Staunton’s 20th Annual Music Festival: Enchanting, Enlightening and Entertaining

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Les Kipp Photography Les Kipp Photography

By Ken Wilson–

The first season of the annual Staunton Music Festival, “if you can call it a season,” says Artistic Director Carsten Schmidt, was just a handful of concerts over a weekend in 1998. “It was very small and it was very improvised and it was just a bunch of friends. There was basically no budget in terms of fees; it was like ‘we’ll buy the beer and treat you.’ It was very nice, but there was no ambition or plan of having it necessarily continue or become what it has become.”

From small casual gatherings do much anticipated festivals grow. That first audience of “probably 30 people” has expanded in the 20 years since to the hundreds who pack the pews at the stately Trinity Episcopal Church and other handsome venues both night and day for what’s become an innovative chamber music festival with an international cast of musicians.

“This will be my third year participating in the Festival,” says Eric Guinivan, whose Indian-inspired Jiya Learns to Dance will be receiving its world premiere, “and I can’t speak highly enough of it. It’s packed with truly world-class back-to-back performances. Carsten Schmidt’s programming is quite special too—the festival features incredible variety, from period performances of Baroque music to classical and romantic masterpieces to hot-off-the-press contemporary works.”

Indeed. The 2017 Festival, from August 11-20, will run the gamut from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on period instruments to a 21st century composition for percussion and electronics. The Staunton Academy of Ballet will dance, Maryland’s Happenstance Theater will mime, and acclaimed German composer Moritz Eggert, a longtime friend of Schmidt’s, will offer insights into his work. With a musical bill of fare ranging from beloved old chestnuts to intriguing new commissions, the 20th annual Festival will enchant, enlighten and entertain.

Nine of this year’s 29 events are free one-hour affairs beginning at noon. Northern Exposure, on Friday, August 11 at Trinity Episcopal, features music by three Scandinavian composers beginning with songs by Edvard Grieg for voice and piano, and closing with his Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (1896), a piano piece written to commemorate his own 25th wedding anniversary, arranged here for orchestra. In between are works by two lesser known composers, the Suite in F sharp for harpsichord by Christian Ritter (1645-1725), and the Sonata for Two Violins (2011) by Jouni Kaipainen. 

That same evening, the first of eight 7:30 p.m. concerts at Trinity is a Handel Extravaganza, an evening of George Frideric Handel including the orchestral Suite in D and G from his Water Music, written in response to a request by Britain’s King George I for a concert on London’s Thames river. Numerous boats and barges filled the river that night in 1717, one with the King and his party, another with the musicians, and the King called for the entire suite to be repeated three times.

The August 11 performance, unlike that first one, is expected to end long before midnight, leaving plenty of time for Handel in song, including the Coronation Anthem: Let thy hand be strengthened, Angels, ever bright and fair, Va tacito, and selections from Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Doors open for evening concerts at 6:30 p.m.; pre-concert talks begin at 6:40 p.m.

Journeys and Landscapes, at Trinity the following evening, explores a diversity of landscapes, actual and metaphoric, from the new and uncharted to the near and familiar. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s  Suite from Les Indes Galantes (1735), for orchestra, may be translated as “The Amorous Indies,” and references a meeting of Native American chiefs with France’s King Louis XV. Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsodie (1870) for singer, chorus and orchestra “is more about an inner journey,” Schmidt says, one “typical of 19th century romantic poetry” like Goethe’s.

Maurice Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’Ocean (1905), for piano, depicts a boat upon ocean waves, while Claudio Monteverdi Zefiro Torna (1632), for two tenors, violin, and continuo is based on a sonnet from the late 16th century poet Ottavio Rinuccini in praise of the west wind. Kaija Saariaho’s Three Japanese Gardens (1994), is scored for percussion and live electronics. Moritz Eggert’s Croatoan III, for string quartet and bass drum, which will have its US premiere, takes its title from the 16th century Roanoke Colony in North Carolina, which vanished leaving the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. Bedřich Smetana’s beloved The Moldau (1874), which will close the evening, is a symphonic poem evoking a trip down Czechoslovakia’s Vltava River. 

German composer Motitz Eggert will discuss his work on the Meet the Composer program at Central United Methodist Church on Tuesday, August 15 at 3:00 p.m. “Many festivals are scared of programming new music because they think people don’t like it, or think they’re not going to understand it,” Schmidt says. “It helps a great deal to have a composer there to first of all show them that this is actually a person who wrote this, and then for them to be able to go up to them and say ‘Wow, what can you tell me about your piece?’”

This year’s free family concert, at Trinity on Sunday, August 13 at 3:30 p.m., features Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936), a “symphonic fairy tale for children” told here by a narrator, chamber orchestra, and dancers from Staunton Academy of Ballet. Preceding the ballet will be selections from the 2017 Musical Spark Contest, in which students in grades 3-12 were invited to “listen, imagine and create” stories and artwork in response to the music.

That same evening at 7:30 p.m., Blackfriar’s Playhouse, the handsome recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater that is home to the American Shakespeare Center, will provide the setting for Commedia dell’Arte, an evening of masterpieces and new contenders in a centuries-old comic tradition.

It’s a tradition whose influence runs deep, as Happenstance Theater Co-Artistic Director Mark Jaster points out. “The comic status play of the old master/servant roles now may play out between the boss and employee, but the human comedy remains constant.” A Happenstance Divertissement riffs on a 19th century routine based on a 17th century story, comic fodder for both the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball.

