The Hills are Alive: Wintergreen Music Festival

The Hills are Alive: Wintergreen Music Festival

By Ken Wilson –

They flock to the Blue Ridge Mountains every summer and they coalesce into something extraordinary. Experienced professional and aspiring student musicians join discerning music lovers at Wintergreen for four stimulating weeks of classical music, with a little bluegrass, Broadway, and what-have-you on the side. The resulting festival, says Artistic Director Erin Freeman, “is unlike another musical experience.”

Why? The intimacy. “Everyone enters through the same door,” she says by way of illustration, speaking of the Dunlop Pavilion, the main music tent with its glorious hillside views. “The audience members and musicians are all experiencing the event. It’s not like the musicians are playing and the audience is listening. Everyone is in it together, so there is this community that is really special. The thing that takes it over the top,” however, is the artistry—“of musicians that come from all over the country from the best orchestras and chamber music societies, and of students who are handpicked to come here and study with them.”

The hills will be alive with the sound of Bach, Bernstein and even Zeppelin once again as the 2018 Wintergreen Summer Music Festival & Academy comes to Wintergreen Resort from July 9 through August 5, and this year’s theme, Building Bridges: Celebrating The Connections That Only Music Can Make, extends the usual companionship and camaraderie ever further. As Freeman explains, it’s a humanitarian response to a political tragedy.

“I came up with the theme last year on the day of our Blue Ridge Mountain Music Fest, which was also the day of the riots in Charlottesville. I could not be at either, but I kept hearing the radio stories about what was happening, and getting text updates about how great the bands were, and I thought, ‘Gosh it’s such a dichotomy.’

“It was very clear to me that what Wintergreen does and what the music does is to bring people together and remind them how much they have in common. Music more than any other thing has that ability, because if you think about everything that goes into one concert you realize how many different people with different backgrounds are involved”—from patrons to pianists, from ushers to conductors.

“All of those people who come together from very different backgrounds are in the same room together with the shared goal of uplifting the human spirit. It’s not a political statement at all; it’s a musical statement.”

Leonard and Ludwig
Amidst music appreciation seminars, masterclasses, and concerts, nothing will exemplify the power of music more than the performances on Saturday and Sunday, August 4 and 5  of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, that paean to freedom and universal brotherhood crowned by the stirring choral finale the “Ode to Joy.” The symphony will be preceded by several traditional African-American spirituals and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Op. 80.

Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra pianist and Wintergreen regular Peter Marshall knows the Ninth well, and was fortunate to hear the historic 1989 performance led by Leonard Bernstein in Berlin celebrating the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

Marshall will share his insight and his personal experience during a Music 101 session on the morning of Saturday, August 4. “One thing that has always intrigued me is its combination of loftiness and vulgarity,” he says. “The general listener has the tendency to come to great composers with a feeling of awe that every note they wrote is somehow sacred and worthy of respect and has to be taken seriously, and that can take the fun out of things. I think the Ninth is best understood if you appreciate the fact that there are some elements of it that are meant to be vulgar, that are really quite crass.”

As an example Marshall cites a moment in the third verse of the Ode to Joy “when the entire chorus sings ‘before God’ and there is a big climax on this loud chord, and then immediately following that is a funny little march that begins with a low note in the contrabassoon. It’s been called ‘Beethoven’s fart’ and it really does sound like that.

“The march is very comical because of the juxtaposition. It’s OK to feel that that is actually a funny moment, and I think sometimes people need to be encouraged to bring their total feelings to something and not just stand in awed silence at a great composer. It’s nice to see the full range of humanity that is in these people and to bring them down a little bit from the heights, as great as they are.”

Beethoven’s groundbreakingly grand Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica, originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, will be heard on Saturday and Sunday, July 14 and 15, on a program with Aaron Copland’s Quiet City and Bernstein’s Facsimile. Marshall was indirectly responsible for Freeman’s programming of the Bernstein work when he posted on Facebook lamenting that the piece is rarely performed.

“I’ve never had an opportunity to play it, so I was overjoyed,” Marshall says. “It’s a side of Bernstein that we don’t hear because the music that gets played constantly is the theatre music and the symphonic works. Nobody’s doing Facsimile. Despite the piece’s jazzy elements, it is serious and kind of sad. It begins and ends in a sort of emptiness and melancholy.”

That troubled mood makes Facsimile quite a contrast to the Eroica, but offers a link to the reflective Quiet City, as does Copland’s close friendship with and mentorship of Bernstein. Both works were the basis of ballets by Jerome Robbins, himself a good friend and colleague of the composers.

2018 is Bernstein’s centenary, and his career illustrates this year’s focus on links and intersections. “He was a humanitarian who wrote music with the idea of bringing people together,” Freeman says, “and also within Facsimile that piece brought the genres of jazz and classical together. So we celebrate Beethoven and Bernstein, two musical game changers, and I‘ve chosen a lot of other works that create those connections, that build bridges between various entities.”

