Tag Archives: Salt Bay Chamberfest

Grief and Glory at Salt Bay Chamberfest

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 classbeat@netscape.net.

Salt Bay Season Ends on a High Note

Salt Bay Chamberfesst
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 19, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Salt Bay Chamberfest ended its 22nd season on a high note Friday night, with three outstanding performances by the Brentano String Quartet, with soloists Thomas Sauer, piano, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet. As usual for the last several seasons, Darrows Barn, at Damariscotta’s Round Top Center, was filled to overflowing.

It is rare in Maine to be able to compare performances of the same work by different artists during the same season, but such was the case with the String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) by Leoš Janáček. The Portland String Quartet showcased the work in April (see review “Intimate Letters”) It was second on Friday night’s program by the Brentano Quartet.

The PSQ version tended to emphasize its new cellist in the role of the composer in this love affair with a married woman 38 younger than he. The Brentano had a more balanced approach, in which lover and beloved were treated with equal passion.

Written in the last year of Janáček’s life (1928), when he was 74, the quartet should nevertheless be X-rated. It depicts every aspect of the long-lasting liaison, using letter keys, numerology and speech patterns to tie incidents to specific times and places and leit-motifs to code specific actions.The official line is that the affair was platonic, but the music says otherwise.

Maybe it was just the second live hearing of the work, but I found the Brentano’s version somewhat more compelling, in an earthy rather than intellectual way.

Speaking of earthy, the opening work on the program, commissioned in 2016 by the Brentano from Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) was named “Stream” . The three movements, for string quartet and clarinet, can depict a stream becoming a river, like Smetana’s “Moldau,” or a stream of consciousness progressing from fragmentary images to firm resolution.

Whatever the chosen program, the quartet is a vehicle for overwhelmingly fluid virtuosity on the clarinet, matched by and complementing its partnership with the strings. Heard live, it was marvelous.

The evening ended with more virtuosity than seems possible for a 15-year-old composer: the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Opus 3. It doesn’t yield much, if at all, to the later piano concertos, in terms of solid construction, inventiveness and pure excitement.

The young composer seems to have just discovered the possibilities of triplets (from Scarlatti?) and purely revels in them. The whole quartet is a sort of tarantella, While the members of the Brentano, absent the second violin, were able to hold it together as a quartet for the first three movements, they had to throw up their hands in the final Allegro vivace, and yield the stage to Sauer, who turned in an astounding performance with seeming nonchalance. It was remarkable for a pianist at the height of his powers. For a teenager it must have seemed the work of the devil.

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

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.