Friday, July 31, 2009

Looking Back on Summer Music 2009

Since the last of the three Summer Music concerts this past Sunday had stuffed more people into the Glen Allen Mill than I'd ever seen there before, Stuart Malina announced they were re-naming the final work of the afternoon (one that left little room on the stage), Schubert's Trout Quintet, the “Sardine.”

There had also been a lot of great music-making packed into those three different concerts. I'll be writing more about the music itself, but this post is primarily about this year's Summer Music experience.

I'm not sure how many years the Fry Street Quartet has been appearing here but over the past several years, their “residency” here has been fascinating to follow, both in terms of what they play as well as how they play it. A regular audience begins to feel a regular affinity developing between performer and listener, and we (on our side) begin to establish a kind of proprietary relationship as we watch and hear them grow and develop or return to familiar repertoire to allow some new insights or discoveries.

Concentrating on Beethoven has also been a big part of Summer Music's programming from the beginning. There are 16 Beethoven quartets to go around but with only 3 days to program, so it may be a few years before anything needs to be repeated. On the other hand, being that they're Beethoven string quartets, it's likely not to matter very much if they do.

Add a pianist to the string quartet and you have the much more limited repertoire of the Piano Quintet. There may be lots of piano quintets out there but few of them are on the level of those by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, Shostakovich, Fauré and, with its slightly different configuration, Schubert's “Trout,” something that creates more of a programming challenge. In addition, there's the wider availability of sonatas as well as all those piano trios and piano quartets that can involve members of the string quartet.

Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, now getting ready for his 10th season with the orchestra, has also been playing regularly with Summer Music for several years, now, initially for the Wednesday night concert at Market Square Church; then more recently on the weekend's concerts as well, since they've figured out how to squeeze a grand piano into the Glen Allen Mill and keep it air-conditioned. This year, Stuart joined with the Fry Street Quartet to play the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and, joined by bassist Donovan Stokes, Schubert's “Trout” Quintet, opening and closing the festivities.

In between, violinist Odin Rathnam (and concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony) was joined by Michael Sheppard (a Baltimore-based pianist who played Chopin's 2nd with the Lancaster Symphony in January) to play Ernest Chausson's rarely heard Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

 Another regular guest has been oboist Gerard Reuter who adds his customary variety and sense of discovery to each of the three concerts. While the standard repertoire for the oboe may seem somewhat sparse, there's a lot out there that isn't well known, and Jerry has brought a great deal of less familiar music to these programs over the years. This year included a work by a composer I'd never even heard of before – Leone Sinigaglia – and two others I haven't heard live in decades, Loeffler's Two Rhapsodies and a Bach concerto for the oboe d'amore.

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Summer concerts, by their nature – especially when in nature – have different kinds of issues than concerts during the “regular” season. We can worry about snow storms in January, so the question about heat and humidity is always up front when looking at the third week of July. Not than one can do much about it, especially when it comes to the weekend's concerts at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches Creek.

This beautiful old mill was initially built around 1749, the present foundation laid in the 1790s and then bricked in as we see it today in the 1830s. Among the graffiti painted on the interior walls is the signature of someone named Washington Trout, dated 1875. Somehow, listening to music written in the early 1800s seems appropriate, here, especially a piece inspired by trout fishing.

After spring-like mildness and a round of monsoons lasting into July, warm summery weather arrived just in time for Summer Music. The air-conditioner units fitted into the mill's windows (on all four sides) had now become a necessity. It's only been recently that these have been added but there is still one draw-back: in order for the musicians to be heard, the a/c has to be turned off during the concert! Still, a huge improvement over the saunas of yore.

It's not just the heat or the much maligned humidity making things uncomfortable. If you can work up a sweat just listening to a performance, imagine performing it, then. I've seen players stand up to take a bow looking like they've just stepped out of the pool (one intermission image at the Sunday concert: a member of the quartet splayed across the front of a window a/c unit, arms raised for maximum coverage).

All of this has an impact on the musicians and their concentration, even their instruments. Wood swells, strings can stretch and an oboe's reeds can become as responsive as kleenex. Wiping brows and fingerboards is a common visual detail. Hands sweat not because of nerves: wiping them on already soaked clothing probably doesn't help much.

Though insects are less of an issue at the mill, now, something that might have been a moth and, depending on your perspective, about the size of a B-52, added an unexpectedly extensive choreographic moment to the finale of Chausson's Concerto Saturday night, with concerned musicians and audience members scanning about, worried where it might land. Thinking of the old joke (“Maestro, there was a fly on my music and I played him”), I was hoping it wouldn't be on some fiendishly difficult 16th-note passage obliterating the high-point of the piece...

Yet none of this seems to have any impact on the performance: Market Square Church might have a higher ceiling and the seats at Whitaker Center are certainly more comfortable, but even with acoustics that are clearly limited – not what you might think the first time you walk into it, though – there is something about the camaraderie that makes one overlook these issues.

Performances, despite the occasional heat-induced intonation problems, are just as intense as they might be in an air-conditioned venue; the audiences responds just as warmly, if not more, than they might after ninety minutes spent listening in the plush comfort of a standard concert hall.

It is, after all, summertime and whether or not the living is easy doesn't matter. More casual, yes; any less involved, no.

While the weather had been iffy at best for Sunday, I am glad to report that Jupiter Pluvius put in only a passing appearance.

- Dr. Dick

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