What's new with the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, the intimate classical music series with a rock and roll attitude, as it digs into its second decade? Plenty, says NCMF Artistic Director David Yang in an e-mail exchange from Calabria, Italy, in the Bay of Naples, where the violist chills, so to speak, every summer before the Port music series kickoff, at Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia, a week-long chamber music festival and intensive workshop where Yang has been a coach and performer for years — a cool retreat, he says, but “hot as hell, actually,” he says, “but a dry heat,” not that dry heat is much of a comfort. New? There will be new players, in the festival quartet, which will feature two new violinists, and at large, with two hired guns in the house to perform the much-loved Brahms Sextet, among other pieces. There will be new venues, as organizers reach across the river into Carriagetown for its first-ever non-Port concert, a performance benefiting the steeple restoration fund for the historic Union Congregational Church, as well as an open rehearsal at the 14 Cedar Street Artist Studios. As in the past, there will be a world premiere, another piece highlighted by local texts, this one with Port poet Rhina Espaillat’s “Three Tenses of Light,” inspired by the paintings of Ipswich artist Andrew Anderson-Bell, which will be lit up by Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield, who composed it specifically for the Port-based Candlelight Chorale, a 30-voice chorus. Which is certainly new for NCMF.
And there will plenty of new music at the festival, which runs from Aug. 11 to 18, with a program solidly rooted in the modern, everything from Schoenberg and Prokofiev to Piazzola, who revolutionized traditional tango, incorporating elements from jazz and classical music, to the decidedly non-standard repertoire of the Meehan/Perkins Duo, a percussion ensemble focused on the new, that stretches out, musically, performing on an arsenal of marimbas, drums, triangles, electronics — pretty much anything their can get their hands on — including their hands. Yet, as usual, organizers put their own spin on things, programming, for example, Schoenberg, Mr. 12-Tone himself, but selecting Verklärte Nacht/Transfigured Night, which is written in the late Romantic style, a piece influenced by Brahms, whose string sextet, also on the program, Yang says, “is everything we want music to be ... sad, mysterious” — all of which makes for an intriguing, well balanced program.
Violinist David Ehrlich from the Audubon Quartet, who has been with the quartet almost since the beginning, is out. So is Adela Peña, a founding member of the Eroica Trio and Grammy-nominated violinist, who for two seasons, had occupied the fourth chair, which had been held for three years by Nurit Pacht. Why? Nothing personal, nothing juicy. "Just time to mix things up a bit," says Yang. "No problems, as they were both great and good friends — and still are. This is how these festivals work. It felt like time for some new blood." Joining NCMF for Season 11 will be Irina Muresanu, violinist for Boston Trio for the past decade, and Cyrus Beroukhim, who performs with Fountain Ensemble and teaches at Columbia University — "an incredible player,” says Yang. “Dry wit, sharp, intellectual guy, but a very passionate player, very intense ... like Irina, a real virtuoso, someone who can do anything on the violin.” For Muresanu, this will be something of an encore. She played with the festival quartet seven years ago. They will team up with Yang, director of Chamber Music at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the UK-based string trio Ensemble Epomeo, which will release “Hans Gal and Hans Krasa: Complete String Trios,” its first album, in September. Also returning is cellist Caroline Stinson, a champion of contemporary music who performes with the acclaimed Lark Quartet and in Open End, a new music and improvisation group founded with her husband, composer Andrew Waggoner.
They will perform a program that stretches the repertoire, and, while some traditionalists may get a little sniffy with, for them, uncomfortable proximity to the new, Yang points out that it’s only rock and roll, so to speak. ”I mean, really, what is classical music anyway these days?” the violist asks. “Sure, Bach and Brahms and Beethoven, but what about the new composers? We did Kernis’ ‘100 Greatest Dance Hits’ a few years ago for guitar and string quartet. Was that classical? You bet! But was it ‘classical?’ I'm not so sure. I write Klezmer stuff, but it is also classical ... or is it? We have a Piazzola piece this summer. What is that? Is it a tango? For sure ... unless you ask a traditionalist Argentine, and then it is not. Piazzola revolutionized the traditional tango into a new style termed ‘nuevo tango,’ incorporating elements from jazz and classical music.” The Piazzola piece, “Four for Tango,” which will be paired with Prokofiev’s Duo for two violins, Debussy’s String Quartet, with its sad, crowd-pleasing third movement, and the Clearfield premiere, is a way for the musicians to stretch out. “It makes us play in ways we are not used to.” The Prokofiev, he says, "still has the ability to shock, like inadvertently touching an electric current or bottoming out unexpectedly on what you thought was a smooth part of a road. It’s pretty amazing. It’s such a privilege to share this stuff.”
But, yeah, aside from the Brahms, the program is solidly modern, locked into the 20th century. Er, um. Yang demurs. Slightly. Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht/Transfigured Night, which will be paired with the Brahms in the fesitval finale, was written in December 1899, slipping in under the century marker, barely, and Debussy's String Quartet, which, Yang says, stands at the threshold of the new music that a new century was to bring, was written in 1893, so technically.... But, yeah, the program is modern.
The core of the festival, musically, is the Schoenberg. "That was the anchor piece," says Yang, “the starting point for everything and it is one of my ‘desert island’ works. Then I also wanted a duo to show off our two new fancy violinists — and the Prokofiev will be perfect for that. Then we needed another sextet with the Schoenberg, and I thought the Brahms G Major was the best choice.” For the Brahms and Schoenberg sextets, NCMF will bring in Mai Motobuchi, a member of the Borromeo String Quartet, and acclaimed cellist Paul Wiancko, whose sister Michi performed with NCMF in 2003.
The light stuff
Then there’s the premiere of “Three Tenses of Light,” a piece inspired by light and water in Newburyport — and informed by three disciplines: a painting that inspired a poem that inspired a classical music piece, one that, the composer says, “creates an homage to the circular ritual of beginnings and endings of the day and in our lives. The music begins with a simple descending and ascending two-note motive that gives way to sounds reminiscent of nature. The motive develops into longer rising and falling melodies that are propelled from the day's beginning into music of bright emotional intensity at afternoon's peak, lingering momentarily and then fading into darker harmonies as day retreats.”
Clearfield, like Yang, a Philadelphia resident, “is a truly fantastic composer, one of the very best we have had. The timing was right this year for both her and us to get something out ... And the piece looks great. Of course, we won't know for sure until we play it, but I think people will really love this. It is such an interesting mix: the poem is by a local poet on local themes — light, water. A friend put Yang on the trail of Espaillat. “ I read her stuff, a lot of it, and was sold,” he says. “It’s so nice to have the local connection and Rhina is the real deal. Also a really swell gal, so that is an added bonus.”
Before taking off for Italy, Yang had only heard the MIDI version of the Clearfield, which “is really useful mainly for tempi, etcetera. It ain't music any more than vitamin pills are food. You don't really deal with it until everybody's in the Port and you begin the intense, endless rehearsals. I always look over the piece and parts beforehand, but that's the extent of it. So yes, it is basically a pleasant surprise every time.”
Yeah, that’s something new — and quite different for a chamber music festival, isn't it? “Well, yes,” says Yang. “But it is still a chamber work, as it is for just 30 singers and string quartet. But we have never done anything on this scale. It should be very beautiful."
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Newburyport Chamber Music Festival runs from Aug. 11 to 18 at various locations in Newburyport and Amesbury. For a complete schedule, click here.