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song began in hushed solemnity, and proceeded as a prayer to build in intensity reflective of the style of tintinnabuli, meant to evoke the ringing of bells by building on the overtone sonorities of a bell tone to create the series of notes that surround it, eventually building up a wall of sound. Pärt himself described this as “a musical universe orbiting a single note.” Pärt achieves this contemplativeness by balancing his effective soundscape technique with intermittent periods of silence. Silouan’s Song ends in the quiet stillness in which it began, appropriate for silent prayer it evokes and the Russian Orthodox monk St. Silouan whom it honors.
Venezuelan-born Teresa Carreño, perhaps America’s most prominent piano soloist in her time, performed for Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson and was lauded Liszt. She also composed a significant output, most of which is rarely if ever performed. Her Serenade for Strings in E-flat Major, written in 1895 Austria, reminds one of Dvořák’s Serenade in its lyricism, but its decidedly American character lends it distinction. The players gave delicate nuance to its more introspective moments, while its most difficult passages dazzled with virtuosity and aplomb.
This fitting ending to a wonderful evening of music making pointed to a new direction for a festival formerly known for valuing super-star performers. Its current balanced selection of programs, artists, and established performing groups promises to reach a far wider and more diversified audience. Bravo and brava.