During his introductory remarks RCMF Artistic Director Barry Shiffman asked how many in the audience had heard last week’s premiere of Composer-in-Residence Mark Applebaum’s October 1582; many hands shot up. This loyalty comes as no surprise, considering the festival’s innovative programming, fine artists and gorgeous setting. Friday’s three soloists, joined by the Balourdet Quartet and friends, offered a wide-ranging selection of J.S. Bach, Applebaum, and Pärt.
Expressive oboist Ryan Roberts (of the New York Phil and more) and animated violinist Kerson Leong, the latter in his first RCMF appearance, essayed a favorite for compact venues, Bach’s Concerto in C Minor for oboe, violin and orchestra BWV 1060 (likely the reconstructed original that became the composer’s concerto for two harpsichords). Tuneful and Italianate, the opening Allegro with its iconic theme allowed for Roberts’s oboe domination through many variations ending with the initial melody, while Leong crafted support with counterpoint and more rapid phrasing and fingering. Indeed, Leong, a superb Canadian violinist, is in his much-deserved ascendancy. Here, the chamber orchestra, made up of The Boston-based Balourdet String Quartet’s Angela Bae and Justin DeFilippis, violins; Benjamin Zannoni, viola and Russell Houston, cello; as well as Clare Semes and Byungchan Lee, violin; Shiffman, viola; and Lukas Goodman, cello, along with Jeffrey Beecher and Charles Clements, double bass; plus Max Levinson, piano, provided near flawless collaboration. The gentle Adagio movement displayed the talents of both soloists, though as written, the oboe dominates; and the Allegro third movement gave Leong a chance to shine The link from Bach to the rest of the program stretched a silken thread of innovation—linking Sebastian to Applebaum and, especially, to Pãrt.
Another treat from Applebaum doubled acclaimed violinist Livia Sohn—pre-recorded and very much alive—in the 2020 work, More or Less, “dedicated to the violinist with great admiration and affection” to celebrate her then partial recovery from focal dystonia (She had lost use of two fingers of her left hand, leading to a break from performing.). Her sprightly and articulate performance benefited from a bit of “reluctance” from the pre-recorded Sohn, with which or whom, the violinist amusingly interacted. Of note, this work, may be played with just two fingers of the left hand, though, fortunately, Sohn, now fully recovered, is busy concertizing widely.
Pärt has been noted as the Bach of our Century, given his music’s abundance, accessibility, and ubiquity. His 1977 violin-piano composition (this arrangement, 1980), Fratres, meant here as “Brethren,” conveys reverence, reverie, brilliance and solemnity. Leong’s opening did more than justice to the prelude with its cross-string notation and wide emotion. His enthusiasm coupled with accomplished musicianship draws in the listener. And the much-admired Levinson contributed a chanting pianistic continuo to the violinist’s variations. The 11-minute piece provided a teaser for the post-intermission Pärt.
After intermission, the sky behind the stage had deepened to civic twilight, fittingly backdropping Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, his 1977 double concerto for two violins, strings, and prepared piano (screws and felts positioned between strings). Initiated by the soloists, punctuated by string murmurings and occasional chords on the piano, resonating eerily, given its “preparedness,” the two-movement gem opens up aural space for the listener to ponder. The first movement, Ludus (play), marked “With movement,” crept in quietly, reminiscent of Gregorian chant, and twilight, it evolved through eight variations to a heightened climax and cadenza. Within each number, the bell-like tones from the piano, depending on the note, sound sweet, ominous and much in between, donating power to Levinson throughout. Leong and Sohn played off each other, almost like birds calling out from arboreal perches, comparing their days as the sun sank. The movement then trended towards more ominous with each variation, perhaps like the deep cloak of the night. The second movement, Silentium, Senza moto, started with rolling chords from the piano, almost like waves pounding a shore, accompanied by far softer murmurings from the soloists and the orchestra in high registers—reminiscent of bats homing and birds quieting for night, yet shrill at moments. The movement then faded into night.
Tabula Rasa posits an almost infinite blank slate even as it ends. And when it did, the audience did not murmur—it roared in appreciation.