The Sewanee Summer Music Festival is up and running for the 42ndand maybe the lastyear. If last Wednesday’s concert is anything to go by, this year’s event is a rare and wonderful thing. The Festival was begun, nearly half a century ago, by Martha McCrory, who sought to emulate the Interlochen Musical Festival in Michigan. After this summer, McCrory will retire, and she says she has no idea whether the Festival will continue without her. If this is indeed the end, she’s going out with a bang.
Her basic idea is simple: For a month each summer, bring together talented apprentice instrumentalists and accomplished professional performers. Let the tyros take formal lessons, one on one, from the pros. Equally important, let the tyros perform onstage as soloists, in chamber ensembles, and in orchestras.
Growth has been strong for more than four decades. What began as a handful of students and faculty in the early 1950s has grown into some 250 students and 30 faculty membersand a cadre of distinguished alums. Cornelia Heard of the Blair String Quartet is a regular faculty member and serves also as concertmaster for the Sewanee Festival Orchestra, made up of faculty and advanced students. Also on the faculty this year is Gilbert Long, who plays tuba with the Nashville Symphony.
The festival also invites some special guest performers. Double bassist Edgar Meyer celebrated the Fourth of July here with mandolinist Mike Marshall, performing a program called “From Bach to Rock.” The pairing of instruments alone was audacious, but the program, evidently improvised ad hoc, was equally bold. Ear-witnesses report a bravura display of inventive genius. Upcoming special performances will feature the Lekas Trio out of Chicago and the Alexander String Quartet, a brilliant young ensemble drawing rave reviews from critics all over the world.
Last Wednesday’s Faculty Showcase was a more characteristic event. Featured performer was the Sewanee Festival Orchestra, which included a half-dozen faculty soloists. It was a successful show for several reasons. First of alland maybe most importantGuerry Hall was a very responsive acoustic venue. True, it is austere to the point of being dreary. But without any amplification, the sounds of the instruments could be distinctly heard, and the balance of the orchestral sections was clearly what it ought to be. Indeed, the sound quality alone was a rare treat.
Second, the program, intelligent and tasteful, was as rare as the hall. The composers were all well-known, but not the compositionsand yet each was a gem. The first half of the program began with Vivaldi, that sturdy Baroque steed (d. 1741), followed by Villa-Lobos (d. 1959) and Richard Strauss (d. 1949). The second half began with the quintessentially classical Haydn (d. 1809), followed by Bartók (d. 1945). Each of the closing piecesthe Strauss and the Bartókwas a musical joke, or closed with a joke, bringing forth laughter at the final cadence.
The orchestra played very well indeednot flawlessly, but so well that the flaws, always minor, underlined how challenging the music was, and how well it was being played. It was like watching a long, curling golf putt just barely slide by the hole a couple of inchesfor the third or fourth time. Such near misses bespeak skill more than a lucky hit does. Perfection, after all, is not a human attribute.
The orchestra’s excellent execution was a tribute not only to the players, but also to the two conductors, Cyrus Ginwala, who led the first half, and Kenneth Kiesler, who led the second. They could hardly have appeared more different, but on the podium they had much in commoneach understated and economical, neither wasting any motion. The orchestra played as if it were grateful.
As a whole, the program succeeded in two respects: It allowed the soloists to show that they could indeed walk the walk. And the orchestra walked with them, helping to renew respect and admiration for composers who have nearly been damaged by overexposure. The Vivaldi, for instance, was in one sense quintessential stuffyou could easily believe the orchestra part had been written for adolescent schoolgirls, as historians tell us was the case. The harmonic progressions were predictable, and the orchestra needed some skill but not a whole lot.
At the same time, the solo parts were dazzling, reminding us that sometimes Vivaldi was able to use really accomplished soloists along with his young maidens. For this piece, he had to have two cellists who could really playand really play together. On this evening, the two cellists, Peter Spurbeck and Paul York, played difficult and wonderful music superbly well. Alone and together, they were luscious.
To end the first half of the evening, pianist Michael Gurt joined the orchestra on Richard Strauss’ “Burleske” and a wonderful burlesque it was. Strauss parodies in this piece his own reputationwhich for most of us means the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That grand orchestral idiom is here played off against a brilliantly bravura piano that first echoes and paraphrases what the orchestra has fulsomely said, and then turns it into incandescently witty mockery.
Two or three times, the piano takes the lead with a melody so achingly romantic that it goes right to the edge of smarm before Strauss springs the joke. A major delight in this burlesque is how long, and how successfully, Strauss mockingly drags the piece out. After he has gone on plenty long enough, he turns as if toward a final bow, and then does another pirouettein a way that leaves audience members shaking their heads, smiling. And he does it again, and again, before finally ending not with a big bang, but with a mocking little bink, bink. Take that, Zarathustra.
After intermission, the orchestra opened the second half with a lucid and graceful Haydn concerto for French horn. Hornist D. Bruce Heim played this reputedly devilish instrument with elegant grace, mirroring Haydn’s taste and grace in the piece’s cadenzas. Traditionally improvised, these solo riffs are now commonly written out ahead of timesometimes by the performer himself. Heim’s cadenzas, wherever they came from, were virtuosic, understated, and archly brief, as if in smiling reply to Strauss’ “Burleske.”
The finale, Bartók’s Concerto No. 1 for violin, showcased the Stuttgart violinist Joachim Schall. It began with Schall’s violin, solo, playing softly a modal tune that suggested an ancestor of “Ashokan Farewell.” The melody established, Schall’s violin was joined by Cornelia Heard’s, and the music became a modal blues duet. Then another violin joined in, and another, and another. Then all the strings entered, in a texture colored by seconds and major sevenths. The strings were joined by woodwinds, brasses, two harps, and a tympani, adding up to a lush lament.
Then, suddenly, the mood shifted to allegro giocoso, fast and happy, as the slow buildup of instruments metabolized into sardonic delight. Bartók, through the programmers of the Sewanee Faculty Showcase, was tipping his hat to Strauss. At the clever, biting cadence, the house exploded into sustained applause.
The program lasted almost two hours. And yet it stayed fresh and vital right up to the last bow stroke. I cannot remember enjoying an evening moreif only Nashville had this kind of intelligent and imaginative programming on a regular basis. Fortunately, though some fine things have already come and gone, three weeks of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival remain. Performances take place Wednesday evenings, Saturday afternoons and evenings, and Sunday afternoons, and tickets are remarkably affordable.
Go while you have the chance. There’s no telling if the festival will return for another year. Besides, if you want to know what a classical musical performance is supposed to be likein an acoustically sound hall, with excellent musiciansthe next few weeks may present your only chance in a long, long time.
Megan Fox and Dave Barry
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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