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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

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

 Reigning Van Cliburn competition winner Yekwon Sunwoo performs Friday evening at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, with the Brentano Quartet.

Reigning Van Cliburn competition winner Yekwon Sunwoo performs Friday evening at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, with the Brentano Quartet.

Van Cliburn competition winner Yekwon Sunwoo says, “When you play chamber music, you get more creative.” That seems to be exactly what the new Rockport Chamber Music Festival is all about.

The opening fortnight of the festival, under the new direction of Barry Shiffman, certainly has been creative. Theater presentations, dramatic lighting and stagings, late-night cabaret, unusual pairings of repertory—all coupled with outstanding performances—have challenged audiences to re-think what they consider to be chamber presentations. 

The third week of the festival, which opens Wednesday evening with the Rockport Fellowship Quartet—another of Shiffman’s innovations—appears at first glance to be more traditional. Lots of Beethoven. All of Bach’s Goldbergs. Grammy winners, and competition winners. It might seem like a respite to some—except for the part about outstanding performances.

One highlight will be Sunwoo’s recital on Friday evening. The reigning Van Cliburn competition winner comes to Rockport for the first time, joined by the estimable Brentano Quartet. They met at the Cliburn last May, when Sunwoo performed with the group in the chamber portion of the exhausting competition. 

As part of his winning programs, they played the demanding Dvorak A major quintet together. They repeat that performance Friday evening, giving RCMF audiences some idea of what the competition was all about.

“You have more freedom when you’re out there by yourself,” Sunwoo says. “You’re constantly listening to your own sound, and since each venue is different acoustically you can make your own resonances.

“But when you play chamber music, you learn by doing it. It’s more intimate, you give it some personal feeling, and in a way you fall in love.

“At the competition, it was my first time together with the Brentano,” he says. “They are genuine and loving people. They are always feeling the music, and when you play with them you get those same feelings too.”

It’s not always like that on the chamber music stage.

“Sometimes when you play with a quartet, you have to try to fit in,” he says, not mentioning any names. “Things don’t really work out.”

Playing a major work like the Dvorak quintet in a competition, and then winning the competition, forms an immediate bond between the players. Sunwoo is not likely to forget that soon.

“We had two rehearsals—not really that much time,” he says about preparing the quintet—forty-five minutes of music. “When you’re in a competition, by yourself, you focus hard, because you know there are jury members who are going to judge you and give you a score. But playing with a living quartet, just sharing music—that made for a special evening for me.”

The weekend of music begins a day earlier than usual—with the Fellowship Quartet (joined by pianist Tony Yike Yang) performing music of Schubert, Schumann and Golijov (his “Yiddishbbuk”) on Wednesday—a free concert. Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong play Beethoven sonatas on Thursday. 

Brentano returns to the Shalin Liu Performance Center stage with another great artist on Saturday evening—soprano Dawn Upshaw, who will sing Respighi’s “Il Tramonto”—a setting of Shelley’s desolate poem “The Sunset.” The weekend closes with a marathon: pianist Minsoo Sohn tackling Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

 

Week 3 at a Glance

Wednesday, June 27, 7 p.m.

Rockport Fellowship Quartet, with Tony Yike Yang, piano

Resident ensemble has performed all over town—in pop-up concerts, during cabarets, on the main stage. Here they give a free concert, including the first movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” Osvaldo Golijov’s “Yiddishbbuk,” and Schumann’s piano quintet.

 

Thursday, June 28, 8 p.m.

James Ehnes (violin) and Andrew Armstrong (piano) tackle four of Beethoven’s great set of duo sonatas, including “Spring.” 

 

Friday, June 29, 11 a.m.

Free film offering of “Virtuosity—The Cliburn” investigates the high-pressure backstage and onstage workings of the 2013 festival.

 

Friday, June 29, 8 p.m.

2017 Van Cliburn competition winner Yekwon Sunwoo joins the Brentano Quartet in a dynamic program of music by Schubert, Ravel, Dvorak and Grainger.

 

Saturday, June 30, 8 p.m.

One of this generation’s great interpreters of song, soprano Dawn Upshaw, joins the Brentano Quartet for Respighi’s “Il Tramonto.” Brentano also performs works by Mozart, Webern and Schoenberg.

 

Sunday, July 1, 5 p.m.

Pianist Minsoo Sohn performs Bach’s complete “Goldberg Variations”—for Bach lovers, never to be missed.

 

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

Rockport Chamber Music Festival's opening weekend