The Mohawk Trail Concerts have been taking place in the Federated Church in Charlemont, Massachusetts since 1969, when Arnold Black, the distinguished violinist and composer, discovered the outstanding acoustics of this attractive old church. Since then, the festival has presented a rich variety of standard repertoire, modern, contemporary, and less familiar older works. Regulars look forward to the annual concert of Joan Morris and William Bolcom, who will celebrate Bastille Day this year.
This will be an unusually rich summer for string quartets, but Music Mountain will send it into the stratosphere with a schedule in which every concert but one will feature a string quartet, in some cases augmented with a piano, an extra stringed instrument, or winds. The St. Petersburg Quartet, which has been a mainstay of Music Mountain for some years opened the season with a benefit concert including Beethoven Op. 18, no. 4, Tchaikovsky, and the Brahms Piano Quintet with Misha Dichter. The Arianna Quartet followed this with Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Op. 30, and the Franck Piano Quintet with Tanya Bannister.
The Sydney Omega Ensemble, as fairly young musicians, though with three members of the SSO’s wind section, in no way without experience, with help from the non-profit Ars Musica Australis, enjoys commissioning and playing new pieces from young Australian composers. They do so in many of their concerts, taking the tactic of mixing them in a program with traditional composers, rather than the all-together contemporary music festival approach. Even if the new pieces are only short, it obviously adds variety for the audience and players and fills in some of the difficult gap between conservatory student concerts and festivals and the commissions of more established composers by Musica Viva (for new chamber music) and the SSO, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Ballet, etc. for new orchestral works, the orchestral works usually coming from the same handful of Australian composers. So it is a valuable little institution David Rowden, the Ensemble’s artistic director, founder and clarinetist, and company have run over the past few years.
A close look at the notes for this 2-disc set will give one some insight into the splendeurs et misères of the contemporary classical recording industry. A grant from Fond for lyd og bilde, the Norwegian arts organization, and Leif Ove Andsnes’ Gilmore Artist Award funded this recording, making it possible for a major commercial label, EMI, to release a recording of comparatively little-known music by a great composer, played by internationally renowned musicians. Mr. Andsnes owns the copyright and has licensed the recording to EMI. Presumably the recording company didn’t think that the famous names sufficed to counterbalance the obscurity and dubious reputation of the music, for unfortunately the trios, especially the second and third, were lumped in with the rest of what the older literature considered “bad Schumann,” commonly disparaged as unmelodic, difficult, and confused. The rediscovery of these fascinating and very beautiful works has been one of the great pleasures of the past twenty years, once musicians learned how to play them and audiences, still slowly and partially, have learned how to listen to them.
In the interstices of the Sydney Opera House, between the Opera Theatre, the famous steps up to the podium and the stage door loading dock, is the Utzon Room looking out to the east over Sydney Harbour. Jørn Utzon redesigned the former “reception room” with a mind for its use for chamber music and recitals (he also redesigned the Western Colonnade to welcome theatre goers into the playhouse theater, though unfortunately not the Opera Theatre itself). The Utzon Room magically feels at once like a natural sandstone cave and a modernist version of an English drawing room. It is cozy, long relative to its depth and ceiling height (though not at all cramped being about 3 meters high) with plate glass windows about the height of a person stretching the length of the room facing east, looking across Wahganmuggalee (Farm Cove) with the Botanic Gardens, the sandstone ledges by Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the industrial iron architecture of Garden Island navy base behind. Opposite the windows, along the other length stretches Jørn Utzon’s tapestry Tribute to CPE Bach, its islands of clear and vivid secondary colors complement the pale gray cement ceiling beams which hold up the Opera House above. These beams run the length of the roof, sloping at the end right to the floor, supporting the outside steps, gradually tapering and changing shape as they do from decahedral to rectangular. The musicians stand in front of the window, facing the tapestry which no doubt has a strong favorable effect on the acoustics. Thus the room, also seeming, like a sandstone cave, much older than it really is, has more than its fair share of atmosphere and gravitas, especially for a Sydney concert hall, and could risk overshadowing its musicians in a way, for example, the City Recital Hall at Angel Place could not. The acoustics are very clean and balanced across the spectrum, contributing to the clean, lucid, rounded sound of the ensemble and although the view of the Harbour shows constant maritime activity, no noise gets through the windows, even when an enormous cruise ship floated by (albeit under tug) or one of the hooning speedboats which give joy rides to tourists.
The series of concerts of chamber music organized by Musica Viva this year continue with an exploration of, and this time a new commission by, Australian pianist and composer Ian Munro. He has created his second piano quintet (the first composed in 2006 was called Divertissement sur le nom d’Erik Satie) from two earlier works: Dreams, his winning contribution to the 2003 Queen Elisabeth International Competition for Composers, originally meant to be a first movement to a full piano concerto and Drought and Night Rain, originally written in 2005 for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and originally meant to be a beginning to a full symphony. Though it would be nice to hear these symphonic works complete in their own right, Munro has sewn them together skillfully into a chamber music piece. Really this is no different from what Prokofiev did to compose the Romeo and Juliet ballet music, which has a life of its own, so reuse of already composed ideas should not necessarily raise negative thoughts. Munro himself joins with the Goldner String Quartet which is lead by Dene Olding, who often plays first violin in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, also conducting the SSO earlier in the year, to play his new piece, but we also get the opportunity to hear the Quartet on its own.
The Rockport Chamber Music Festival concluded its official season with a piano recital by Russell Sherman, consisting of music by Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. Of course, things go on year round now in the Festival’s wonderful new hall, the Shalin Liu Performance Center—it is intimate, beautiful, sounds great, looks out onto the harbor and the open sea—not enough admiring can be said about it. So there will continue to be good reasons for music lovers to visit Rockport.
On Palm Sunday there was a remarkable Boston Conservatory concert of music by Jan Swafford. Swafford is widely known for his books on Charles Ives and Brahms, and The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. He is known locally also for many fine program notes and pre-concert talks for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Swafford has been writing music going back to the 1970s and has had performances in many places and won awards for this work. The recent concert centered around the cello, magnificently played—even heroically, considering the amount and intensity of the material—by Emmanuel Feldman, who was joined variously by his excellent colleagues in the Omega Trio, violinist Eva Gruesser and pianist George Sebastian Lopez