MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 2 (at Concerts in the Barn)

The Barn entrance; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

For the first time since it began in 2018, Music on the Strait (MOTS) is partnering this summer with Concerts in the Barn to present a third performance for each of the festival’s two weekends. Scheduled for Sundays in Quilcene (about an hour southeast of Port Angeles), these concerts repeat one of the Friday/Saturday programs and are available to the public on a free/pay-what-you-can basis (prior registration required).

Determined to have the full experience of MOTS both at its Port Angeles venue (Peninsula College’s Maier Hall) and at the Barn, my partner and I caught the Takács Quartet on Sunday afternoon in its repeat of Friday’s opening program. Connected with the Concerts in the Barn series is a moving story of its own involving reconciliation with the descendants of the Japanese American family who had owned the land before they were forced into internment camps in the Second World War. Alan Iglitzin, the legendary violist who founded the Port Townsend-based Olympic Music Festival and cofounded the Philadelphia Quartet, established the series in 1984 in an abandoned dairy barn at Trillium Woods Farm near Quilcene (venue pictured above and just below).

With the Takács, MOTS’s co-founder, the Grammy Award-winning violist Richard O’Neill, was able to present what he has been up to most recently as the newest member of that revered ensemble. He offered some prefatory comments recalling his epiphany in this very space, as a youngster spellbound in the audience on July 3, 1993, when he heard a performance of the Death and the Maiden Quartet and realized he wanted to spend his life making music like this. O’Neill gave a touching tribute to Iglitzin (who remains active as he heads into his 90s), pointing out how his efforts have left a lasting imprint.

Inside the Barn; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

We found a comfortable spot atop a hay bale for the first half and tried out the loft in back for the second; the acoustics were consistently warm, natural, direct. As far as could be ascertained, this was the first time the Takács Quartet was performing in an actual barn (though O’Neill and violinist Harumi Rhodes had individually appeared in the same space before). The relaxed setting, with audience reclining on the grass outside and listening via speakers, was inversely proportional to the intensity of involvement in the music-making (for the Takács and audience alike).

The program presented three hefty staples of the repertoire, in the process tracing a branch of the Viennese Classical tradition and an early modern offshoot. Melancholy and subdued serenity took the lead at the start of Haydn’s F minor Quartet from the genre-defining Op. 20 set of 1772.

Edward Dusinberre’s exquisite descants in the slow movement had the flexibility of first-rate jazz, blooming across the basic lilt of the siciliana, while ensemble ebb-and-pull at a breakneck pace imbued the double-fugue finale with thrilling emotion. From this kind of realization, it became understandable how Beethoven would later mine such potential from what must have seemed, to contemporaries, the hopelessly antiquated constraints of string counterpoint.

Gears were immediately shifted for Ravel’s sole essay in the genre, the early Quartet in F major from 1903, both modeled on and knowingly independent of Debussy’s contribution from a decade before. O’Neill’s rich, demonstrative viola personality — amply on display as Ravel’s writing ventures ever further into timbral experiment — was but one strand of a winningly characterful account. At one moment of mysterious tremoli, a dulcet breeze wafted through the open barn doors and across the space, a perfectly timed accompaniment.

Time and again, as in András Fejér’s superbly articulated solo work in the cello-centered variation of the second movement of the Schubert, the Takács demonstrated their winning secret of accommodating strikingly individual voices while maintaining coherence and unity of purpose as an ensemble. This is, in large part, the result of the sort of close listening that allowed such an impressive display of dynamic range and control in the Assez vif, as well as such infinite tenderness amid the tempo changes of Ravel’s slow movement.

An intriguingly balletic quality enriched the final movement. Dance of a far more dreadful vividness was the driving force in the last two movements of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden from 1824, to which the concert’s second half was devoted.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér) ; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

But the Takács set the stage with a surprising take on the opening movement: here, they almost downplayed the obvious drama and emphasized melodic consolation instead, clinging to Schubert’s Siren-like phrases as if to a life raft. As the afternoon sun stole through a crack in the wood above the players, a gleam briefly lit up the body of Fejér’s cello during the variation movement from which Schubert’s Quartet got its nickname; later, the whispered violin-and-viola reprise of the theme was as chilling as a prolonged death rattle.

The final tarantella kept looping back in terrifyingly relentless repetitions, a nightmare Groundhog Day with no escape in the Takács’ feverish, sweat-soaked rendition.

There is one more weekend to experience the 2021 Music on the Strait Festival; both programs feature Jeremy Denk, James Garlick, Ani Aznavoorian, and Richard O’Neill. Friday’s concert (20 August) is titled A Belated Beethoven Celebration; on Saturday (21 August), the Barn-Burning Brahms finale presents music by Jessie Montgomery, Paul Hindemith, and Johannes Brahms, which will be repeated Sunday (22 August) at 2pm as part of the Concerts in the Barn series in Quilcene.

