Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Bach, and more. Week two of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. A summary.

Attacca Quartet (from left): Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Andrew Yee, cello; Nathan Schram, viola. Shervin Lainez photograph

Attacca Quartet (from left): Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Andrew Yee, cello; Nathan Schram, viola. Shervin Lainez photograph

Bach was a mess. The video wasn’t effective. What was the violinist’s problem? The soprano left the stage unannounced. The cellist didn’t have any shoes.

Week two at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival was a great success.

Ambitious programming brings risks and rewards. The weekend had more theatrics, musical pairings that brought new context to standard repertory, and a vast variety in staging. No two performances were anything alike. 

Thursday evening featured the music of Brahms, with Samantha Hankey singing two songs with unusual instrumentation: viola (Barry Shiffman) and piano (Anton Nel). Violinist Chee-Yun joined Nel for the D minor sonata, and then the esteemed William Vermeulen sat in for the wonderful horn trio. 

Chee-Yun seemed to have some problems with her tone early on—it could have been new hair on the bow, or just some careless bowing too close to the bridge. Small matter: the playing and singing all evening was alert.

Friday evening’s program centered around Steve Reich’s “Different Trains.” Shiffman chose to pair it with Beatriz Caravaggio’s video presentation, with mixed results. The repertory choices for the evening—the program included the Shostakovich third quartet, and two short atmospheric pieces by Arvo Pärt that bookended “Different Trains”—made for a dark, affecting performance.

Attacca Quartet played the Shostakovich and the Reich, in their RCMF debut. Let’s hope they return soon, and frequently. Aggressively interpretive, they sailed through the difficult quartet with huge amounts of energy and musicianship. And playing Reich with headphones, synching up not only to a recorded vocal track, but to a video as well—that took some doing. Impressive all around.

Danny Koo (violin) and Stephen Prutsman (piano) surrounded the Reich with Pärt’s “Fratres” and “Spiegel im Spiegel.” The works are alternately hypnotic and jarring, and Koo’s playing especially was unforgettable.

“Different Trains” carries a subtext: the composer riding trains long-distance in America, and reflecting on much more menacing train rides that Jews took in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. That subtext stays understated throughout: the narrator (voice patterns mimic the minimalist patterns realized by the strings) blankly repeats simple phrases like “New York to Los Angeles.”

Caravaggio’s video begins with trains in motion, artfully presented, and then shifts to historical footage of Nazi Germany. As a documentary work, both music and video are essential. 

The video, and its accompanying subtitles, had an unintended negative effect on the presentation. As a musical piece alone, the narration blends as an equal with the instruments. It’s not so much information being conveyed—this is not a story—just the sound, tone, and nature of voice being as one with the other instruments.

The video—and especially the subtitles—force the words into an unintended situation. As a viewer, looking at the subtitles, you search for additional meaning—or at least a story line. There is none, really, except what the music conveys. Simply put, the images brought unwanted attention to the words.

Prutsman’s Saturday evening program was entirely intention. He interspersed preludes and fugues from “Well-Tempered Clavier” with other works, tracing a chronological line through music. 

The other works had no direct relationship to Bach (some exceptions). Rameau, Beethoven, Debussy, Schoenberg (the exception)—and then even farther afield, with Rwandan and Uzbek folk music, Charlie Parker.

It was a polarizing performance. You could say his Bach was substandard: unnecessary pedaling, leaving out or entirely muddying voices in the fugues, tempos from somewhere strange. If it were just a Bach performance, it would have been largely unlistenable. It was, as someone pointed out, what you would hear in a conservatory practice room.

However, for Prutsman, Bach was a vehicle. It was a touchstone. Listen to this, he seemed to say, and then listen to this other thing as well. Not because it was related in form, or derived a melody and made variations (with the exception of Schoenberg); but because it all ran toward a certain sacredness in musical expression.

It seemed like all the works came to a new life, in the context of Bach. Some were more profoundly distinctive—the Adagio from “Moonlight Sonata” struck this listener forcibly. Schoenberg too—preceded by the only non-WTC work, two gavottes from the sixth English Suite. It was “Musette” from Schoenberg’s piano suite, a 12-tone variation on a melody from the first gavotte, with many simple transpositions and inversions. The work played hide-and-seek in Prutsman’s hands, a familiar note or phrase quickly disappearing behind some other musical invention.

Sunday’s program featured violinist/conductor Adrian Butterfield leading an amalgam that consisted of the Attacca and Rockport Fellowship quartets, Schiffman, and harpsichordist John McKean. Countertenor Daniel Taylor and soprano Suzie LeBlanc provided the highlights.

They sang duets from Handel, with great style and artistry. 

A cellist—Julie Hereish—was indeed barefoot, leading to speculation about new insights into historical performance. And LeBlanc did disappear from the stage momentarily just before the encore—“I had things to do,” she said—leading to more non-musical speculation.

Week three of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival begins Wednesday evening with the Rockport Fellowship Quartet, a free performance. Read this for an overview of the weekend, or visit www.rockportmusic.org.

Van Cliburn winner Yekwon Sunwoo debuts in Rockport, Newport this summer.

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