The abundant sororities of 15 players of the Festival Chamber Orchestra, an ad-hoc assemblage of soloists, quartet players, and stars came into alignment for the opening of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival last night, providing a real treat for this first-time attendee. The Shalin Liu Performance Center’s stunning water views impressed, as the silhouetted musicians stood against a panorama with boats and passing birds. The golden hour mirrored in the shining varnish of the instruments, and the acoustics brought out the depth of the lower strings especially nicely.
Elgar reworked his three pieces for string orchestra from 1888 four years later into the gentle, widely-known Serenade. The fact that Elgar was himself a violinist made this deeply personal. It was evident from the velvety sound of the 4/3/3/3/1 string chamber orchestra that many players belonged to prominent quartets. The violas began with a poignant, bouncy rhythm, which Elgar then overlayed with lovely melodies beautifully intoned by the violins. The orchestra also brought out the elegy in the melancholic second movement, anticipating the composer’s Nimrod and the slow movements of his symphonies. The slightly slow tempo of the first movement cast the only cloud, but made the Allegro piacevole no less pleasant; dynamic differences could have been somewhat more pronounced, but the chamber orchestra attacked the Allegretto together nicely and eloquently brought back themes from the Allegro piacevole.
Marjan Mozetich, a Canadian composer who has been teaching composition at Queen’s University in Canada for almost three decades, was born in Italy in 1948. That he had composed more than 70 works, including many for theater, film and dance, became evident in his Postcards from the Sky. He produces more subtle versions of film music familiar from giants like Hans Zimmer or John Williams. Unfolding Sky starts with melodies reminiscent of Sibelius’s symphonies overlaid by motoric, Phillip Glass-like riffs with arpeggios in the base. Cellist Grace Ho warmly made the initial melodic statement which the violins expanded upon. The elegiac melody of the second movement, Weeping Clouds eventually burst into sunlight. In the third movement, A Messenger, the second violins rhythmically underlined the viola solo performed by Colin Brookes before fading out into the sky behind the stage of the performers. The composer tells us that his enigmatic music expressed “beauty, sensuousness and emotion.” We experienced it variously as an opium dream or a nightmare of repetition.
“Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), a poem by the German poet and essayist Matthias Claudius tells an immortal tale (which goes back to medieval time) of a gentle death relentlessly pursuing a maiden. It inspired Schubert 1817 namesake Lied and a few years later, his eponymous String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810; Landesmann Gustav Mahler, having lost some of his children early in their lives also gravitated to this image, but Schubert’s quartet offers so much more than just a description of death and beauty. Mahler expanded Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet into a full-orchestra version by adding some divisis to the violin parts and introducing a line for the contrabass. It remained in manuscript until publication in 1984. Since he didn’t give the bass enough to do (essentially augmenting the cellos but leaving out the fast parts), the skilled and very creative bass player Kebra-Seyoun Charles, being informed by experiences from classical music to Jazz, added their own improvisations.
Transforming a quartet piece into one played by a full orchestra is one thing, but then reducing the forces from the 20-on-a part which Mahler expected to a string chamber ensemble of 11 in total poses a different set of challenges. A large string section playing in a reverberant hall can produce a nice blend among players who of necessity deviate ever so slightly from true pitch. While intonation can usually be aligned among groups of three or four individuals, playing difficult passages unisono in a section within a small string ensemble can painfully expose any non-uniformity of pitch. In the upper reaches this proved to be a recurring problem. The alignment on the spiccato in the first movement also felt a bit shaky. A rather slow tempo prevailed for the fierce opening triplets and romantic interpretation of the confronting themes, but contrasts grew more pronounced towards the end of the movement.
The second movement also started slow and lacked the distinction and direction that a conductor or more rehearsals might have exacted, but the powerful, fast ending did whip up our passions. The driving syncopation of the Scherzo provided a nice contrast to the preceding Andante con moto, concluding with an energetic Allegro molto. The virtuosic Presto started off somewhat mechanically repeating the themes from the first movement with the violas providing a substantial basis, but ended with a fulminate virtuosic prestissimo.
We certainly took pleasure in what we heard from the Shalin Liu Stage; in their own ensembles, though, these players would have achieved much greater subtleties.
Barry Shiffman, the artistic director of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival and a participating viola/violin doubler, has put together a very interesting season which runs through August. Check it out HERE.