Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Rockport Chamber Music Festival's opening weekend

Miriam Khalil, in Osvaldo Golijov's "Ayre," Friday, June 15 at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Jon Tadiello photograph

Miriam Khalil, in Osvaldo Golijov's "Ayre," Friday, June 15 at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Jon Tadiello photograph

Superlatives need to be trotted out for the first weekend of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Marking as well the beginning of incoming artistic director Barry Shiffman’s tenure at Rockport Music, the weekend emphasized theater.

From the scintillating realization of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ayre” on opening night, to Alon Nashman’s staging of “Kafka and Son” as an afternoon extra the next day, and the dramatic lighting during the coupling of Messaien's and Tan Dun’s music on Sunday, drama came first. Music wasn’t far behind. (The Montrose Trio, playing works by Turina, Mendelssohn and Brahms, were outstanding.) But Shiffman’s notion that this festival needs to step outside its comfort zone, and become more than just terrific chamber performances, was obvious from the start.

No reviews here: just an acknowledgement that Shiffman has a sense that music should be experiential, and that he’s going to make changes to the festival large and small. 

Some are obvious: composer-in-residence, young fellowship quartet, pop-up concerts and film presentations, late-night cabaret performances. None of that existed before. Greatness was a given at Rockport during the festival, but always in the evening, at concert time, just like many other places in the classical music world. 

On the main stage, the change is apparent as well. Nashman made only slight connections to chamber music—his agonizing one-man show stole just short snippets from Golijov’s “Yiddishbbuk.” But the work fit organically on the Shalin Liu Performance Center stage. The performance was graced with introductory music, also from Golijov—his tender “Lullaby and Doina,” and it stated one thing clearly: music is powerful drama, even when it is mostly drama.

The complex lighting and staging accompanying Andres Díaz’s performance in Tan Dun’s “Elegy: Snow in June”—a performance that was bracketed by movements from Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” with clarinetist Todd Palmer soloing from the balcony—further emphasized the point. Shiffman means to captivate his audience, not just impress them with his talented musical friends.

Week two of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival begins this Thursday evening with an all-Brahms program. Featured artists include mezzo Samantha Hankey, pianist Anton Nel, violinist Chee-Yun, and hornist William Vermeulen. The first Classical Cabaret will follow that program, at 10 p.m. 

Additional programs for the weekend include music by Steve Reich (“Different Trains,” on Friday evening); Bach (and other works, by pianist Stephen Prutsman); and Handel love duets on Sunday afternoon with soprano Suzie LeBlanc and countertenor Daniel Taylor, supported by the Baroque Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Adrian Butterfield. For tickets and information visit www.rockportmusic.org or call 978-546-7391.

Select concerts will be streamed on FaceBook live (the link is at the Rockport Music web site):

June 21: (just the Brahms violin sonata, with Chee-Yun and pianist Anton Nel)

July 12: Colin Carr, performing all the Bach cello suites

July 13: Dover Quartet, with Barry Shiffman, performing Ullmann, Mozart and Dvorak

Upcoming Rockport Chamber Music Festival weekend begins Wednesday: Beethoven, Bach, Sunwoo, Brentano

Stephen Prutsman: artist, performer, citizen