Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Susan Wingrove's Concert Conversations #4

I cannot believe we have reached the final concert of the 2009 Sitka Summer Music Festival. There have been so many unforgettable highlights – the stunning Mendelssohn Piano Trio on opening night, the wonderful gift of two passionately played Taneyev string quartets (little-known treasures that now have a huge fan base in Sitka), the Brahms Piano Quartet which left the audience enthralled, the Franck Violin Sonata played so exquisitely Tuesday night, and so much more. This annual gathering of musicians is a perfect example of true chamber music –supremely talented friends playing music because they love it and enjoy it, and that sets this festival apart from many classical concerts that I have attended. And another uniquely wonderful part of the Festival are the enthusiastic Sitka audiences. People really listen to music here – and it’s magical to feel and watch the chemistry between the performers and a totally engaged audience.

Artistic Director Paul Rosenthal has coordinated a superb program for the grand finale on Friday. Sitkans, this is your last opportunity; the artists will be going home – to other commitments – and we will be living for the coming months on the memories of the 2009 musical banquet. So treat yourself and a friend or family member; the 8:15 p.m. concert promises to provide us lucky listeners with one final evening of emotionally-charged music!

First will be a masterwork by the “Father of the string quartet,” Franz Joseph Haydn. Biographer Otto Jahn sums up his contribution to the musical world nicely, writing, “The quartet was Haydn’s natural mode of expressing his feelings. The poet and the peasant, the lonely man and the man of mirth and wit, the devout Christian and the lover of earthly joys reveal themselves in some of the most poignant, or radiant, or ingratiating, or rowdy, or tragic music that he was to write.” Four wonderful string players will play the E Flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6 quartet – viewed by music lovers as a compositional treasure house.

The exceptional and intense cellist Mark Kosower and his wife Jee-Won Oh will partner to play Claude Debussy’s marvelous 1915 sonata, a work which reflects the composer’s fascination with Harlequin, a traditional white-masked clown who had a sad heart and unfulfilled dreams; the spirited music also became an outlet for Debussy’s despair over the outbreak of World War I. Alexander Tcherepnin’s Songs and Dances for Cello and Piano will follow – composed in 1953, and dedicated to the legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the colorful work alternates Georgian and Russian songs with Tartar and Ksazakh dances. Mark will also be my guest at the pre-concert chat at 7:30 p.m. to provide more details about these pieces and his Sitka experiences.

The concert, and the 2009 festival, will conclude with Cesar Franck’s remarkable Piano Quintet in F Minor. The quiet and unassuming composer was thrilled whenever his music was played – and he tried to present the manuscript of this work to his friend Saint-Saens, the pianist/composer who played the premiere. Saint-Saens walked disdainfully and abruptly off the stage, leaving the score on the piano to express his negative opinion. Others protested the “shocking emotionalism” of the piece. But, the public was wiser than the critics – and this has become one of the most beloved of chamber works. Full of extraordinary drive and passion, dramatic intensity and gorgeous scoring, people were amazed that a quiet, serene organist and teacher could produce such a stunning work. Anyone who heard the gorgeous performance of Franck’s violin sonata on Tuesday night will know this is a can’t-miss feast of heartfelt melodies and lush harmonies.

I want to thank this community for hosting such a wonderful music festival, and for allowing me to be a part of this for the last twenty-five years. The opportunity to learn about the music and human history is a never-ending source of pleasure in my life, but the best part of all is to see and hear these amazing performances every June. The music speaks straight to the heart at every single concert; so join the SSMF for a great finale Friday night!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Susan Wingrove's Concert Conversations #3

So far, every Sitka Festival concert has been a gem. It doesn’t matter whether you are a classical music addict or someone who is just curious about chamber music – this is the real deal. Sitkans, it just doesn’t get better than this, and I go to concerts whenever and wherever I can. Everybody has very busy schedules – work, family, exercise, etc. – but you are really, really cheating yourself if you have not attended one of these concerts yet. And this week you have some fantastic options – go to every one of them! We will get to hear some amazing Taneyev string quartets, works which feature the flute, and many more musical marvels – played with heart and passion.

