PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. — The Olympic Music Festival, now in its 40th season, devoted its Aug. 20 concert to celebrating three visionary female composers of the past two centuries. For performances of music by Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Amy Beach (aka Mrs. H. H. A. Beach), a combination of seasoned professionals and 2023 Olympic Chamber Music Fellows attracted a generous-sized audience to Port Townsend’s relatively intimate, 275-seat Wheeler Theater at Fort Worden State Park.
Founded in 1984 by Alan Iglitzin, violist of the Philadelphia String Quartet, the Olympic Music Festival took place at Iglitzin’s farm in rural Quilcene, Wash., until his retirement in 2015. Relocated to nearby Port Townsend, whose predominantly senior population has grown to nearly 11,000, the festival continues under current artistic director and pianist Julio Elizalde.
Elizalde, who tours internationally as the recital partner for violinists Ray Chen and Sarah Chang, has built the two-week Olympic Chamber Music Fellowship program for young musicians into a major stepping stone to professional careers. To mention just one of the program’s many successes, violinist Angela Wee recently went directly from festival fellow to principal associate concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
This year’s fellows, young but hardly without experience, were violinists Jason Moon (San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School) and Clara Neubauer (Juilliard), violist Laura Liu (Juilliard), cellist Carlo Lay (Universität der Künste Berlin, Musikakademie Basel, and Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover), and pianist Robert Brooks Carlson (James Madison University and current studies with pianist Soyeon Kate Lee).
Their tutors in in their second and final week of residency were violinist Alexi Kenney, violist Vicki Powell, cellist Jennifer Culp, and Elizald. Joining for the first week of tutoring as well as performances were clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, and cellist Matthew Zalkind.
The fellows contributed to a winning afternoon of chamber music.
Music and performances were so fine that it’s impossible to single out one as the afternoon’s centerpiece. The opener, Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22, brought together Neubauer and Elizalde. Neubauer was as relaxed and poised during her spoken introduction as she was during the performance.
Her countenance and artistry possess a rare grace that identify her as someone who might take delight in fairies dancing between drops of dew on brightly petaled flowers or the delicate filigree on the finest porcelain. It took her all of three notes to settle into lovely, heart-tugging sound distinguished by sylvan highs. Two of Neubauer’s high notes could have been even sweeter, but her seductive artistry gave every indication that the foundation for superb musicianship is already in place. As for Elizalde, who played a nine-foot Yamaha rented for the occasion, notes and phrases flowed like water from his fingertips.
After Elizalde demonstrated his estimable prowess as assistant stagehand, fellows Neubauer, Liu, and Lay joined Kenney for Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major. Taking the lead with bright and fluid playing that glistened like steel, Kenney’s superb musicianship drove the apprentices to sing out. The blend of violins and viola was exemplary, with Lay’s cello often providing counterpoint. Neubauer’s ability to blend with her colleagues was sheer perfection. Liu’s viola was another standout, the sound deep, warm, and consistently musical. Lay’s cello wanted only for a bit more richness and warmth to bring out the impassioned and distinctive voice that seems ready to fly free.
When the festival programmed Beach’s glorious Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, they weren’t aware that Music on at the Strait, a two-weekend chamber music festival founded in 2018 by locally raised violinist James Garlick (Minnesota Orchestra) and violist Richard O’Neill (recently appointed violist of the Takács String Quartet), would perform the work just an hour away on the preceding night. As such, Moon, Kenney, Powell, Lay, and Carlson — three of them fellows — performed the same quintet as the Takács and pianist Garrick Ohlsson!
I attended both concerts. Even though Music on the Strait’s just-opened venue for their opening-night concert, 500-seat Field Hall, was designed specifically for “arts, entertainment, and special events,” its acoustics in row L were far less distinguished than those from a center aisle seat in row H of Fort Worden’s aging Wheeler Theatre. Field Hall’s highs and dynamics were sorely diminished. Ohlsson’s pianism sounded far less big-boned than it does in the huge concert halls where I’ve heard him, and the famed beauty of Takács first violinist Edward Dusinberre’s tone barely made it to my seat. When it came to color, dynamics, and detail, Wheeler’s admittedly inconsistent acoustic took the prize. Which is not to say that Wheeler would not sound infinitely better if someone were to donate a well-engineered reflective shell to propel forward sound that is currently absorbed by the curtained backdrop and trapped in the fly and wings.
Acoustics aside, the Takács and Ohlsson delivered the finer performance. As much as Carlson’s delightfully breathless, partially extemporized spoken introduction to playing by “Vicki and the Beach Boys” was a joy, Moon played first violin with passion, and the Olympic Music Festival ensemble produced some extremely seductive spring-like tone, they could not begin to approach the heart-touching fragility that the Takács and Ohlsson brought to the middle-movement Adagio expressivo.
In the concluding Allegro agitato, as much as the gorgeous tone of Powell’s viola for the festival performance contrasted with O’Neill’s edgier and less poetic sound for the Takács, the Olympic ensemble could not deliver the drive and passion of the Takács and Ohlsson. The tepid phrasing that preceded the quintet’s thrilling final section made the Olympic ensemble’s ending seem almost anti-climactic.
In post-concert discussion, I asked the festival fellows what distinguished an intimate two-week program in the outwaters of Port Townsend from other apprentice programs, including Music@Menlo. Every fellow consistently praised the program as an experience shared with professionals “who want nothing more than to make music.”