Chamber Masters Take Their Swings At Savannah Fest

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Violinist Daniel Hope presided over a 'Celebrating Vivaldi' concert at the Savannah Music Festival.
Violinist Daniel Hope, leading a ‘Celebrating Vivaldi’ concert,  including Max Richter’s recomposition of “The ‘Four Seasons.’
By Perry Tannenbaum

SAVANNAH – Celebrating its 25th anniversary season, the Savannah Music Festival arrives annually on the cusp of winter and spring, occasionally lingering long enough to coincide with that most emblematic of springtime Georgia events, the Masters Golf Tournament up the Savannah River in Augusta. While the aura of the Masters is defined by explosions of azaleas, hushed sports announcers, and a heritage of pompous exclusivity, the Savannah Music Festival is welcoming and eclectic – though the city itself is unabashedly historic, with sufficient charms and beauties of its own to draw waves of tourists to its shore.

Violinist Daniel Hope is associate director of the Savanna Music Festival
Violinist Daniel Hope oversees the festival’s classical program.

With associate artistic director Daniel Hope in charge of programming classical music (since 2003), Marcus Roberts for jazz (2005), and Mike Marshall for Americana and folk (2012), all three genres are richly represented and expertly chosen. Adventurous music lovers willing to explore all three genres – plus a wide-ranging world music lineup – enjoy the extra dividend of getting acquainted with the festival’s ten performance venues, including two churches and a synagogue.

The eight classical events I attended took me to the ornate Lucas Theatre for the Arts, the austere Trinity United Methodist Church, and the clubby Charles H. Morris Center. But during my six-day visit, I also took in Southern singer-songwriter Jason Isbell at the Ships of the Sea North Garden and eight jazz concerts at the Morris Center cocktail tables, under the live oaks at Reynolds Square, and at Rousakis Plaza, down by the pirate ships and riverboats on the shore of the Savannah River.

Savannah's historic Lucas Theatre is quite small
An orchestra barely fits onstage at Savannah’s historic Lucas Theatre.

The two events I attended at the Lucas offered a telling sampling of the venue’s acoustic strengths and weaknesses. The March 22 concert featuring the ninth consecutive festival appearance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra exposed the shortcomings of the Lucas stage. Every acoustic blandishment that might have helped the orchestral sound was stripped away so the full orchestra could fit onstage. Only a black brick wall stood behind them. The result was an unusually pinched and dry sound from Hope’s 1742 Guarneri del Gesù that proved to be mismatched with the muddy lower strings as he performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Least affected was soprano Jessica Rivera in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, but of course, we didn’t get to hear her gleaming vocals until the final movement.

On the following afternoon, when the stage wasn’t overflowing with musicians and a curtain could be restored to the upstage with an attractive acoustic mini-wall, the Lucas sounded far more pleasing and the customary gilded finish had returned to Hope’s tone. The “Celebrating Vivaldi” concert also exemplified the unique flavor that SMF has been able to develop in its programming.

Composer Max Richter
Composer Max Richter, who “re-composed” Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’

Before the music began, Hope sat down with Fred Child, the personable host of NPR’s Performance Today, to discuss Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which Hope recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, and the wildcard composer on the program, Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705). Over the years, Child and his Performance Today crew have taped many of the classical offerings at SMF for subsequent radio broadcasts, so he and Hope are obviously old chums. The skilled interviewer made sure Hope came armed with a tuned violin so the virtuoso could demonstrate what Richter was up to as he recomposed the Vivaldi warhorse, and the two pranked the audience with an early April Fool’s joke that seemed ready for prime time.

The concert began with Vivaldi’s Concerto, RV 522, for two violins, with festival fixture Lorenza Borrani, who is soloist and concertmaster of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, at Hope’s side. Behind them was a tidy 21-piece orchestra, including eighteen ASO string players who had spent the night. They all sounded joyously confident together as an exuberant Vivaldian jollity emanated from the strings in the opening Allegro. Unaccompanied, the violins started off dolefully in the ensuing Larghetto e spiritoso, developing a wan ethereal counterpoint before the strings thickened the music into a more dignified solemnity. The concluding Allegro was so thrusting and relentlessly sprightly that, unlike any other live performance or recording of this concerto I’ve heard, it put me in mind a couple of times of the Molto vivace second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Westhoff’s “Imitazione delle campane” is among the bonbons recorded by Hope and Borrani on their Air. a baroque journey CD. Lasting all of two minutes, the piece was more than a palate cleanser, serving as a useful bridge between Vivaldi’s pure Baroque and Richter’s brew of the ancient with the minimalist. For if you said Westhoff’s miniature had set out to reconcile Johann Pachelbel with Arvo Pärt or Philip Glass, few would argue if they didn’t know the composer’s birth date. Cellos and double basses meted out a continuo that would be at home in either era as Hope sawed away hypnotically and the violins added the lightest sunlit sheen.

The combination of old-time Vivaldi flavor and New Age minimalist repetition was quickly manifested in the opening “Spring” concerto of Richter’s recomposition. (The NPR video, at right, which gives a sense of the experience, is from a 2012 performance by Richter and Hope at New York’s Poisson Rouge.) A busy drive gradually bloomed after the chirpy first bars, spurred by harpist Bridget Kibbey, heard more clearly here than on the DG recording. Richter’s score continued to delight in the slow middle movement of “Spring,” a minimalist double-bass throb counterpoised with a ribbon of ethereal treble from Hope that brought a fresh soaring serenity to Vivaldi’s theme. “Summer” and “Winter” conveyed the most winsome transformations. Richter’s middle “Summer” movement had a magical eeriness that was smoother than the halting original, stripped of the abrupt harbingers of the storm to come and distinguished with some delectable interplay between Hope and ASO principal cellist Chris Rex. That storm was a sprint and a terrific showcase for Hope that dissolved into a space-age wash that wouldn’t appeal to some Baroque partisans.

