Bowdoin International Music Festival
July 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Every time a pundit bemoans the decline or death of classical music, all one need do is think of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which is now attracting larger audiences than at any time in its history, including many sold out concerts. Maybe classical music is getting too popular. Florence at the height of the Renaissance had a population of about 35,000.
Friday night’s SRO concert at Crooker Theater is just one example. Admittedly, it offered rock-star level violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but the enthusiasm for every work on the program was infectious. When was the last time a contemporary composer, (Jennifer Higdon), received a standing ovation?
The program began with an entertainment by Mozart, his Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, brilliantly executed by James Austin Smith, oboe, Kurt Sassmanhaus, violin, SoHui Yun, viola,, and Ahrin Kim, cello. I use the word “entertainment” advisedly, because the quartet, written for an oboe virtuoso, is a display piece, without much depth. Mozart treats the oboe as a sort of super violin, neglecting the instrument’s primary attraction—its reedy tonal quality.
“Light Refracted,” by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), scored for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, is a more introspective work in two movements, “Inward” and “Outward,” that could be a meditation on Shelly’s line:: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.”
It begins with a pianissimo clarinet solo, evocative of a light ray from a high window, illuminating dust motes in its path. It goes on, in a relatively passive vein, exploring the ways light affects emotion.
The second movement, ferocious and rhythmical, seems more like the sparkle of a diamond, or a dancehall mirror ball. The audience loved it, and gave the musicians and the composer several curtain calls.
The piece de resistance, of course, was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Meyers and the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.
The Festival Orchestra, of students and faculty, just continues to get better. In this performance it was indistinguishable from a professional ensemble that has played together for years. There was a reversal of the usual balance problems, with the conductor having to turn down the volume to avoid drowning out the soloist.
Meyers was technically and emotionally superb, like a great actress who forces an audience to listen to every word by subtle modulations of a quiet voice. It enthralled the audience at Crooker, which leaped to its feet after the final note. I was brought up on a more heroic approach, but that is just a matter of personal taste.
There was no encore, in spite of repeated curtain calls. Hooray, hooray!
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.