“There are some classical pieces, and even some composers you wouldn’t think of as being comical,” Schmidt says. “Bach wrote this very funny piece called the Coffee Cantata, about a man and his daughter who were addicted to coffee, which was extremely popular during Bach’s time in Leipzig.” Also on tap at Blackfriars: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to La Nozze di Figaro, Darius Mihaud’s Scaramouche for clarinet and orchestra, Zachary Wadsworth’s farce The Doctor (a world premiere), and Eugene Kurtz’s farcical lecture/demonstration The Last Contrabass in Las Vegas

Hollywood Songbook may sound like an evening full of show tunes, easily recognizable numbers like Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide (1956) and Harold Arlen’s If I Only had a Brain (1939) from The Wizard of Oz—are both on the program at Trinity on Monday, August 14. But its genesis, Schmidt says, “was this idea that Hollywood was such an interesting place, in the 1940s particularly, because so many European composers had to leave Europe, especially Germany. They ended up settling there. The program was designed around these composers that so many people don’t know very well.”

Most people know Charlie Chaplin, for example, but not that he wrote the score for his 1931 silent romantic comedy City Lights (arranged here by festival favorite Zachary Wadsworth and dramatized by Happenstance). Schmidt points out that Chaplin and the other composers on the program rallied to the defense of Bertolt Brecht, advocating on his behalf and holding benefit concerts to defray his legal expenses when he was hauled before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee.

Those composers include Aaron Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man, 1942, for brass and percussion), Hanns Eisler (Hollywood Elegies, 1942, for voice and piano), Igor Stravinsky (Polka: For a Young Elephant, 1942), Sergei Rachmaninoff (a selection from Suite No. 2, 1901, for two pianos), and Arnold Schoenberg (Ode to Napoleon, 1942, for reciter and piano quintet).

Pranksters and Puppet Masters on Thursday, August 17 at Trinity at 7:30 p.m. picks up where Commedia dell’Arte left off, with some of classical music’s most memorable moments of “wit, humor, and outright comedy.” Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G earned its nickname the Surprise Symphony for the moment in which, as Schmidt puts it, “you scare people out of their sleep.” Snoozers beware.

Eric Guinivan’s newly written Jiya Learns to Dance is scored for a sextet of flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello, and is inspired by Indian puppetry and classical music, specifically Kathputli string puppet theatre and Carnatic music. “While it won’t be apparent on a first or second listen,” says Guinivan, who teaches at James Madison University, “the music is conceptually organized around core principals from Carnatic music, most notably through the use of ‘reimagined’ ragas (scales) and talas (rhythm cycles). Jiya’s character is represented by the piano, while the rest of the ensemble represents the consort of dancers. Thus, the music features a ‘piano vs. ensemble’ dynamic throughout most of the piece until the latter part where Jiya dances in harmony with the consort.”  

Till Eulenspiegel, einmal anders (1854) for violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon and double bass, by a Vienna music teacher whose assumed name, Franz Hasenöhrl, translates to “little rabbit ears,” is a winking deconstruction of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel about an irreverent trickster figure from German folklore.

Igor Stravinsky’s neo-classical Pulcinella Suite for orchestra is taken from a ballet about a 17th century Commedia dell’arte character, and will be pantomimed here by Happenstance, with costumes by artistic Co-Director Sabrina Mandell, twice the winner of the Helen Hayes Award for costume design. “The original ballet enacts a rather convoluted comic tale of courtship, betrayal, mistaken identity, humiliation and forgiveness,” Jaster says. “We are simplifying it to accommodate our five-person ensemble, the simpler score of the suite and the stage space at Trinity.”

A 20th anniversary season deserves a joyous finale, like Ludwig van Beethoven’s thrilling choral setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” at the conclusion of his Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125. Schmidt will lead a period-instrument performance of the great Romantic composer’s final symphony at Trinity at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 20.

Programming of this depth and variety attracts an international group of musicians, many of whom return again and again. Finnish Pianist Heini Kärkkäinen is back for her fourth straight year. “My dear friend and colleague Carsten Smith has created a great festival with fantastic programs,” Kärkkäinen says. “There are many pieces I am looking forward to playing. I feel very close to the Slavic music of Rachmaninov and Scriabin” (8/19), “and the French colors from Fauré and Ravel” (8/17 and 8/12). “Une barque sur l’Océan is one of the most beautiful and colorful pieces of Ravel. In the middle of the waves there comes a plaintive and nostalgic melody, which is so touching in its purity. This work has been very special in my life. Last minute changes in the program gave me two more wonderful pieces to play, Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio (8/12), which is such great music, powerful and gypsy, and Faure’s La Bonne Chanson (8/17).

Music lovers visiting from afar—26 states and Europe last year—discover a city with an artistically adventurous populace in a charming, Blue Ridge Mountain valley setting. “It’s a very supportive and pleasant environment,” Schmidt says, admiring the fact that a city of less than 25,000 residents would support “a really out there repertoire vision. There is also a big tradition of theater in Staunton, which means there are people who enjoy being challenged and entertained. It’s a rich place in terms of venues and architecture; I think that’s a big part of having been able to attract our very sizeable audiences. Of course they come for the music, but they also really enjoy Staunton.”

For Kärkkäinen, for whom August in Virginia “gives a new summer for a Finn who is used to the cold summers,” the “spirit in Staunton is very special. The public is very open and warmhearted. The spirit of the music is being shared with the performers and the listeners with a touching connection. That is what it is about, sharing something together!”

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