–Review (c) 2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 1

James Garlick and Richard O’Neill; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

In 2018, local sons James Garlick and Richard O’Neill together founded Music on the Strait (MOTS) in partnership with the Port Angeles Symphony, as a summer chamber festival in Port Angeles. The aim is to make chamber music performed by artists of international caliber accessible to residents of the Olympic Peninsula. This marvel-filled region on the “other side” of Puget Sound — paradise for nature lovers — is surprisingly close to Seattle but vastly distant in ethos and even climate. Though only 80-something miles away, Port Angeles requires a substantial day trip from the Emerald City (via either a ferry ride or a longer detour by land).

The prolonged, silent fermata caused by the pandemic intruded after just two years of building up momentum (though Music on the Strait was able to produce two live-stream programs over the past year). Even so, MOTS pulled off an inspired and inspiring opening weekend with a return to live performance at Maier Hall on the main campus of Peninsula College located in Port Angeles. It’s a small, warm, intimate space ideal for chamber music and seemed to be pulsating with anticipation as the audience gathered on Saturday night for the second program of this opening weekend (the first I was able to catch). MOTS required vaccination cards as well as masks, and patrons effortlessly complied.

Garlick is a violinist who hails from Port Angeles itself but is currently based in Minneapolis, while the violist O’Neill, a native of nearby Sequim, has long been a regular presence at the Seattle Chamber Music Society festivals. Earlier this year, O’Neill joined the storied Takács Quartet and won his first Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental solo (for his recording of Christopher Theofanides’s Viola Concerto).

image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

The two MOTS cofounders and artistic directors started off the program with a duo for their respective instruments by the Norwegian composer, conductor, and violinist Johan Halvorsen — or rather, Halvorsen’s late-Romantic elaboration on the Sarabande from Handel’s D minor Harpsichord Suite. The harmonic sequence is mighty reminiscent of the ear-wiggy La Folia craze that took Europe by storm centuries ago — hence the nickname “Handel’s Folia” — but Halvorsen’s treatment engraves the music with a tremendously “non-HIP” solemnity that requires its own historically informed practice, so distant has this Victorian era aesthetic become. It was intriguing to hear (and see) Garlick and O’Neill exchange and fuse their notably different playing styles and gestural languages.

Jeremy Denk; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Jeremy Denk has close ties to MOTS — he was a featured artist in the inaugural season — and he is cast in a central role in the 2021 edition as well. Though his mask made him appear slightly surreal in the heat of the moment (especially given his fondness for turning from the Steinway to glance at the audience or, later, his fellow musicians), the pianist’s gregarious, stimulating, and entertaining artistic personality was fully on display. Denk prefaced his account of J.S. Bach’s G major Partita No. 5, BWV 829, by describing it as the work of a “wicked, smiling, rambunctious rapscallion” who delighted in confounding the church elders with wild modulations and far-roaming fantasies. And that was just how he played the Partita, emphasizing every moment of wit and invention with a willful, winning eccentricity. It seemed very much of our time, of a desperate need to accentuate how music matters, even at its most playful. Amid all the frolicking, the Sarabande had a directness that was deeply touching.

Denk approached the final Gigue as if it were a study for late Beethoven (admittedly, easier to do with Bach-on-piano). Similarly, he found in Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas a provocatively avant-garde take on program music and a fascination for sound collage and cluster chords decades ahead of Charles Ives. The piece also calls for spoken (shouted) “tags” from the pianist, with Denk briefly pulling down his mask to announce such events as the approach of the Southern Army in this extraordinary evocation of the 1861 victory of Confederate forces in the First Battle of Bull Run — a musical equivalent of the once-popular panorama paintings that were 19th-century precursors to film.

The Battle of Manassas was part of a set that included Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s transcription of They Will Not Lend Me a Child (Op. 59, no. 4), played with spacious grandeur and an affectionately meditative account of Scott Joplin’s 1907 Heliotrope Bouquet (cowritten with Louis Chauvin), culminating in one of the North American Ballads by the late Frederic Rzewski. Denk chose Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, inspired by a folk song connected to the labor struggle of textile workers at a South Carolina plant in the 1930s. Rzewski’s grinding, machine-like ostinati suggested a provocative counterpart to the “Blind Tom” Wiggins piece — in both cases, Denk thundered relentlessly from the lower depths, using the keyboard to transport us inside the action. But the victory in Rzewski’s mini-epic is intensely rewarding: the emergence of song, of humanity, that hoists itself above brutal, indifferent implacability.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér); image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Denk joined with the Takács Quartet — another clear win for this edition of MOTS — in a deep dive into Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (which the Takács has recorded with Marc-André Hamelin). They reveled in the enormous diversity of this pathbreaking score’s emotional terrain, at times stretching the flexibility of its language to a near-breaking point. The opening movement, with its outsize exuberance, plummeted into gloom in the funeral march that ensues and which they rendered with a powerfully effective slow burn — seemingly encapsulating the composer’s polar extremes. It’s become a challenge not to read a subtext of our recent collective suffering into these familiar musical journeys — in this case, the nervous pauses and pent-up tensions of the march seemed especially telling. The Scherzo, effusive and ebullient, helped light the way back toward a hope that took root in the finale’s polyphonic splendor, brightening into plausible joy.

–(c)2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

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