Our Italian vocabulary word of the day is "aliscafo," as in "Oggi David Yang e a cavallo di un aliscafo." And, you may well ask, just what is David Yang, the artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and a fellow comfortable enough with Italiano to order, properly, insalata, fusilli con formaggio e piselli and prosciutto crudo e mozzarella di bufala, doing in a hovercraft? Answer: Barely touching the surface of the Mediterranean in a mad dash to the island of Ischia, home of the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival where he has been a resident coach for years and where Ensemble Epomeo will be settling in for its second year as the festival's ensemble-in-residence. That’s what he’s doing. And he's getting a just a little sick to his stomach (solo un po 'malato al suo stomaco) from the choppy seas as he blasts across the Sea of Napoli, taking questions about Epomeo’s May 21 show at the historic Henry C. Learned House, a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust. We see the sea sickness as a kind of penance for totally blowing off a certain arts writer a couple of days earlier. No, no, no. E solo uno scherzo. Just joking.
No, Yang’s a tough guy to get ahold of under the best of circumstances. In addition to playing with Epomeo, he’s a member of Auricolae, a Philadelphia-based storytelling troupe, as well as a performer with Poor Richard’s String Quintet. He’s also director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and coach at Swarthmore and, well, you get the idea. And this time of year, with Epomeo doing its usual globetrotting spring schedule, with tours on the East Coast, including a live radio broadcast, as well as shows in England and Wales, before retuning to Ischia, its home-base — and, four days after they put the lid on the intense Italian music festival, parachuting into Newburyport for “Music and the Manse,” as the program is being called.
The ensemble will also have a new look, with Caroline Chin, leader of the String Orchestra of New York City and artistic director of Musica Reginae, replacing Byron Wallis on violin. Cellist Kenneth Woods, another guy with a resume — Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet, principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, and author of the entertaining and informative View from the Podium blog — returns on cello.
They’ll will be taking a comparatively lighter program around the block: Instead of piling on, emotionally, with Krasa’s "Tanz," which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; or Hovhaness’ mournful, ethereal Trio, they’ll be playing Sitkovetsky’s transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string trio, Beethoven's String Trio in D major and "Thrice blest," a world premiere based on music by Newbury composer John Tufts.
The Variations, of course, were written for keyboard by Bach and forever seared into the collective musical imagination by the admittedly idiosyncratic performances by Glenn Gould, much to the dismay of purists. Yang confesses to sacrilege, saying the piano version is, well “a little, um, boring” ... and is immediately rewarded with the crash of a huge wave against the aliscafo, raising a collective moan from passengers.) “I think what is so interesting about this piece is its hybrid nature. It is a period work but played on modern instruments Also, since we can sustain with string instruments vs. a harpsichord (no sustaining) or a piano you can get a very different effect so that harmony, instead of having to be implied can really be just, well, played,” Yang says. Because of time restraints, the trio will be doing only two-thirds of the variations.
The Beethoven is “the core of the repertory for us,” says Yang. “What is neat about this is the slow movement which is written in an Italian feeling style (Yes, of course, affettuoso). By that I mean it is less contrapunctual, with parts playing off one another and more... like an opera, with arias and accompaniment. But since it is Beethoven it is incredibly beautiful but also complex, although I hope you don't hear the complexity as much as just feel it deep down in the animal part of your brain.”
The final piece will be a world premiere by Kile Smith, who is a bit of a classical star in Philly. He has his own radio show and runs the legendary Fleisher Collection of Music. He’s also been resident composer for the Jupiter Symphony in New York. Yang asked him to do something based on a local hymnbook that Newburyport Chamber Music Festival founder Jane Niebling found. He used a melody from Tufts who was from 17th-century Newbury. The composition has three sections — the hymn, then an agitated quick and rhythmic middle section and then back to the hymn. “The piece, I am sure, will be very popular with the audience,” Yang says. “It is lovely, the kind of stuff people will ask for again.”
From Newburyport, Epomeo will pack up and head north to Portland before calling it a wrap — a hectic time that has the favor of a rock tour. “Well, it has felt a little like that recently,” Yang says. “But I stay in one place usually for a few days. I like traveling but am torn, as I really miss my little daughters. When I am home I spend as much time with them as I can. I also really like my home. Philadelphia has been good to me, and I live on a leafy little city street where all the neighbors know each other and have dinner together and stuff like that. It is a treat to be home. (And now we are rolling side to side - oooh nooooo! I really have to stop now.)”
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.