Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Newport Music Festival opens at the Breakers with Michael Lewin, and other wanderers

Michael Lewin, after performing Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, takes a bow on the Breakers stage on opening night of the Newport Music Festival.

Michael Lewin, after performing Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, takes a bow on the Breakers stage on opening night of the Newport Music Festival.

We wander to explore. We wander to challenge ourselves. We wander to forget.

Wandering inspires intense emotions, and has inspired powerful music as well. With four works exploring the wandering theme, the Newport Music Festival opened its summer season Friday evening at the Breakers.

Settings by Liszt, Schubert, Vaughan Williams and Tchaikovsky brought a dozen or so stellar musicians to the Breakers stage to open the festival, which runs at various elegant Newport venues through July 28.

The wandering started in hell. Inferno, to be exact, thanks to Liszt’s Dante Sonata. Well-respected Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino, a festival regular, opened the evening with the electric and demanding piece. It made for a curious concert opener—supercharged with energy—but del Pino warmed to the task, as did the sold-out audience.

Baritone Trevor Neal next sang an abbreviated set from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Songs of Travel,” accompanied by pianist Ilya Kazantzev. Neal, who performs in multiple recitals during the month, sang with style, especially in the lower registers. The pastorale “Let Beauty Awake” sounded hear-felt and vulnerable; the shanty-like “The Vagabond” had dockside charm.

We continued to wander after intermission—most resolutely. Pianist Michael Lewin—Boston-based but far more well known and appreciated internationally—began the second half with Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy.” No chamber music concert could have a wanderer theme without it, after all.

It’s really a variations-and-theme—the actual melody doesn’t entirely appear until the slow (second) movement. Played in one continuous sweep, all four movements running into each other, Schubert spins out his wanderer’s melodic ideas with intensely challenging technical demands. The pianist ranges all over the keyboard, going from whisper to shout—with pedal-pounding intensity—in a moment.

Lewin played beautifully, with the confidence that enables insightful performances. It ought to have been the concert closer—it packed that kind of emotional wallop. 

But instead we wandered in memory, with Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” which brought a sextet of string players to the stage. Anchored by first chair violinist Stephanie Chase and cellist Sergey Antonov, Tchaikovsky’s lush, sweeping recollection of Italy—accurate or not—closed the journey on a bracing note. It’s a work that makes you wish Tchaikovsky had written a dozen string quartets.

The Newport Music Festival runs through July 28 at various venues. Tickets range from $20–$75. Call (401) 849-0700 or visit newportmusic.org.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for the GateHouse papers and WBUR’s The ARTery. On Twitter at @PowersKeith.

Avital, Venice Baroque highlight closing weekend of Rockport Chamber Music Festival

Sae Yoon Chon comes to Rockport Chamber Music Festival