With this concert the Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festival for 2011 wraps up its happy relationship with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra. There was an air of celebration throughout the evening. And there was indeed much to celebrate: the fine “new” Cary Arts Center; the rewards of making music together with young artists and with local artists of note; the significant achievement of presenting the “Home Sweet Cary” video arts project; the accomplishment of establishing a high standard chamber music festival; and especially the community enrichment and responsiveness to world-class performances of a variety of classical masterpieces from Bach to Shostakovich. When I spoke briefly with officials of the Cary Art Center and the festival during intermission, they communicated a mixture of sadness that it was all over and elation that it had turned out so well.
As for the concert, it was an appropriate concluding appearance by the BCO opening with the utterly charming Suite No. 3 of Ancient Airs and Dances by Ottorino Respighi. The three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances were composed independently in 1917, 1923 and 1932; each based on lute tunes from the Renaissance. Hearing the third suite tonight recalled for me the outstanding 1958 recording for Mercury Living Presence on LP by the Philharmonia Hungarica led by Antal Dorati. I still have it and it is still a milestone in artistic and recording achievement. The music is an intriguing confluence of ancient ideas and modern realization, rich in melodic material and in harmonic expression. Most of the third suite is in minor or modal keys and reflects the Renaissance attachment to suffering as an element of romance. The Brussels Chamber Orchestra was on the mark with all the subtle phrasing, lush full sounds and the mood of sweet suffering.
The opening of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, reminds us of how far advanced and mature he was in anticipating romantic techniques that were to come. The fugue is a transcription of an earlier work for two pianos (K. 426), scored for violins, viola and cello plus double bass. The adagio was added in 1788 for the present work and is a remarkable statement of chromatic inventiveness. The fugue is a little overcooked and by the time the piece is over you feel like you have been listening to this theme all your life. Never-the-less, the BCO handled both parts with technical and artistic effectiveness, and it was fun following Mozart’s fugal development through its various twists and turns.
Next we were graced with one of the high treats on the program: Shubert’s Rondo in A, D. 438 with first violinist Nana Kawamura the featured violin soloist. It combined rollicking technical demands with sweet Schubertian melodies and was an awesome display of talent by Kawamura. The audience was reluctant to let her go for the intermission.
Before the start of the second half of the program, violist Neil Leiter, a Raleigh native, who also played the role of European Organizer of this festival, expressed appreciation for the hospitality Cary and the broader Triangle community had showed the visiting artists. He also expressed his joy at being able to bring his family from Brussels (the BSO) to meet his family in Raleigh. Again the enthusiastic spirit of celebration was apparent.
The closing selection was an impressive performance of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 438 “Death and the Maiden.” The doubling of parts and the addition of the double bass in critical passages was a nice fit. Musicologists may argue for as long as music exists about whether this music is programmatic (telling a story) or absolute (structured and developed on musical theory only). Either way there can be no doubt that Schubert was wrestling with the inevitability of death. From 1824 when he learned that he was dying of an incurable disease until his demise four years later, death was never far from his thoughts and concerns.
The first movement with its dramatic unison opening makes it clear that death is in pursuit and the chase involves terror and suffering, finally finding resignation in a calming D minor chord. The second movement calls to mind the words of death from Schubert’s earlier song which is quoted in the music. Death appeals as a friend who offers respite from suffering. The third movement scherzo with its lovely trio offers some relief from the unrelenting pursuit of death. In the fourth movement, marked presto, the chase is frantic, cast in the form of a tarantella, the traditional dance to ward off madness or death. From a philosophical perspective, one can argue that death did not win in Schubert’s case, for even though he died young, in the last years of his life, especially in the last twelve months or so, he produced works of immortal beauty, power and vision beyond what most could do in an extended lifetime.
The performance was awesome. Whether dramatic pronouncements at the beginning, or delicate wisps in the second movement, or the terrifying chase of the tarantella; whether subtle and soft, or dramatic and full-voiced, the BCO was balanced, accurate and expressive. Yielding to the audience, they played a reprise of the scherzo as an encore.* It was glorious. The 2011 Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festivalis now a memory. A memory that will no doubt be recalled, celebrated, talked about and will live for a long time to come.