Friday night, two pieces will feature the elegant and soulful flutist Lorna McGhee. Rossini’s Quartet in B Flat, written when he was just twelve years old, works just perfectly when the flute takes over the first violin part – his philosophy was simple – “Delight must be the basis and aim of this art.” This is a joyful and engaging work, full of wonderful melodies which percolate with Rossini’s trademark humor. Next, Lorna and cellist Jeffrey Solow will play “Jet Whistle,” a colorful work by Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos. Historian David Ewen describes his impressive legacy, saying that it “beats with the heart and pulse of his native Brazil…He was, in short, Brazil in music.” Famous for his enormous energy and appetites, an addiction to black cigars and even blacker coffee, in 1950, Villa-Lobos crafted the cheerful Jet Whistle overflowing with the spirited humor associated with popular Brazilian dance music. The concert will conclude with the first of two Taneyev String Quartets featured on the weekend concerts. Although not well known to general audiences, the Russian Taneyev is very highly regarded for his inventive writing and “noble spirituality, sincerity and purity of lyrical emotion.” The powerful A Minor Quartet, composed in 1900, includes a slow movement that pays tribute to Nature and “pictures the untroubled beauty of nighttime silence, but it also contains human feelings, such as languor, passion, pleading, suffering, and tenderness.”

Saturday night’s program opens with Impresiones de la Puna (1945) by Alberto Ginastera, the most famous Latin American composer in the years just after World War II. The Puna are spectacular mountain valleys located in the northern Andes; each movement of this piece for flute and string quartet is a short dance rich with Latin American flavor. Then we will enjoy another Taneyev string quartet - in A Major – a piece that is wonderfully transparent and appealing, a marvel in the form. If you have a chance to hear these underperformed but astonishing quartets this weekend, you will gain a quick understanding of Taneyev’s nickname, “the Russian Brahms.” The concert will close with our final salute to Mendelssohn’s two-hundredth birthday year, the remarkable A Major Viola Quintet. Mendelssohn was only seventeen years old when he wrote this radiant and profound masterpiece. The emotional high point is the gorgeous Intermezzo, a musical memorial to his beloved friend and former violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, who tragically died at the age of twenty-nine.

Next Tuesday’s 7:30 concert includes a lovely Mozart piano trio in E Major, the rapturously beautiful Franck Violin Sonata; Cesar Franck was not recognized as a major composer until the age of 68, and this serene, unassuming, and mystical man created one of the violin repertoire’s masterworks when he was 64. Haydn’s beloved C Major String Quartet, Op. 33, No. 3 “The Birds” will top off the program.

For extra info about the concerts, join me at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday – cellist Zuill Bailey and flutist Lorna McGhee will be my weekend guests for the lectures.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Susan Wingrove's Concert Conversations #2

The 2009 Sitka Summer Music Festival is off to a breathtaking start. For those of us lucky enough to attend the opening concerts, there was musical joy on the stage of Centennial Hall from the first note to the last – and the icing on the cake was the stunning moonlight reflecting on the water during the Mendelssohn Piano Trio Friday night. Absolutely unforgettable. And a great time was had by all at the Family Concert Sunday afternoon – kids of all ages were a fantastic and well-behaved audience. Now, for the second week. This Friday, the phenomenal artists already in town will be joined by cellist Zuill Bailey.

I have become addicted to Zuill’s remarkable CD which features the Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for Cello and Piano and I am very excited about hearing this beautiful theme and eight elegant variations performed live. Composed when Mendelssohn was twenty years old, the piece concludes with “a sheer sense of frolic” for the audience and the performers; the cello and piano have wonderful interplay.

First-time Sitka violinist Keng-Yuen, who has a wonderful sense of humor in addition to being a top-rate performer, will be joined by Evan and Doris to play a Festival favorite, Arensky’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op 32. Historian David Greene observed, “A regimen of drinking, gambling, and partying undermined his health. The son of a cello-playing physician, Arensky could not heal himself, and a promising career was cut short by illness and early death.” Heavily influenced by Tschaikowsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the trio showcases the Russian composer’s melodic gifts and superb technique.

Jennifer Stumm will play an intense, rich viola solo with Doris at the keyboard, Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae. Britten is one of the most important English composers of the twentieth century. Lachrymae, Reflections on a Song of Dowland, is ten atmospheric variations based on a piece for lute by John Dowland (1563-1626) called “If My Complaints Could Passions Move.” There is a dreamlike quality to the music; some listeners find that Britten’s use of pizzicato (plucked strings) provides a poignant musical image of falling tears.

Friday’s concert will conclude with Mozart’s Viola Quintet in E Flat Major, K. 614. This was his final chamber work, completed about eight months before his death. Mozart’s personal circumstances were becoming desperate as his debts grew. However, he created a score that is radiant and confident, intricate and life-affirming.

