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Seen and Heard International Festival Review

Bowdoin International Music Festival: MusicFest Faculty Concert, music of Schumann, Shostakovich, and Beethoven; Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School, Maine, 6th August 2004 (CA)


For its fortieth anniversary of chamber music in Maine, The Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, has rebranded itself The Bowdoin International Music Festival. And indeed, the 65 faculty and 272 students spending 3-6 weeks on the Bowdoin College campus are a far-flung lot. I hope this isn’t the reason that there was no American music to be heard on the concert finale of the season. Instead, a well-played if not very adventurous evening of Schumann, Shostakovich, and Beethoven was presented.


A loyal and enthusiastic following of mostly-Maine music lovers filled the newish high school auditorium of equivocal acoustics to hear a distinguished, but not celebrated, group of artists. One of the nicest features of this type of festival is the somewhat spontaneous nature of the playing. These are very much "live" performances with all the rough edges and rude surprises that make concert-going more interesting than most CD listening.


For instance, Schumann’s Stücke im Volkston (5) for ‘cello and piano, Op. 102 (Five Pieces on Folk Tunes) generally receive a "light" performance. It’s what one would expect from folk tunes marked "With humor," "Slow," "Not fast, with a sense of play," Not with haste," and "Strong and marked." Also, these pieces are from the same late period during which Schumann wrote his charmingly popular, almost naïve Kinderszenen (Pieces for children). But the program notes provided by cellist, André Emelianoff, reveal a darker, much more serious side, comparable to Schubert’s most tragic lieder.


Emelianoff, a faculty member at The Juilliard School, writes "The fifth piece is positively demented in its agitation and ends … with a quieting suspension and an eruption into a final violent gesture. Lightweight these pieces are not." And with this laying down of the gauntlet, ‘cello and piano set off on a passionate conversation in Schumann’s pseudo-folk realm, but always with threatening undercurrents of misunderstanding and madness.


The Bulgarian pianist, Emma Tahmizián, gave an articulately expressive performance, alternately sweet and lyrical, and then with powerful menace. Emelianoff played with an ease and intensity that showed his personal understanding of the works. It was a fine-edged and wholly engaging performance.


Of course, for pure frightening menace, it’s hard to beat Shostakovich. His Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67 was written in 1944 and dedicated to the memory of his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died at the age of 41 of a heart-attack. Sollertinsky was more open in his opposition to Stalinist dictates on art and music and the trio is full of dark references. Even the dedication was kept secret for 30 years.

The opening of the trio is eerily spooky, with the ‘cello playing very high harmonics, well above the entrance of the violin and then the piano. Inevitably, all gives way to a kind of marching madness of syncopations and inversions that mark much of Shostakovich’s work.


The players, Jacqueline Ross, violin, Nicholas Jones, ‘cello, and John Root, piano, gave another intensely riveting performance. A rather upbeat, almost joyous peasant dance is followed by a dirge-like passacaglia, essentially a moving lament. The final movement brings the skeletons out of the closet in a Jewish dance of death. The first use of Jewish tunes by Shostakovich, it was written after the circulation of stories of particular cruelty at the concentration camp at Treblinka where Jewish prisoners were forced to dance on their own graves. The music is all cynicism stretched beyond the comprehension of Stalin’s censors, and finally, just death.


The finale, which I suspect many in the audience considered the evening’s highlight, was unarguably another high-quality performance, but it lacked the edge of excitement the previous two groups brought to the stage. This was the Cassatt String Quartet playing Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 127. It is always a stunning work, a pinnacle of quartet writing. The challenge for any group is to bring something new, a sense of personality to the work.


Right away, it was clear that this performance would have more polish than the previous two. The Cassatts know the piece well and have an admirable uniformity in their playing and interpretation. But where they excel in finish, they lack in vision. The performance was good, but not exciting. There is either not enough individual virtuosity in the group, though Muneko Otani at first violin certainly plays with passion, or there’s an unwillingness to take the music to the edge. For my tastes, the late quartets invite risk taking and safe playing is ultimately not fully satisfying.


The same could be said for the evening’s programming choices; for a summer chamber music festival in the 21st century, these were safe, crowd-pleasing works. I was informed that the less-well attended Wednesday evening concerts in the UpBeat! series showed more adventurousness than Friday’s, an indication that chamber music is not succumbing entirely to the conservative tastes of symphonic audiences. For the sake of the students at Bowdoin, including a contingent of aspiring composers, let's hope this is the case.


Clay Andres

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