Bartok at Salt Bay

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Farm, Damariscotta
Aug. 14
by Christopher Hyde

There is a reason that the Salt Bay Chamberfest, from its home at Damariscotta’s Round Top Farm, has acquired not merely a national but an international reputation, as one of the world’s pre-eminent chamber music festivals and a place where contemporary composers feel welcome and respected.

The acoustics in Darrows Barn are great, the musicians superb, and the programming imaginative and carefully thought out, but there has always been something more, ever since the festival was founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 21 years ago. These are world-renowned musicians, not on a vacation but a mission; as Smith puts it, sharing a passion.

Friday night’s program, featuring percussion and the piano as percussion instrument, was a prime example.

It opened with Steve Reich’s Quartet for two pianos, two percussion, written in 2014, played by Thomas Sauer and Amy Yang, piano, and Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten, percussion—primarily two vibraphones.

The work has the characteristic “chug,” a word coined by Reich to denote rhythmic drive, but is more complex harmonically and in its development than the composer’s earlier works. It even has traditional fast-slow-fast form, shimmering tonal color, and (gasp) ends on a tonic chord like a Bach fugue, even though no one could distinguish what its key might have been earlier. The gradual development of a simple theme, a la Phillip Glass, is fascinating, and the rhythmical repetition, like the clack of wheels on a train, hypnotic. It was performed with passion and exuberance.

Reich studied drumming in Ghana, so what better to follow his Quartet than two master drummers from Ghana, the father and son duo Sowah Mensah and Nii-Adjetey Mensah. Their humor, while exhibiting incredible skill on traditional drums and wooden xylophones, was infectious, and their sung duet, with a precise, well maintained interval throughout, was surprising.

The song was an example of the power of social regulation by means of music, according to the father, Sowah Mensah. After all, who wants his great-grandchildren to be ashamed of him? They also played the talking drum —“play what you say”— and a communal form of music on two xylophones, with improvisations over a recurring theme.(See column “Democracy in Music”) A drum duet, which concluded the set, glittered with shifting polyrhythms. Reich either didn’t achieve the level of his masters or figured that Western audiences wouldn’t get it.

What preceded it had been at the highest level, but was overshadowed by Bartok’s towering masterpiece, the Sonata (Sz. 110) for two pianos and percussion., played by the same team as the Reich.

I had heard this piece live once before, at Bates College, but Friday night’s performance established it, once and for all, as a landmark of 20th century music, not an experiment in using the piano as a percussion instrument but the result of decades of careful listening, formal genius and inimitable style. A work of the utmost seriousness, but full of charm and invention.

It had too many beauties to enumerate, but a few come to mind without notes, which I was too absorbed to take: cymbals echoing reverberations from the bass strings, xylophones that sounded like the upper treble keys on a grand should, but never do, snare drum whispers, interlocking filagree passages…

I wish I could recommend a recording of Sz. 110, but nothing electronic could even come close to the experience of a live performance. One can only plead with the directors of the festival to do it again…please?

3 thoughts on “Bartok at Salt Bay”

  1. A well deserved review. I totally agree with the caliber of the Chamberfest. I wouldn’t miss it and is a highlight of my summer.

  2. Mina, Such a wonderful review a tribute to talent, planning & hard work.
    We are so very proud of your accomplishments. Pat & Ted

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