Tuesday night’s one-hour concert at 7:30 p.m. will feature flutist Lorna McGhee and her husband, violist David Harding, in a lovely duo by French composer and teacher Francois Devienne (1759-1803.) He became the first flute professor at the newly formed Paris Conservatory and wrote many important method books and pieces for wind instruments. Also on the program is Mozart’s Flute Quartet in F Major (originally for oboe, but the piece works brilliantly featuring the flute) and the lush Sextet for Strings in B Flat Major by Johannes Brahms. He was the first major composer to write a sextet, which features pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, and the piece is sunny and optimistic. We will hear violinists Sarah Kapustin and Agnes Gottschewski, plus violist Roland Kato and cellists Armen Ksajikian and Jeffrey Solow for the first time this year.

My guest for the pre-concert lecture on Friday night will be violinist Keng-Yuen Tseng. Join us at 7:30 p.m. and you might find out how he managed to get the moon to hit the water at exactly the right moment at last Friday’s concert. The music starts at 8:15 – and be sure to keep Tuesday at 7:30 on your schedule; you deserve these fine concerts!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lost Brochures are a Mystery!

This year, the Festival bought the entire mail route for Sitka and sent a brochure to every single household in Sitka (over 4,800 pieces of mail)! However, not one brochure made it to Sitka despite the fact that they were mailed on May 5th. Therefore, we are behind on our Sitka advertising.

Plus, this was a gorgeous brochure. It was printed in full-color and featured Sandy Greba's artwork -- a beautiful crane, entitled "Standing Ovation".

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Susan Wingrove's Concert Conversation #1

After weeks of anxious anticipation, and many delicious hours spent doing research for the program notes for the 2009 Sitka Summer Music Festival, it’s finally time for the main event. And I am in shock as I contemplate the fact that this is my twenty-fifth year attending the Sitka Festival – how can this be possible! I feel very lucky to be able to immerse myself in the music and the rich histories of the composers. Now it’s time for the audience to join these fabulous artists. Friday night’s opening concert is the first of nine wonderful programs which will run through June 26th; beloved Artistic Director Paul Rosenthal has put together yet another memorable musical feast for this 38th year.

There will be three performances in the first five days - Friday’s 8:15 p.m. concert (and 7:30 pre-concert chat,) Sunday’s annual Family Concert at 3 p.m. (free!) and Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. program. Even if the weather continues to be glorious, it’s well worth it to head indoors as each event is a one-time-only gem. Rain or shine, live music superbly played is a treat for the soul – and Sitka is very, very lucky to have this annual chamber series.

Friday’s concert will open with one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental unaccompanied cello suites performed by longtime Festival cellist Tony Elliott. He has been a favorite (and frequently re-invited) conductor for the Alaska All State Honor Orchestra for many years, and the students always respond enthusiastically to his personal warmth and musical passion. The D Major Suite has six stylized and contrasting dance movements. The piece is full of emotional depth and brilliant scoring; you will swear you are hearing more than one instrument.

Considered the rival of Beethoven in his day, Ludwig Spohr was a prolific composer who wrote more than 200 works. He created 19 virtuosic violin duets at the height of his fame. Critic Alex Ross described the 1824 D major Duo as “a genial slice of high Romanticism with lovely Schubertian themes strewn about indiscriminately.” Keng-Yuen Tseng and Paul Rosenthal will perform this remarkable and well-crafted piece.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth, so we will be hearing several of his works during the 2009 series. Friday’s concert will conclude with one of chamber music’s great treasures – Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49. Composer Robert Schumann described it as “the master trio of the age, as were the B flat and D major trios of Beethoven and the E flat trio of Schubert in their times.” Its tuneful melodies and persuasive character have made this one of Mendelssohn’s most popular chamber pieces. The ever-hopeful fisherman and elegant cellist Evan Drachman will be joined by one of the Festival’s founding musicians, versatile pianist Doris Stevenson, and new Sitka violinist Keng-Yuen Tseng.

Sunday’s Family concert has a top-secret theme but is bound to be loads of fun for people of all ages and interests. This free event concludes with ice cream floats for all. And, on Tuesday evening at 7:30 we have the chance to hear one of Beethoven’s early, majestic string trios, Op. 9, No. 2, and the gorgeous Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60, nicknamed “Werther” for the sentimental hero of a Goethe novel about a man who kills himself due to the unrequited love for his friend’s wife. The emotional pinnacle of this work is the exquisite slow movement.

If you are interested in some extra information about the music and composers, join me on Friday at 7:30 in Centennial Hall with special guest cellist Evan Drachman for a pre-concert chat about the opening program and details about the Sunday Family concert. All the artists, from many locations, gather here as friends and colleagues to make world-class music. Let’s give a grand welcome to the 2009 Sitka Festival musicians – and give yourself the gift of glorious music to match the indescribably beautiful setting of Sitka.