How often do our activities of today link back to other periods in our life? This may seem an odd theme to start a concert review. But, have you even attended a concert without some awareness of and interest in the style of music or the musicians performing? For this year’s Castleton Festival, we might reach back only a year, when we learned of and attended our first performance. Let me pull together less obvious strings.
This July is our 20th wedding anniversary. When considering options for celebrating our anniversary, we recalled that the Castleton Festival is held in July. Looking at the schedule, we found a number of performances that we could group together for a multi-concert event. Even better, one of their “season” options was to attend four performances for a 15% discount. That’s like getting a third of a performance for free. But, I shall not dwell on my family history of frugality.
I noticed that one of the symphonies to be presented on the opening weekend would be Mendelssohn’s 5th, The Reformation. When I was a senior in high school one of our theatre class assignments was to develop a 30 minutes one-person show. Each student was responsible for the concept, script, staging, costumes/set/lights, etc. I created a piece based on Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses protesting what he viewed as corruption in the church. Yes, I had an anti-establishment mindset even then. One of my instructors suggested that I should listen to Mendelssohn’s 5th symphony. The 4th movement includes Luther’s tune for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. I have never heard the symphony performed live. Thus, an anniversary, season discount, and specific symphony meld together into one motivation.
To round out the concert spree, we added a couple of mountain hikes, which I wrote about recently (Bird Knob, and Hazel River Trail). So, by the time we arrived for the opening chamber concert in the Theatre House, we had already had an invigorating couple of days. We would follow this up, that same evening with Puccini’s opera, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Wow, 5 hours of music in one day. The next day, the orchestra performed Mahler’s 4th and Mendelssohn’s 5th symphonies. We would then have a two week break, before returning for our fourth performance, Verdi’s opera,Otello.
As I described in my review of the Castleton Festival last year, the festival is a combination training camp in the country and performance opportunity for young musicians. Conductor, Lorin Maazel, uses his country estate in central Virginia. He draws upon his years of orchestral and operatic conducting to guide the musicians. He shows no signs of fatigue, for this 70 years of involvement in music performance, other than occasionally resting his left hand on a rail behind his podium, while setting the pace of an opera.
The chamber concert began with Hindemith’s Solo Cello Sonata, Op. 25, No. 3. As with most 20th century music, I appreciate the technique more in person than in the car on a C.D. When I reflected, to another couple from the Hopkins Ordinary BnB who were attending the festival, that Daniel Lelchuks’ skill and enthusiasm for the piece was evident, but the piece itself appeared to be a complicated practice piece, they retorted that the Brahms and Verdi pieces later in the concert were actually written as practice pieces for chamber groups in the 19th century. Well, best to move on and avoid unnecessary conflict over technical points.
The Brahms Horn trio in E-flat, Op. 40 and Verdi String Quartet in E minor were more tuneful than Hindemith’s atonal sonata. To say that I walked away humming from the later two would be demonstrating either bias, naivete or just an ability to hum to myself. To round out the chamber concert, the musicians performed Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor. Now, I usually associate Mahler with writing unreasonably large symphonic pieces. Thus, hearing a quartet by him piqued ?? my curiosity. I’ll just say that I was satisfied by the open event of our package.
One feature of the chamber concert that I particularly enjoyed was watching the interaction between the musicians. Whether Lelchuk’s solo cello, which absorbed his and our concentration, or three to four musicians on stage, signally to each other with their eyes or a dip of their bows, the Theatre House is an excellent venue for watching music. No one was more than 50 feet from the stage, with only five rows on the main level and three in the balcony. At that distance you can hear every hair of the bow gliding upon the strings. You can count the stripes on the performer’s ties. And, notice the slightest sparkle of their eyes when they are please with their execution of a precise run of notes. Bradley Moore’s eye (and tie) were particularly memorable to watch as he played the piano in the Mahler quartet. Eric Silberger played the violin in several pieces, bringing enthusiasm to his technically exacting bowing and finger of his solos. I almost expected him to leap up a the end as if he had just won Wimbledon.
Attending the opening weekend of the festival, going from a chamber concert to an opera two hours later was in order. While we skipped the gala dinner (at $250 per person… did I talk about frugality earlier?), we brought a picnic with us. Outside the Festival Hall, they have provided several covered seating areas for picnicking. The views over the farm to the mountains is worth brining vegetables, cheese, humus, sandwiches, and a bottle of wine. For the non-DYI picnickers, dinner boxes and drinks are available in the lobby.
