Thursday, August 5, 2010

Talking music: NCMF finds its voice

Yeah, sure. He admits that he’s “probably pushing it” a little — fessing up that, unlike previous years, there’s no immediately obvious overriding theme unifying the music of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival this year. But David Yang, the guy behind the programming at the festival since its inception nine years ago, isn’t quite ready to give up the musical ghost: He’s starting to warm up to the subject after cautiously playing the theme. He’s thinking of the lyrical nature of music — not in the sense of the always- breathtakingly “singing” quality of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing. He’s thinking about non-verbal communication that actually approaches conversation. You hear it in the Kodaly (Duo for violin and cello, Opus 7), where, Yang says, the composer seems to be interested in striking up a dialogue, having the musicians talk — and, at times, spar — with each other. And the Mendelssohn (String Quartet in F minor, Opus 80), which was published posthumously, a piece he wrote after the death of his beloved sister, after which he just could not go on. It is “desperate communication,” says Yang, “a terrible cry of anguish … so intense.” And the two Jon Deak pieces (“B.B. Wolf” and “Sherlock Holmes and The Speckled Band, Scene I,” take the Yang theme to its limit, with the composer actually telling the stories.
Then again, like the man says, maybe he’s stretching it a bit. Truth is, this year’s festival is in the same musical ballpark as the previous ones: It’s a showcase for world-class musicians to perform contemporary as well as classical masterpieces. It’s a festival with a reputation for adventurous programming. And that’s certainly the case this year. The last of four concerts, in particular, looks like a musical tumult that will have the audience spinning through the centuries: Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 20, and Dvorak’s Bass Quintet in G Major, B.49, Opus 77 — interestingly, a piece known for its “singing” lyricism — paired with the Deak, which feels almost like a performance piece (“It’s classical, but reminds me of jazz,” says Yang. “It’s genre-busting in some ways.”). And “Tiny Little Boxes,” the three-part Tymoczko premiere, runs through the gamut of Western music history, even contemporary rock, the composer says in his notes.

It’s a wild, fascinating ride, no doubt. But is there a danger of getting too far afield, musically, of outstripping your core audience? Nah. “I don’t think we’ll offend the audience,” says Yang, director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Main Line Chamber Music Seminar. “We may stretch ears a little bit, maybe a lot, but I don’t think we’ll lose anyone along the way.”

The festival opens tonight (Friday, Aug. 6) with Trio Cavatina, winners of last year’s Naumburg Chamber Music Competition, a kind of Tchaikovsky competition for chamber music groups, which, in addition to granting bragging rights, gave the ensemble the chance to premiere a new  work by American composer Richard Danielpour at Carnegie Hall — a piece commissioned specifically for them. They’ll play the piece, “The Faces of Guernica,” in a program that will also include Beethoven’s “Ghost” trio and Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, Opus 60, one of his most moving works, says Yang — a piece rumored to be a love paean to Clara Schumanm. (“Brahms kind of had the hots for Clara,” says Yang, who will join the trio at the Farwell Clay Carriage House, a renovated 1850 barn with a listening room designed with chamber music acoustics in mind.)

The second concert will be an informal — and free — affair, with the festival quartet playing selections from this year’s program on Inn Street — just a couple of hours after the premiere of Yang’s “Two Brothers, or Fools and Their Money are Soon Parted,” at the free children’s concert, which will be held at Newburyport Public Library. The musicians will be back in formal wear for a third concert, this one at St. Paul’s Church, which will feature Mendelssohn’s ode to beloved sister Fanny, and the Kodaly, which fuses classical and folk forms. The program will close with the first of two Dvorak pieces in the festival, his “Cypresses” for string quartet, B.152, which, Yang notes, combines the somewhat morose poetry of Gustav Pfleger Moravsky and the sweet score of a youthful Dvorak.

The festival closes with a second Dvorak piece, the driving Bass Quintet in G Major, B.49, Opus 77, which will feature Deak performing with the Festival Quartet, and Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 20 No. 4, one of his most popular works. The concert will also feature Deak’s solo pieces and the Tymoczko premiere. For a complete schedule, check out the NCMF web. It also includes a number of free open rehearsals, where audiences can watch the pieces taking shape, as well as a series of lectures, some with the performers playing, that talk about the history of the music and the lives of concert performers.
Returning artists include Yang, a violist who has forged a career that is a blend of performing, commissioning, coaching, storytelling and composition; David Ehrlich, former first violin of the Audubon Quartet; and cellist Caroline Stinson of the Lark Quartet. They will be joined by violinist Adela Pena, founding member of the legendary Eroica Trio — “an incredible, hot player” who is “as you get to a superstar this side of Yo-Yo Ma,” says Yang.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Newburyport Chamber Music Festival is a weeklong celebration of chamber music featuring concerts, lectures, free events, open rehearsals, children’s concerts and post-performance receptions. It opens tonight with a recital by Trio Cavatina, 2009 First Prize winners of the Naumburg Competition, which is like the Tchaikovsky Competition for chamber players Tickets are $25 for individual performances, $45 for the fundraiser or $80 for a festival pass. Students can attend the final two concerts for free. For more information, call 978-463-9776, or log onto for a full schedule.

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN: Pictured, above, David Yang, artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and, below, the 2009 edition of the Festival Quartet — from left, Caroline Stinson, David Yang, David Erlich and Nurit Pacht — 
performing a free concert on Inn Street. 

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