Olympic Music Festival I: Launching 2012 with Disparate Styles

United StatesUnited States  Olympic Music Festival (I): Music from Le Jeune, Boyce, Sibelius and others by the Mosaic Brass Quintet; Schubert from Paul Hersh and Hye Yeong Min (piano), Mary MacKenzie (soprano), Sammy Lesnick (clarinet); Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, Washington. 1.7.2012 and 8.7.2012 (BJ)

The term “chamber music” can cover a multitude of—well, virtues. The first two weeks of Alan Iglitzin’s Olympic Music Festival this year exemplified two widely diverse forms of the genre.

The opening program in the wonderfully relaxed festival’s 29th season was especially laid back both in repertoire and in manner of performance. The atmosphere of the “concerts in the barn” is so infectiously upbeat and invigorating that, even under a leaden sky, the Mosaic Brass Quintet provided an audience of faithful enthusiasts with a brazen treat that clearly delighted them.

Since the Quintet’s first appearance at the OMF, Zachary Lyman has replaced Matthew Swihart alongside fellow trumpeter Ed Castro—clearly with no diminution in the group’s quality, nor in the good humor that the players’ genial demeanor, chatty introductory comments, and brilliant performances communicate to their audience.

We heard music that covered a span of more than 400 years, from the Franco-Flemish Claude Le Jeune’s rhythmically vibrant Revecy venir du Printans, composed around 1565, to the American Eric Ewazen’s Colchester Fantasy, written in 1987 when the composer was teaching at the Estherwood Music Festival in the town of that name, which is the oldest recorded town in Britain.

This four-movement work combines serious melodic invention, frequently dazzling rhythmic play, and highly effective writing for all five instruments. A virtually immaculate performance featured crisp articulation and a wide range of tone from the trumpets, smoothly effective phrasing from Becky Miller on horn and Keith Winkle on trombone, and some remarkable prestidigitation on the tuba by Paul Evans, who deceptively makes that seemingly unwieldy instrument sound almost easy to play.

Scarcely less attractive, and just as well played, was the Suite from the Monteregian Hills by Canadian composer Morley Calvert (1928-1991). The third movement, titled Valse Ridicule (“Ridiculous Waltz”), would not have been nearly so funny if the Mosaics had not executed its deliberate inanities with superb aplomb. Vaughan Williams once observed that if you want to depict tedium in music it is important not to be tedious, and something similar may be said about musical humor: it works best when presented with a straight face, and the sheer precision of this performance exemplified the seriousness of all really good wit.

At several points in the program, some rich-toned and perfectly tuned final chords evoked the kind of peace and tranquillity that is harder for string instruments, with their propensity for vibrato, to achieve. Music by Sibelius, Victor Ewald, and William Boyce, a Roaring Twenties Medley, some sparkling Gershwin arrangements, and a blues from the Original Dixieland Jass Band all helped to fill a rain-soaked day with truly festive cheer.

If a brass quintet seems to stand off to the side of the kinds of trios and quartets that we usually associate with chamber music, the second week, blessed by beautiful weather, came closer to the more familiar character of that world. The first half of this all-Schubert program was devoted to keyboard works: the three late pieces for solo piano, D. 946, and the great F-minor Fantasy for piano duet. Festival regular Paul Hersh offered his usual inspiring introductory words and his no less customarily inspired performance of the Three Pieces.

Though rarely heard, perhaps because “Three Pieces” is not a particularly alluring title, they are fully worthy to stand beside the finest among the composer’s keyboard masterpieces. This is music of fully sonata-ish, even symphonic, caliber, in terms of structural breadth (if not formal design) and expressive scope. Since I have expatiated on Hersh’s greatness as pianist and musician I do not need to go into that at length today, so I will simply draw attention to the way he makes the listener hang eagerly on every successive progression: from one chord to the next, Hersh—like Schubert—has the power to transport you into a different universe.

For the F-minor Fantasy Hersh was joined at the piano by Hye Yeong Min—not only a student of his, but the possessor of a Ph.D. in molecular biology. She gave up science in preference for music, and with good reason, to judge from her sensitive and technically polished playing of the first part in this compelling, dramatically varied duo.

After intermission it was the turn of the voice. Partnered by Hersh, soprano Mary MacKenzie first offered a sequence of six Schubert songs. She was perhaps at her best in An Sylvia, though Im Frühling, enhanced by Hersh’s captivating phrasing of a little four-note figure in the bass of the piano part, was also pleasantly sung. I find it a bit difficult to arrive at a firm judgment of the singer’s talent. She has an attractive voice, and uses it with skill and mostly reliable intonation. Her German diction is admirably clear if not always flawlessly idiomatic. On the other hand, though again clear and helpful, her spoken introductions seemed somewhat mannered, belonging more perhaps to the sphere of operetta than of great Lieder, and there was a touch of this also about her actual singing. So, while these performances could be called 95-percent successful, I was uncomfortably conscious of a missing 5 percent of conviction and stylistic aptitude.

In any case, when it came to the final work on the program, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, for soprano, clarinet, and piano, the singer’s thoroughly decent efforts were relegated to the shade by the Festival debut of clarinetist Sammy Lesnick. A high-school senior, and thus presumably not more than 18 years old, Lesnick is already a musician of phenomenal skill and artistry. The sheer warmth and mellowness of his very first note, swelling from soft to loud without a trace of harshness and then sinking back to a delicate piano, had me and I think most of the audience already in the palm of his hand, and everything that followed was on the same breathtakingly high level of accomplishment.

This is a newcomer with an unmistakably major career in front of him—he will be continuing his studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester next year—and Iglitzin must be congratulated on yet another directorial coup for finding him.


Bernard Jacobson

Part of this review appeared also in the Seattle Times.