Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 14, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
There are many fine classical music festivals in Maine during the summer, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the Salt Bay Chamberfest at Darrows Barn (in what used to be the Round Top Center for the Arts) in Damariscotta.
Founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 24 years ago, it always manages to present unusual programs performed by leading artists, in a hall with excellent acoustics.
Tuesday night’s program by the Brentano String Quartet was no exception, although it strayed from the theme of this year’s festival, which was “Troubadours and Tangos,” featuring the guitar and its ancestors.
The theme of the firs half was musical lamentations, which has a tenuous relationship with troubadours in that professional mourners, including musicians, were often hired to express a family’s grief at the loss of a loved one. The earliest examples consisted of two strangely chromatic pieces from 1611 by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). They may have been prompted by remorse, but one doubts it. Gesualdo is best known for killing his wife and her lover and then displaying their bodies as an example of what happens to adulterers.
Probably the most famous example in music is Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” from “Dido and Aeneas” (1689) which opened the program in a sensitive arrangement for string quartet.
Haydn made it into the category with two of the movements from “Seven Last Words of Christ “(Op. 51) of 1787. It is fascinating to hear how a genius injects musical interest and psychological depth into what could be merely mournful. Just one example is the repeated five-note phrase based on the words “consummatum est” from the final movement. It eventually becomes triumphant.
Shostakovich introduces a note of eroticism to the form in his Elegy (1931), based on a soliloquy from his banned opera “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,” in which the heroine laments that she will have no more lovers.
The exploration of grief ended with a work by an obscure French composer, Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894), a Molto Adagio, written when he was 17, that shows considerably more than promise. Lekeu died of Typhoid Fever at the age of 24.
After intermission, the quartet was joined by pianist Thomas Sauer for the Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879) of César Franck. One could not have devised a greater contrast with what had gone before. The quartet is grand, passionate, sweeping, a little mysterious, and very knobby.
It was played brilliantly throughout, but by the final movement—a grande valse that must have influenced Ravel—there was no doubt who was in charge. There is a strange coda-less ending that may have had something to do with the fact that Franck and Camille St.Saëns, who premiered the work as a pianist, were both in love with student Augusta Holmes. Anyway, St. Saëns is said to have thrown the score into the trash, I wonder what he saw in the notes?
The Darrows Barn audience liked the piece much more than did St. Saens and gave it a well-deserved standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.