Salt Bay Chamberfest: Then and Now

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 12, 2016

“If you build it, they will come.” Twenty two years ago, when I first reviewed a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, the founder. cellist Wilhelmina Smith, was happy to have Darrows Barn half filled. But word gets around. On Friday, in spite of a heat wave, it was standing room only, and that is now typical.

The secret is quite simple—-everyone is satisfied with the best. The festival offers the finest in classical and contemporary music, played by outstanding musicians who devote just as much attention, and affection, to new music as to the classics.

Imaginative programming doesn’t hurt either. On Friday, Haydn’s last quartet (Opus 103) was paired with the early Brahms Sextet for Strings in B-flat, Opus 18. In the middle was some quite fiendish new music by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946), Philip Glass, (b. 1937), Zosha Di Castri (b.1985) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). The audience loved it all.

I had visions of Haydn spending his last days playing his favorite tune, the Kaiser Hymn. Instead, he was occupied with a final string quartet, the form that he practically invented and passed on to Mozart and Beethoven. What Opus 103 lacked in cheerfulness it made up in invention. An unusual amount of chromaticism led to unexpected developments. Only two movements were completed, but they show that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

The composers mentioned above were each commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chamberfest regular, as part of a project she calls “Shared Madness.” It was. I won’t describe each of these short works, but all explored some aspect of contemporary virtuosity, pushing the violin to extremes, but without resorting to ancillary devices such as drumming on the wood.

One bow-shredding piece came close to being impossible, a melody played on one string while a second produced a sort of growling wolf note. Another explored overtones in registers at the limit of human hearing. One hopes that Koh will soon have enough madness in her collection to produce a CD.

Before intermission came the premiere of a new work by Marc Neikrug, entitled “Ruminations,” commissioned by the Chamberfest. As lovingly rendered by a string trio of Jennifer Koh, violin, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, and Wilhelmina Smith, cello, it is one of the few “modern” works that appeals to the senses on first hearing. Going by the title, it seems composed of random musical thoughts that eventual;lay coalesce, like clouds into a tornado or leaves into a tree (depending on your mood). The process is satisfying, musically and intellectually.

There was nothing unexpected about the Brahms Sextet, except perhaps for its genius. The young Brahms knows exactly where he’s going with every theme and its development, all of which seems ineveitable— once you hear it. One could see the musicians smiling as the drama unfolded, now in its predictably glorious way. One thing the youthful Brahms has over Mendelssohn at the same period in his life; he is not afraid of being obvious.

There’s more to come at Salt Bay, August 16 and Aug.19. The latter concert includes the (very) early Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.