Plucky Chamber Festival Stays The Course Even If The Chamber Is Hot

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Violinists Gabriela Díaz and Monica Pegis, cellist Daniel Hardy, and violist Tim Deighton performed Puccini’s ‘Crisantemi.’ (Photos by Taylor Rossi)

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The Halcyon Music Festival hides in plain sight.

The hipsters who live in stylish Portsmouth, where pianist and Halcyon founder Heng-Jin Park started her two-weekend festival in 2014, don’t really populate the event’s hip-in-their-own-right audience. That loyal audience skews chamber-music–specific.

Residents will find out about it, or should, soon. Until then, the festival audience gets to enjoy the musical adventures Park creates, which pivot around striking repertoire choices and the brilliant playing of her accomplished friends.

Devoted? This audience has already proved it.

Halcyon Music Festival founder founder Heng-Jin Park

As in the case of most small festivals, the pandemic nearly did in Halcyon. Programs were canceled in 2020, and in 2021 Park was still unable to house the musicians (they stay in nearby University of New Hampshire residences) or mount live performances in St. John’s Episcopal Church. Live streams were born out of necessity, and Park could only hope the future would be better.

“When we came back in 2022, folks were still wary,” Park says. “The opening concert was scarcely attended, and I worried. But I stood up in front of the audience and gave the kind of motivational talk I never thought I could give. I said, ‘I need to enlist you. Go talk to your friends and family. Get us back to where we were. I want you to come back with one person who has not been here before.’

“The audience seemed to rejoice in the task,” she says, still surprised after two years. “The next performance was nearly back to normal. And by last year it felt like we were really back. We had full attendance, and the musicians were a happy bunch.”

The festival runs over two weekends in June, when six performances are offered. “I didn’t invent anything,” Park says. “This model has existed for decades. When I first visited Portsmouth, I loved it. There are so many festivals in New England — tons in Maine and in Vermont. This is a little corner that needs it.”

Park makes it clear this is no teaching festival, where the roster blends students with professionals. “I could happily go play at teaching festivals, and I have,” she says. “But I wanted to create something that was exactly what I wanted. Other festivals are not yours; it’s not what you envisioned. My happy place is a chamber-music festival with a wonderful level of world-class musicians who are also friends.”

Cellist Jonah Ellsworth — Park’s son, Boston Symphony Orchestra section member, and colleague with Park and violinist Irina Muresanu in the well-known Boston Trio — of course plays in his mom’s festival. His BSO mates Danny Kim (viola) and newly named principal flute Lorna McGhee joined in this year. Stalwart string players like violinists Grace Park, Gabriela Díaz, Julia Glenn, and Monica Pegis, cellists David Hardy and Peter Stumpf, and violists Marcus Thompson and Tim Deighton made repeat appearances over the two weekends.

Violinists Ben Sayevich and Monica Pegis, violist Marcus Thompson, and cellists David Hardy and Alexei Gonzales played Boccherini’s String Quintet in E major, Op. 11, No. 5.

Park has created a festival in which everyone cares. Audiences return concert after concert; the musicians are equally invested. Housed together, rehearsing each day, and performing some of the most interesting chamber music ever written, the musicians add to the feeling of belonging through their own actions.

Not playing a certain piece? Park’s colleagues aren’t hiding out in the green room, checking their phones. They turn pages. They come out and sit in the audience. Not a few of them — all of them.

Park’s repertoire choices reward such devotion. The festival doesn’t commission works and anchors most concerts with a chestnut — like the Dvořák D major Piano Quartet, Mozart’s Dissonance String Quartet, and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenirs de Florence.

But the programs extend their appeal beyond the familiar, including marginal repertoire works like Puccini’s Crisantemi string quartet, string duos by Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Mozart, the Turina piano quartet, and, most dramatically this summer, George Crumb’s theatrical Vox Balaenae.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, half a block from Portsmouth’s bustling downtown, has a good piano and solid acoustics, but it’s still a church. That means no air-conditioning. So when 100-degree weather coincides with a performance of the gymnastic Vox Balaenae, climate changes the music.

Violinist Danny Kim, pianist Lolita Lisovskaya-Sayevich, and flutist Lorna McGhee performed Ernest Bloch’s Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Piano, with violinist Gabriela Díaz turning pages.

Everyone hates it indoors in the non-air conditioned summer, but audiences find love in the experience as well. Witnessing the effort to stay tuned, stay composed, and not give in to the obvious discomforts breeds a certain “we’ve been there” camaraderie. Performing music becomes performance art, and at some point during a sweltering event, everyone shares a grin at the impossibilities. There’s a baked-in excuse for everything, good and bad. Even basic readings seem a triumph; mesmerizing readings like this one expand the experience.

The musicians — Park, Hardy, and McGhee — performed the Crumb piece in the dark, with deep-blue lighting. The score also calls for them to wear masks, but c’mon, it was 100 degrees and felt hotter.

Park worked out on a prepared instrument, plucking, pounding, and smacking glass tubes inside the piano. Hardy whistled while he played. McGhee played flute but also sang apart from and then through the instrument, tapping along, as well as reaching over to mallet a triad of chimes she shared with Hardy. Instruments mimicking (cello/prepared piano, flute/whistling, shimmering flute/piano) created imprecise approximations of the same pitches, to eerie effect.

Everyone tried to find air to breathe, and appreciate the moment. Memories are fortified by experiences like this.