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The Glorious Shadelee Music Festival

August 12, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

About a month ago I complained about the dismal and insulting program offered by the New York Philharmonic in their only appearance this summer at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

Completely opposite from that travesty is the Shadelee Music Festival — concerts of chamber music in a charming 150-seat pavillion just a few minutes drive from Livingston Manor in northwest Sullivan County. Although the performers may not be well known, the actual music is intelligently selected and quite often well played, and no fireworks are required as enhancements.

Often my favorite concerts of chamber music mix the familiar with stuff I've never heard before, and that was true for all three Shandelee Music Festival concerts we attended last week.

On Tuesday, cellist Andrey Tchekmazov appeared with pianist Cullan Bryant in a program anchored by the first and last of Beethoven's five sonatas for cello and piano. The concert began with Beethoven's first cello sonata, Opus 5 Number 1, which (like it's Number 2 partner) is oddly structured: A long adago and allegro movement is almost a satisfying composition in itself, but is then capped by a rousing rondo. Next up was a work I'd never heard before, Schumann's Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Piano, Opus 70, which I found overly pleasant.

The first half of the concert ended with Debussy's Sonata for Cello & Piano. I have long loved the three sonatas that Debussy composed in the last years of his life (the only ones he was able to complete out of a planned series of six) but I had never heard any of them in concert. The cello sonata is the first of three and dates from 1915. Watching Mr. Tchekmozov carry off the various cello techniques involved certainly added to my enjoyment of this eerie and mysterious work.

Following intermission was the last of the Beethoven cello sonatas, Opus 102, Number 2, composed less than 20 years after the first but literally from a whole different century, with an extraordinary slow movement and a dense last-movement fugue, signalling a transition to the unequaled depths of the late Beethoven works. The Beethoven was disconcertingly followed by a grotesquely trashy early Chopin work for cello and piano, the Polonaise Brilliante, Opus 3, and a fascinating Dvorák piece, Klid (Silent Woods) apparently transcribed from a four-hand piano cycle, but all too short.

The piano recital by Elizabeth Joy Roe on Thursday had an program that initially seemed quite quirky: Two transcriptions? Two works by living composers? But the program worked well, a tribute to Ms. Roe's intelligent conception, marred only by her introductions to each piece that tended to the condescending.

The program began with Siloti's lush arrangement of a Bach Prelude in B Minor, followed by what was for me the highlight of the evening: a lively rendition of John Corigliano's energetic and lyrical Etude Fantasy from 1976. The name of the piece hadn't clicked, but as soon as it began, I immediately recognized it and probably had heard it performed somewhere in New York City soon after it was composed. It was great to jump from that right into Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 (Opus 110), whose laconic last movement Mr. Roe held together with great skill.

The second half of the concert began with a work by one of Ms. Roe's former Julliard classmates, Ryan Anthony Francis (b. 1981). The work was called Consolations and dates from that far-off year of 2004. Based on a text from the same song cycle that Schubert used for Winterreise, the piece was stylistically a little too similar to the Corigliano to be appreciated on its own merits. The concert concluded with Liszt's transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Ravel's wonderfully surrealist and madcap La Valse. Ms. Roe played an encore of her own arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love," which seemed towards the end to veer into Gershwin's own solo-piano arrangement.

Last night's concert featured violinist Susanne Stanzeleit. Ms. Stanzeleit demonstrated fearlessness right off as she launched into a zippy rendition of Bach's solo violin Partita No. 2 — the one with the long concluding chaconne. The performance was, perhaps, a little too zippy, as if the first four movements had to be dispensed with quickly to get to the real heart of the piece. I think this Partita works better if the first four movements are treated with near equal importance as the last, almost as if the last movement won't be as long as it really is.

Following the Bach, Ms. Stanzeleit was joined by Cullan Bryant on the Steinway for the intense late work by Brahms — the Opus 108 Sonata for Violin and Piano. Following intermission was Mozart's Opus 301 Sonata for Violin and Piano, one of a series of two-movement sonatas that I haven't been able to enjoy — not in a 2005 recording by Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu, and not in another 2005 recording by Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Steinberg, and not last night either. Perhaps it's the optional nature of the violin that baffles me.

But then came a real treasure — the third of those late Debussy sonatas I so love: the Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1917, Debussy's last work before his death in Paris in 1918 within earshot of German bombs. (I don't know if it was someone's grand plan to present two of these Debussy sonatas in a single week at Shadelee, but I suspect I'll never have the opportunity to hear the exquisite middle sonata in concert, being written for the unusual combination of flute, viola, and harp.) We probably should have left the concert with the Debussy still in our ears rather than to sit for the concluding Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, a flashy work almost entirely empty of actual musical content.

All in all, what a great three evenings of music!

Meanwhile, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is gearing up for two more appalling attempts at "classical music," concerts whose very concepts sound like wicked parodies of pinhead music programming: Tonight the Manhattan Transfer will appear with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, and next Sunday the Boston Pops will be presenting — brace yourself — a "Tribute to Oscar and Tony."

Maybe next summer for Bethel Woods if they ever come up with anything worth listening to. Definitely next summer for the Shandelee Music Festival.


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