IN: Reviews

Seaside Festival Opens Atop the Tide


George Walker

On a gala op’ning night
In this the’ter by the sea.
I basked in a golden light
Direct from Dover to me*

Without doubt, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival got underway gloriously in a festive amalgam of programmatic aptness and extraordinary playing. The full house at the Shalin Liu Center showed its appreciation by applauding every movement of the Haydn Joke Quartet, George Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, and Mendelssohn’s brash and wise Octet. Running through July 9th, the festival’s subsequent 20 concerts, planned by Artistic Director Barry Shiffman, all look to share the gala qualities provided by the visual and sonic embrace of architect Alan Joslin’s theater by the sea. Click HERE for the calendar.

The name of the Dover String Quartet evokes both those white cliffs imagined on the distant horizon from Sandy Bay, and the preternatural intensity of Dover Beach. And then the Curtis connections.  . . .  Barber wrote his celebrated quartet-accompanied song cycle while at Curtis, and now the Dover ensemble can take pride in its status as Penelope P. Watkins Ensemble in Residence there.

On his spectacular sounding Peter Guarneri of Mantua violin, Joel Link, first among equals, affectionately and stunningly intoned the sweet opening melody of Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major over the accompaniment of violinist Bryan Lee, violist Julianne Lee, and cellist Camden Shaw. Haydn (and later Mendelssohn) gave license to the dominant and outgoing Link to adopt the character of a concerto soloist, but in the context last night of glorious ensemble verve. The foursome has honed a distinctive polish distinguished by a courtly shapeliness of dynamics, steadiness (without seaside taffy pulling), and perfection of intonation. Indeed, they marched out and played without once tuning onstage. And they gave affectionate character to Haydn’s zaniness, be it the slippery glissandi or the hilariously defective, or rather deceptive, coda.

According to RCMF annotator Keith Horner:

Composer, pianist and educator George Walker earned a string of ‘firsts’ during a long life, capped, at the age of 74, by becoming the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for his stirringly evocative Lilacs, for voice and orchestra. … Twenty years later, in 2015, The Guardian’s wrote of “George Walker: the great American composer you’ve never heard of.” 

Walker wrote his String Quartet No. 1 at the age of 24, shortly after graduating from Curtis, in 1946. Its confident, tautly drawn initial theme and lyrical closing cadence, immediately repeated a step higher, at once commands our attention, becoming the seed from which much of the first movement is constructed.

 “I had just written the first movement and was starting the second when I learned that my grandmother had died.” At the beginning of the resulting slow movement, a calm, spacious atmosphere is established as the strings interweave a somber falling phrase, broken by reflective chordal cadences. At the midpoint, the work builds to an intense climax as the chords turn jagged and bring a short-lived lyrical melody. But the prevailing mood remains somber to the concluding chords. The music quickly gained traction as an independent piece. Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936), which is also the slow movement of a string quartet, Walker’s Molto Adagio (later retitled Lyric for Strings) can generate a profound feeling of loss, hope and comfort in an audience. Elements of this somber mood linger in the reflective, sometimes wistful episodes of the rondo finale. Here, as in the opening movement, the energy is primarily drawn from contrapuntally forward moving instrumental lines, together with a determinedly upbeat ending.

We heard echoes of Debussy’s Quartet as well as much WPA hominess in the accessible 20 minutes of fine, idiomatic writing, which the Dover players, this time in perfect equality of voice, warmly shared with us. Walker could not have had better advocacy than he received from the Dover’s skillful and committed advocacy across shifting moods and realizations of emphatic strivings over a dark-colored undercurrent of angst. Frenzied piling on of chords relaxed into a lyric sigh to end of the first movement. The Molto adagio, a twining music of the spheres, could also be heard as a balladeer’s lament, flawlessly sung out and poignantly resolved. The players conveyed the third and final movement (Allegro con fuoco) as a jagged juggernaut of uncertainty, finally petering out of its depression into an astounding affirmation, shared by the grateful listeners.

Andrew Wan, violin; Njioma Grevious, violin; Barry Shiffman, viola; and Desmond Hoebig, cello; joined the Dover for a luminous account of the 16-year-old Mendelssohn’s hormonal outpouring for eight independent voices. Symphonic richness obtained throughout the four movements of urgent pleading and explosive release. The players contrasted the pianos and fortes with the required emphasis and communicated irresistible joy over the 30 glorious minutes. We enjoyed observing the conjoining of the eight very different personalities. Link once again enjoyed a soloistic dominance. Cellist Shaw, rarely looking at his score, seemingly having the notes by heart, ‘conducted’ the first violin and first viola with knowing glances. The Dover’s new violist Julianne Lee having seemed completely settled in for her Dover debut, offered a poignant solo near the end of the massive first movement; the way Link subsequently took it up once again evidenced that melding. Barry Schiffman, playing viola 2, contrasted with Lee visually by turning out for the duration of the piece while Lee sat composedly, albeit on the edge of her seat, aiming aft.

Plaudits to the octet for its glittering generosity of emotion…at times coming dangerously near to shamelessly maudlin but never crossing the line. Heroic and powerful, but with the ability to flutter at the speed of a hummingbird in the fairy scherzo, and capable of Puckishly humorous release when Mendelssohn needed a break from intensity. Through alchemical interactions, the eight human elements combined for a brilliant half hour into a radiant organic compound. The bubbles popping at the celebratory post-concert reception signaled the pleasure taken in by all.

*apologies to Poe

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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