With the sun setting, four hours of hiking and a chamber concert already packed into the day, we wondered whether we were up to 3 hours of Puccini. We must admit that we had a few sinkies during the first act, but how could you doze long at a Western, especially when Minnie is on stage. Whoa! Ekaterina Metlova’s Minnie can keep 30 miners in a bar in line, so she can keep me awake with a wave of her pistols.
Oh, you did not know that operas included Westerns? Puccini premiered La Fanciulla del est (Girl of the Golden West) in 1910. Long before Gun Smoke brought us Matt Dillon and Kittie on the radio, or Zane Grey and Louis Lamore wrote about purple sage and followed the loners into the wild west, or John Ford and John Wayne set cowboy stories in Monument Valley, or Bonanza and High Chaparral gave us weekly, one-hour TV westerns, Puccini had California miner’s and Minnie singing in Italian about love and loneliness in the Gold Rush.
I had heard about Girl of the Golden West, and found the concept a curiosity. I think of opera being about royalty jumping off palace towers for love, or dying in France for love. Well, Girl of the Golden West is all about love. Lets just say that Minnie’s got the tightest and toughest trousers in town. And, she will whip out her dual pistols to keeps the peace in a way the sheriff can’t. Paul LaRosa struts his Jack Rance, sheriff, as crisply as his razor sharp cut beard. If I were Minnie, he’d be high on my list to aim at, which she will consider doing in a couple of ways. The rest of the miners and bandits are pretty rough and tumble. Ultimately, Girl of the Golden West is a redemption play, with Minnie (aka love) turning around the bandit. Hey, this is late Romanticism, not Existentialism or Psychoanalysis from 40 years later. Regardless of the western theme or pre-world war era, Puccini pens some soaring arias, worthy of encores (just to Minnie in those tight pants whipping out her pistols).
Sunday, we had a leisurely morning with breakfast at the Hopkins Ordinary. Two of the other couples there were also attending the Castleton Festival, so the morning conversation revolved around our impressions of the night before. We focused on what we enjoyed from the performances. One couple critiqued technical points, such as the balance of the orchestra (which was Mahler sized) to the singers. Maybe he was the critic for the Washington Post, who made the same points.
As the day was to be 90F and 95% humidity, we passed on taking another hike before the symphonies at 2 p.m. Driving 45 minutes south to Prince Michel winery, near Culpepper, VA. made more sense. A/C suited the dressy clothes better too.
Mahler’s 4th Symphony is a rather light fare, with country tunes sung by the strings and wind instruments. But, watch out, the brass and tympanis will suddenly descend upon you now and then, just to remind you that this is a dream. Jennifer Black’s soprano solo in the last movement gracefully filled the lyrical sense of the symphony. But, it is best to listen to the melody sung in German, as the English translation which I read came off as ridiculing paradise as a place with lots of vegetables, bread and free wine.
Mendelssohn’s 5th symphony, spreads across 30 minutes as smooth as warm butter.
Delicious. No horn section or tympani booming with occasional crescendo, but the basses and cellos provide enough strength for the fortress of protestantism. The Reformation symphony is optimistic in this themes. Gently the orchestra coaxes ?? these from the rich harmonies. When the flutes’ first stir the melody of “Ein feste Burg Ist usner Gott”, we might envision ourselves in some mountain glen looking up from the wildflower meadow to granite cliffs.
The final performance of our four-concert series was Verdi’s Otello. Verdi’s blaring opening scene, with a ship rocked in a storm, pummels us with wave after wave of orchestra and chorus. Though the storm passes and the ships’ crew and passengers arriving safely in Venice, we are forewarned that the next three hours will not be smooth sailing for Otello (Rafael Rojas) and Desdemona (Joyce El-Khoury). Rojas’ Otello is broad shouldered and towering over the people of Venice. His tenderness toward his wife cannot contain his brooding mind. El-Koury’s Desdemona is delicate, but not weak. She stands up to Otello’s inquiries and suspicions, until their final scene. Javier Arrey, as Iago, completes two triangles, one in conflicted love and one in conflicted career advancement, which he destroys from envy of what he cannot have. Arrey displays his inner scheming in his eyes before he begins to bind the minds and hands of those whom he desires and detests. Meanwhile, Verdi keeps the orchestra churning up the seas with gusts of winds, strings, and brass. Whereas Puccini’s lovers redeem each other in stirring arias, Verdi’s rising tide leaves little room for paddling about gleefully.
Four concerts in two weeks. Time to rest, until next year…