With apologies to Charles Dickens, Monday's Faculty Artist Concert in Packard Hall at the 2018 Colorado College Summer Music Festival earned the right to be titled "A Tale of Two Concerts." Superb and electric performances seemed the only commonalty of the first and second parts of the afternoon's music.
Camille Saint-Saëns' "Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs" from 1887 was the opener and exposed the overriding theme of part one, the performing artists shining brighter than the composer.
Saint-Saëns' keyboard-centric composition allowed for pianist William Wolfram to project one of his finest qualities: flawless technique that invariably takes a backseat to the irresistible expression of the music.
The performance was utterly charming and punctuated by Elizabeth Mann's effortless, organic flute matched in voice and spirit by two faculty artists new to this reviewer: second-year oboist Jonathan Fischer and first-year clarinetist Daniel Gilbert. Fischer pleasingly floated his sound while Gilbert provided a luscious, chocolatey core to the music. All was right in this world.
In his well-chosen remarks preceding Alfredo Casella's "Serenata" from 1927, trumpeter Kevin Cobb noted that this work shared the first place award with Bela Bartok's brilliant "String Quartet No. 3" in a special Philadelphia competition. He implied that history has corrected this judgment.
In keeping with the theme of the concert's part one, the Casella was very enjoyable, eliciting laughter from the audience as it spun through a largely lightweight survey of engaging instrumental sounds. Even still, the performers gave no opportunity for us to waiver from rapt attention.
Casella's mishmash of movements was largely ruled by neoclassicism and seemed to cast the players in characterful roles. Cobb's trumpet was flawless and full of pleasing colors and textures; violinist and festival-newbie Adam Barnett-Hart wrung rare-to-hear sounds from his instrument; Gilbert was again poignant on his clarinet; Michael Kroth provided an elusive full-throated and earthy sound from his bassoon; and Bion Tsang's cello both provided foundation and frivolity.
Any pretense of artistic meaning was systematically destroyed by the concluding work of part one: Carl Czerny's "Barber of Seville Fantasy for piano 6-hands," a rip-snorting recasting of Rossini's beloved overture to the opera. Here, the music took a distant rear seat to theatrics and histrionics. Suffice to say, never has so much sublime keyboard talent (Jon Nakamatsu, Wolfram and festival director Susan Grace) been so grossly misappropriated on the concert stage. But boy, was this fun.
It's hard to recall any moment without a generous dose of levity; the players' vastly different body types alone were a sight to see as they crammed up against the keyboard. The hulking Wolfram sat center while the compact Nakamatsu was on his left and the lithe Grace was to his right.
My favorite moment(s): Wolfram's right arm reaching around Grace to hit the highest notes followed by a left-arm reach around Nakamatsu to hit the lowest notes. And then there was that strange floating on and off stage by Mann as she punctuated a few notes on flute and piccolo.
A ton of entertainment from part one, but this concert needed some major rebalancing to be successful. It didn't take long.
An ensemble of 13 took the stage for Samuel Barber's "Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings" from 1981. Anticipating his own demise in the same year, Barber's final effort looks longingly back on life as it tips its hat to the similarly cast "9th Symphony" by Gustav Mahler.
Seven of the ensemble were festival fellows, advanced music students who comprise the Festival Orchestra and will perform their first concert on Tuesday night. Russell Iceberg, Arkane Hinamoto, Sooah Jung, and Liam Mansfield joined faculty Adam Barnett-Hart and Stefan Hersh on violins; fellow Ariel Chapman sat with Phillip Ying on viola; fellow Hyunji Evonne Yi teamed with David Ying on cello; and fellow David Chapman-Orr joined Susan Cahill on the double bass.
The elegant, multilayered score asked for solos from violin, viola and cello - all beautifully rendered by Barnett-Hart, Chapman and Yi. The students matched facility and musicality of the professionals. If you are not in the know about this festival, this is how it's been in recent years.
Barber's spotlight was on the oboe and Jonathan Fischer saved his best playing of the afternoon to produce a soulful, searching performance that still haunts me.
Faculty Artists concerts at the festival almost always conclude with the meat and potatoes of the chamber music repertoire. No exception here. The only piece that the packed hall might have heard before, Felix Mendelssohn's "Piano Trio No. 2," delivered a potent and brilliant dose that, without a doubt, satiated all in attendance.
The trio at hand, Nakamatsu on piano; Andrew Wan on violin in just his second season at the festival; and Ying on cello; reached for and attained the heights of the artistic experience.
This is a late work for Mendelssohn, composed two years before his untimely death at the age of 38 in 1847. It shares the rarefied air of the art form's most brilliant works composed by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms - compositions that transcend individual movements and instrumental pyrotechnics toward the rendering of a musical story that powerfully comments on the nature of what it is to be human.
The trio had to fight for every musical moment to realize this. Nakamatsu pronounced every detail and resisted the temptation to over-romanticize; Ying poured his heart and soul onto the strings of his instrument; and Wan was always on point contributing an elegant and supremely intelligent reading. Yes, this was what it's all about.
Please note that at Tuesday night's concert, Wan will be soloist for the Sibelius "Violin Concert" as Scott Yoo conducts the orchestra. Whether you are a classical music connoisseur or a mere novice, it is not a concert you will want to miss.
As our community has gradually learned over the course of the festival's 34 years, there's really not a note of music, from either faculty or festival fellows, that doesn't deserve to be heard.
The music continues full throttle through June 23. Visit www.coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival for details.