Max Richter and Daniel Hope
Max Richter and Daniel Hope collaborated on the Vivaldi project.

Whether the strings of “Winter”‘s opening Allegro non molto were mimicking chattering teeth or crackling ice, the effect was far more vivid played live at the Lucas than on CD, and the momentum transitioning into the blasts of winter wind had a smoother, more thrilling momentum as Hope accelerated the tempo for another bravura rant. Yet the closing Allegro underscored the point that Richter isn’t slavishly sticking to Vivaldi’s themes or his programmatic scheme. Instead of ending with the congregation of winds suggested in the composer’s markings or the assertion in the complementary sonnet that winter brings joy, Richter composes a totally fresh forlorn melody for Hope to languish in and no windy bluster at all. Rather the seasonal cycle meekly recedes into a melancholy despair, circling back almost perfectly to the desolate quietude with which the “Spring” concerto began.

Trinity United Methodist Church (Savannahnow.com)
Trinity United Methodist Church is home to chamber music.

Chamber music performances at the Trinity United were admirably diverse, if you don’t mind a steady diet of piano, strings, and voice. Trinity concerts included a motley assortment of composers – including Haydn, Chausson, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg – piloted by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips with a chamber orchestra under the banner of “From Europe to Hollywood”; a potpourri of lieder, arias, operatic scena, and folksongs from mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, accompanied by Crawford-Phillips; a morning double bill pairing a Mozart piano trio, featuring Hope and pianist Sebastian Knauer, and Dvořák’s Bass Quintet, with Benny Kim in the first violin chair; and a program of Beethoven, Janáček, and Brahms from the Jerusalem Quartet. Yet there was one concert that crystallized the breadth of SMF’s programming in one epic evening, a summit meeting of Daniel Hope & Friends with German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade.

On the vocal side of the concert, Schade performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Four Hymns and On Wenlock Edge song cycle and a sprig of Viennese lieder. In between these offerings was enough instrumental fare to form a separate program: Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 and the piano quartet version of Beethoven’s E-flat Quintet for piano and winds, Op. 16. Any time Hope hooks up with Knauer, it’s an occasion that shouldn’t be missed – not always because they’re hurling thunderbolts at one another. At that morning concert, in the Mozart trio, for example, Hope deferred with exquisite delicacy to Knauer’s dominion, turning the piece into a mini piano concerto. But in one of Brahms’ most emotional, self-flaying pieces, Hope and Knauer both let loose with their thunder, alternating with all the aching tenderness, wistfulness, and bitterness they could muster. By comparison, the Beethoven piano quartet was a lightweight, but Crawford-Phillips at the keyboard and Borrani wielding the bow were perfectly matched for it.

Michael Schade, devastating in Vaughan Williams. (H. Hoffmann)
Michael Schade, devastating in Vaughan Williams. (H. Hoffmann)

From my third row seat, Schade’s voice seemed to be the most powerful tenor I’d ever heard. Sheer Schade volume imparted a grandeur to Vaughan Williams’ hymns that instantly put me in mind of that composer’s Sea Symphony. His opening “Lord! Come away!” seemed to signal the onset of the apocalypse and a call to the Last Judgment. Yet the tenor was equally capable of soft shadings and nuances, particularly in the wake of the eerie piano quintet intro to the setting for A.E. Housman’s “Bredon Hill,” the heartbreaking pinnacle of the Wenlock Edge suite. That final, resigned repetition of “I will come” was as devastating as you’ll ever hear it.

The Beethoven intervened before Schade returned with his Viennese dessert, but by that time the concert had already overrun its listed duration of 110 minutes by a full half hour, and people who had 8 p.m. or 8:30 dinner reservations flocked to the exits. The fortunate few who remained were treated to Schade at his most relaxed in merry fare by Robert Stolz, Ludwig Gruber, and Rudolf Sieczynski. Yet Schade himself was well aware that our cups were running over, so on Stolz’s “In the Prater, the Trees Bloom Again,” he discreetly pruned a stanza.

The wide-ranging, seventeen-day Savannah Music Festival has unquestionably enhanced the city’s cultural life and made an enduring educational impact. Revenues in Savannah’s historic district spike by 16% during the festival, with 40% of festival tickets sold to visitors. SMF has spawned a year-round Gulfstream Music Education Series that serves pre-K to 12th grade students across a five-county area in Georgia and South Carolina, delivering artist residencies to classrooms and special performances at Savannah’s historic theaters.

Marcus Printup coaches young musicians at Swing Central Jazz.
Marcus Printup coaches young musicians at Swing Central Jazz.

The festival also stages one of the nation’s most prestigious high school big band competitions, Swing Central Jazz, a boon to both audiences who attend the free outdoor concerts and the student musicians, schooled in clinics by such jazz luminaries as Wycliffe GordonChristian McBrideJason MarsalisTerell Stafford, and Marcus Roberts. For the 2014-15 academic year, SMF will launch a new partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute to integrate music into K-2 classrooms in Savannah and six surrounding counties.

Note: The SMF continues through April 5. For details, click here.

Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Creative Loafing and CVNC.org. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.