Daniel Hope Plays Stirring Swan Song As Festival Leader

Daniel Hope (violin), David Finckel, and Wu Han (piano) performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival. It is Hope’s 16th season, and his last in charge of classical programming. (Concert photos by Frank Stewart)
By Perry Tannenbaum

SAVANNAH – Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After sixteen seasons as the festival’s artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship. David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the U.S. as the festival’s new chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the wake of an impressive 2018 classical lineup and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, the Savannah festival’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. On the bill for 2019 are Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet.  And in the first full-scale collaboration between the festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist and composer Marcus Roberts will premiere on a concert with works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Daniel Hope with Wu Han, David Finckel, and Paul Neubauer (viola).

But Hope’s sixteenth season at the festival is also his last to direct classical programming. That announcement dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 festival began. An official statement said the decision was made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated.” We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on the festival’s ongoing efforts by surveying the scope of his participation this year.

Easily the event’s most active performer, Hope is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope also performed with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and is teaming with Sebastian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In a valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler'” (April 13).

Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the Kreutzer Sonata he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the extraordinarily fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on March 30, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with pianist Wu Han, cellist David Finckel, and the Atlanta Symphony under music director Robert Spano.

Benny Kim, Juho Pohjonen, Eric Kim, and CarlaMaria Rodrigues played Mozart.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by the orchestra, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant.

Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto exchange that carried to the end.

Positioned toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates pointed up the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium the strings tended to get muddied, and high frequencies were noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sounded best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of the Overture to Egmont sound more like Beethoven intended. Nevertheless, Spano beautifully judged the contrast between its final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

Robert Spano conducted the Atlanta Symphony. (Angela Morris)

In Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”), Spano drew sharper section work from his players along with balances that played better in the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings in the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the Scherzo, and the finale brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” concert of the season, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening was without fanfare. That moment came at Trinity United Methodist Church when Han dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of performing with him. Han also proved adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’ Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2, with its luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly, yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Lucas Theatre for the Arts is one of the Savannah Music Festival’s primary venues.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to remind us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17: The inner Adagio offered a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák, not to forget the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms.

A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “Hope & Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both Mozart piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for Quartet No. 1 and the fourth for Quartet No. 2, but the Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “Hope & Friends” sequel event offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Among works receiving festival premieres was Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet. As the stage was being reset for the it, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave an impromptu introduction to Gade, emphasizing the composer’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope addressed an audience at the 2019 festival.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him, for there are echoes of the older composer’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the  “Hope & Friends” ensemble, played the leads in the premiere’s resounding success.

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