Divisiveness be damned. Whatever your political, social or religious beliefs, they hold no water at the Colorado College Summer Music Festival. Here, the rift that routinely polarizes our society is nowhere to be found.
So it was as festival music director Susan Grace took the Packard Hall stage with the first ensemble to open the 35th annual festival. The greatest musical mediator ever, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, soon would unite an expectant audience with his unsurpassed ability to produce sublime entertainment.
To realize the great Austrian master’s Flute Quartet in D Major, K. 285, Grace enlisted flutist Elizabeth Mann, violinist Ellen dePasquale, violist Virginia Barron and cellist Bion Tsang. Mann was the star, and she did not disappoint, producing soaring but measured sound to realize the composer’s vision of classical purity. The greatest challenge to keep the music in the right slot went to first-time festival performer dePasquale, whose husband, Kevin Cobb, is a festival veteran. She played “second fiddle” to Mann’s flute with charm and grace. Most memorable was the creamy sound she produced on her violin's lower registers.
Barron, associate director of the event, has few opportunities to perform during the festival, given the demands to keep the schedule running smoothly. Her Mozart viola performance was urgent and compelling. The cello has a subordinate role in Mozart’s scoring, simply setting the harmonic foundation. So it was amazing to hear Tsang play with beauty and poignancy, elevating everyone in the ensemble.
Koke No Niwa ("moss garden" in English) resulted from 20th century American composer Alan Hovhaness' 1960 commission from Japanese television. The textures, harmonies and melodies of this 10-minute rendition suspended all sense of time. Jonathan Fischer’s English horn set the tone with an organic, mournful beauty. Tonya Jilling’s harp was point on, every sound a sacred utterance. John Kinzie and and Ben Giroux ignited a panorama of percussion. All aligned to perfection, as if we were hearing the musical realization of a Japanese tea ceremony.
Notte serena by Italian composer Corrado Maria Saglietti cannot be found on the Internet or on a commercial recording. So for most, it was a first hearing of this 2003 composition. With an all-star chamber ensemble (Cobb, flugelhorn; dePasquale, violin; Stefan Hersh, violin; Phillip Ying, viola; Mark Kosower, cello; Christopher Yick, bass), its richly romantic quality belonged more to the world of Stephen Sondheim than to that of classical music. Cobb reveled in this rare opportunity for his horn to be supported by a sumptuous string ensemble. The best moments occurred when Cobb and dePasquale on first violin were caught up in passionate musical dialogue.
If there's a more engaging piece for woodwind quintet than György Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, I’ve not heard it. This was a riveting experience for the audience, and similar enthusiasm emanated from the ensemble: Mann on flute, Fischer on oboe, Daniel Gilbert on clarinet, Michael Kroth on bassoon and Michael Thornton on horn.
After the three light compositions that began the program, Ligeti’s challenging harmonies, unpredictable rhythms and tasteful abstraction came at the perfect time. Each of the six miniature movements seemed to proffer a universe of sound all their own. It’s hard to cite one player, so integrated was the ensemble. Still, Thornton’s liquidly lyric and pointedly aggressive French horn was a wonder.
John Rojak always seeks new ways to position his bass trombone on the classical music landscape. This season’s foray consisted of transcriptions of two Rachmaninoff songs with Grace on piano. Rojak’s gambit seems to turn his instrument's potential unwieldiness into a vehicle of sweet melody. Hard to say that the performance of With Holy Banner Firmly Held fully achieved this, as Grace’s dark Russian flavor won the day for this piece. The performance of The Raising of Lazarus was genius all around. Rojak never lost sight of the musical line, even as more declamatory moments stood in his way, while Grace produced just the right stormy underpinning.
No acknowledged chamber-music masterpiece has appeared on this 35th program. For the first time, the festival concerts will be without a Brahms, Dvorak, Shostakovich or Franck piano quintet or a Mozart, Beethoven or Mendelssohn piano trio. To hear the immortals, one must attend the free Music at Midday concerts, where faculty-coached ensembles of festival fellows play only the hits. Whether or not Grace deliberately decided to feature lesser-known works, we'll discover how open the audiences can be. If they applaud the move, it will be yet another sign of how successful the CC Summer Music Festival has become over its 3 ½ decades.
Mendelssohn topped the Thursday night concert with his rarely performed Piano Quartet No. 3 in B minor, Op. 3, written in 1825 when he was only 16. This was only the third piece he published. But in the hands of pianist Orion Weiss, violinist Robin Scott, violist Toby Appel and new festival cellist Mark Kosower (principal for the Cleveland Orchestra), this oft unbalanced work came off as a masterpiece.
Weiss was the perfect choice on keyboard. His part is too virtuosic to make for superior ensemble. He used a light but detailed touch to ensure the notes contrasted appropriately with the strings. And given the chance, as in the second movement Andante, he turned the piano into a singer of beautiful melody.
The strings were an ideal foil to the overly extroverted keyboard scoring. Sharing the musical line, they sounded as one, like a musical holy trilogy. When unleashed to take the melodic lead, these players' greatness became more obvious. Scott’s violin had intense energy, soaring to flawless heights of expression. Appel’s viola was soulful and wise. Kosower's cello maintained the harmonic foundation while elegantly emerging to express beauty and anguish.
My favorite movements were the brooding opening, Allegro molto, and the irrepressible third movement, Allegro molto Finale scherzo. So relentless were the rhythms and energy of the Allegro vivace finale that, by its end, I felt punch drunk in the best possible way.
The next festival concert is at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. But you'll want to attend every event through the June 22 concluding concert. For the schedule, visit coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival/.
Former Colorado Springs resident David Sckolnik, now of DeLand, Fla., is a journalist in residence this summer for the Colorado College Summer Music Festival.