Classical Notebook

Three Great Music Moments in August

If you’re lucky, there’s still time to catch the “swan song” of this year’s Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival: a “Brahms in Vienna” concert (7:30 p.m. this Friday, August 22, in the Orcas Center). The repertoire, which ranges from songs and Hungarian Dances to a Clarinet Trio and String Sextet, is sumptuous indeed, and the festival’s artist roster is stellar.

This year’s festival, judging from the “European Interlude” concert on August 15, is hitting new highs on several fronts. There was a sensuous performance of the seldom-heard Turina sextet “Scène Andalouse,” with Aloysia Friedmann taking center stage with a luscious viola solo. An eloquent set of six Schubert songs, featuring baritone Philip Cutlip and pianist Jon Kimura Parker, finished with an “Erlkönig” of such incendiary power that the audience was gasping: this adrenaline-fired performance belongs on disc. Violinist Chee-Yun turned in a fleet and vivid Saint-Saëns Sonata No. 1 with pianist Ian Parker, and the finale – the great Schumann Piano Quintet – got a mighty performance by Friedmann, Parker, and the ensemble.

Sometimes August is a relatively quiet month (in non-“Ring” years, anyway) on the concert calendar, but not this time. Seattle Opera provided two spectacular evenings that will be long remembered among regional music lovers. The first of the events, the International Wagner Competition on August 7, brought in nine young and resplendently good Wagnerian singers from as far afield as Germany and Australia for a riveting evening of arias from “der Meister’s” output, complete with full orchestra and a beautiful stage set. The audience and the orchestra voted, as well as a panel of distinguished judges, with complete concurrence in one of the two First Prizes awarded: the tenor Issachah (“Issa-KY-ah”) Savage, who won all three votes. His fellow tenor, the Danish David Danholt, won the other First Prize. Both are already at an imposingly high level that bodes well for their future careers, but the other contenders also made powerful impressions (particularly the Seattle-based soprano Marcy Stonikas).

Two nights later, Seattle Opera and its many fans celebrated the 31-year tenure of retiring general director Speight Jenkins with an unforgettable evening of song and celebration that Jenkins later called “the greatest night of my life.” On the stage were many internationally renowned singers whom he had featured earlier in productions including the Wagnerian “Ring”: Stephanie Blythe, Greer Grimsley, Alwyn Mellor, Christiane Libor, Brett Polegato, William Burden, Antonello Palombi, Peter Rose, Arthur Woodley, Nuccia Focile, and Gordon Hawkins, with the participation of the full orchestra, conductors Sebastian Lang-Lessing and Carlos Montanaro, and the Seattle Opera Chorus. Joyce Castle was the emcee; Issachah Savage reprised his gorgeous aria “Mein lieber Schwan” from the earlier competition.

It was a starry evening, planned to the tiniest detail, and followed by a festive dinner party beneath tents arranged along the Kreielsheimer Promenade outside McCaw Hall. What a great way to celebrate the long and distinguished tenure of Jenkins, who has done so much for the good of this region – and for opera lovers worldwide.

Debussy’s Springtime Funeral

It’s well known that many famous composers have died young, so it isn’t surprising to learn that Romantic music champion Claude Debussy died in 1918 at age 55.

Debussy had been battling rectal cancer for about a decade. Through it all, he was still a highly prolific composer. In his last few years, even though he said it required “all the labours of Hercules in one” just to get dressed in the morning, he was still able to write twelve Etudes.

In fact, it may well have been his illness that spurred him into a composing frenzy. For a brief period, the declaration of World War I caused him such shock that his creativity stalled and he was unable to compose anything at all. Discovering the seriousness of his illness may have motivated him to follow through with the many musical ideas he’d kept stored in his mind.

In a letter to his doctor, Debussy wrote, “I still have so much to say. There are so many things in music which have never yet been done-for example the human voice-I don’t think it has ever been fully exploited.”

Unfortunately, he never had time to realize all his musical ambitions. He died on March 25, 1918, as German troops bombed Paris from the air and rolled through the streets in artillery vehicles. Somehow, amid the chaos, a funerary procession took place for Debussy through the deserted, disheveled streets of Paris to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The public funeral service Debussy may have had wasn’t possible in wartime; he was buried without much fanfare or publicity.

A year later, after the war was over, Debussy’s final request to rest among the birds and trees was finally granted: he was moved to the smaller Passy Cemetery and to this day is interred there alongside his wife and daughter.