Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Aug. 14, 2012
By Melinda Bargreen
They call it “Classical Music with a View,” and views are certainly on offer in the many idyllic settings of the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival.
But it’s the imaginative programs and the exciting concert activity, of course, that have made the festival such a success over its 15 years. The creation of violinist/violist Aloysia Friedmann and her pianist husband Jon Kimura Parker, the festival celebrated its “crystal anniversary” August 9-25 with the venturesome programming that has drawn great performers and eager audiences to the island every summer. This year’s concert lineup including two world premieres by the noted opera composer Jake Heggie; works in many forms (including jazz) inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24; an intimate song evening with Frederica von Stade -- and a free concert on the Eastsound Village Green with two pianos (Parker and Orli Shaham), an impressive slate of performers including baritone Rod Gilfry, and a program extending from “Carnival of the Animals” to a set of Broadway show tunes.
Friedmann, as artistic director and chief architect of the festival, is well known for choosing music that embraces all sorts of instruments, genres, and styles. From the traditional to the whimsical, with imaginative pairings of works and artists, the Orcas concert lineup also features brand-new talent alongside beloved longtime artists.
Over the past 15 years, the festival has gradually evolved from its original Labor Day Weekend schedule of concerts back in the beginning – when Friedmann and Parker got the idea of inviting some friends over to make music in the island setting the Friedmann family had long loved. These days the festival is earlier and bigger. But not too big. It still has the lovely homegrown feeling of the island community, with volunteers opening their homes for parties, taking the artists out for whale-watching boat rides, baking treats for the participants at “Music Lovers’ Seminars,” and serving up the free post-concert appetizer buffet for all the concert-goers.
A grant from Chamber Music America has the festival artists on the move, presenting “hamlet concerts” in tiny community centers around the island, and venturing offshore to neighboring Lopez Island for an evening with the festival’s 2012 resident Miró Quartet.
The Orcas festival is well known for its world premieres, and 2012 brought two brand-new works by opera composer Jake Heggie (whose opera “Moby-Dick” was also represented by an aria featuring Gilfry). Heggie’s new song cycle, “This is My Beloved,” got a tremendous performance from Gilfry (who sang the challenging 20-minute work without a score), accompanied by the composer at the piano and two other instrumentalists, violinist Andrés Cárdenes and cellist Anne Martindale Williams. Based on a book of erotic love poems by Walter Benton (1907-1976), the song cycle – like the book – traces the arc of a love affair from the first rush of joy to the sad resignation of the affair’s end.
Heggie chose excerpts from some of the free-verse poems (wisely omitting some of the more graphic passages), and the music is wonderfully descriptive. The opening song moves edgily forward and then erupts into a high-energy tango; the second is an idyllic succession of dreamy, reverential chords that ideally support the text, as the lovers “move closer to heaven.” Later, at a less optimistic point in the cycle, Heggie underscored the foreboding with spare, repeated notes, finally moving into a wild instrumental tarantella underneath the singer’s despairing lines. It’s clear here, as always, that Heggie is at his very best in scoring for voice; this song cycle is a winner, and it is hard to imagine a better soloist than Gilfry.
Two charming flute-based pieces opened the program: the C.P.E. Bach Trio Sonata in B-Flat Major, and Mozart’s spirited D Major Flute Quartet (the former with Parker at the harpsichord, which was built in 1963 by his father-in-law). Both of these works displayed the agile, expressive, and beautifully focused sound of flutist Lorna McGhee. Both pieces also have happy extra-musical associations: Friedmann’s parents, violinist Martin Friedmann and oboist Laila Storch, recorded the C.P.E. Bach piece together in Salzburg in 1957 as newlyweds, with Storch playing the flute part on the oboe. And McGhee and the evening’s violist, her husband David Harding, first met while performing that very Mozart flute quartet.
The evening’s two-part finale began with Gilfry and Parker performing the Schubert Lied, “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” followed by the great quartet whose second movement was inspired by the Lied: Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden.” The Miró Quartet gave a dynamic performance of this death-obsessed work, and the conclusion of the furious tarantella finale had the audience on its feet for an enthusiastic ovation.