As an example Freeman cites the orchestral program on Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, highlighted by Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, with its “connection between American folk music and classical music.” Commissioned by choreographer Martha Graham in 1942 to write music on an American theme, the piece famously quotes the lovely Shaker song “Simple Gifts” (‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free …). Both the ballet and the score, reworked as an orchestral suite in 1945, have become classics.

Opening the program is Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, a traditional Russian folk dance dating to 1848. Later Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky were much influenced by Glinka’s use of folk song. 

“On that same program we have a piece of music that brings together Japanese folk traditions and Western classical music,” Freeman says: composer-in-residence Daron Hagen’s Concerto for Koto and Orchestra, Genji. Written in 2011, the composition “is a result of the quintessentially Japanese koto interacting with western orchestra,” Hagen writes.

“The interplay of traditions generates the genre of the piece. I call it a concerto only because of the clash of musical traditions involved, not because the soloist is in any way at odds with the ensemble. Music creates its own narrative, and has its own inner logic; however, in order to assist the listener on this particular journey, I have overlaid one appropriated from the greatest of all Japanese epics, Genji. The result is a sequence of psychological situations, one per movement, each with a colorful, descriptive title drawn from the novel.”

Virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine comes to the mountain Saturday and Sunday July 28 and 29 to play two Classical era concertos, the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the Violin Concerto of his relatively little known contemporary, Chevalier de Saint-George, a fencer, violinist, Paris conductor and descendant of an African slave.

“Chevalier’s works are really underperformed, so to pair him with Mozart is fun,” Freeman says. “It makes another connection between the ‘man’ of the classical era and other composers of the classical era whose music might have been buried because no one would dream of performing music by someone of African descent.

”The piece will feel very similar in style to the Mozart: very clean lines, very crisp and elegant. Rachel Barton Pine has recorded it with the conductor (Daniel Hege), so it will be great for our audience to hear this rarely performed concerto performed by two people who probably know it better than most people around today.”

Preceding the concertos is a short 1946 work by George Walker, the first African-American composer to earn a Pulitzer Prize, entitled “Lyric for String.” Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in G Major, Hob I:90 rounds out the program.

Coffee, Cider, and Concertos
Sunday morning Coffee & Kids concerts will entertain the little ones while easing them into the art of classical music. The subject for July 22: Three Billy Goats Gruff. The second of the eclectic Festive Friday evenings, on July 20, will be a slapstick double header, featuring one world-premiere score by Academy composition students for Buster Keaton’s The Boat, and another by Daron Hagen for Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.

The afternoon of Saturday, July 14 will be devoted to the 13th Annual Blue Ridge Mountain Music Fest, with pickers and singers including Lonesome River Band, and jam sessions open to the audience. The popular Morning Seminars with speakers including Freeman, Marshall, Pine and others will provide a deeper understanding of some of the music to be heard this year.

Tuesday and Thursday evening Mix, Mingle & Music concerts start with a cash bar followed by an hour of music. Two of the eight are at Bold Rock Hard Cider in Nellysford. “Our relationship with Bold Rock down in the valley is very special,” Marshall says. “They have a beautiful tasting room and it’s a wonderful atmosphere with a big fireplace at one end, so we’ve made great use of that.

On Tuesday, July 24, Marshall will take part in a performance of the 5th of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos. “It has only seven players, so it’s perfect for Bold Rock,” Marshall says. “Harpsichord, violin and flute are the solo instruments, and it has a huge harpsichord cadenza which is the outstanding feature of that piece; so it will be fun.”

On Tuesday, July 17 at the Dunlop Pavilion Violinist Elisabeth Adkins and pianist Eddie Newman will play the duet version of Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, inspired by the famous philosophical discourse on love.

The Festival’s Wild Wednesdays shows will feature everything from jazz to Motown to hardcore, attitudinal rock. “On July 25, Rachel Barton Pine, the Royal Academy of Music’s Czigany Quartet and special guests will let it all hang out for what is perhaps this year’s most adventurous program, Shredding with the Strings—Rock & Roll Throughout the Ages, bridging classical music (Paganini, Vivaldi, and Shostakovich) and heavy metal (Led Zeppelin and Metallica). “It will be out of this world,” Freeman says. “I think it will show everyone that Vivaldi could head bang with the best of them.” Earplugs are optional.

Adventurous, amusing, and just plain awesome sometimes—that’s the Wintergreen Performing Arts Festival as supporters and enthusiasts have come to know it over its 21-year history. “The fact that the musicians  come and stay with people who live at Wintergreen has really become the core of our identity,” Freeman says.

“It means that our patrons and musicians really get to know each other; our musicians understand what moves the patrons, and the patrons understand everything that goes into making something like Beethoven’s 9th work. So there’s this deeper level of connection here than in a lot of musical organizations.” Come July 8 through August 5, you can hear it.

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