Staunton Music Festival: Small City, Big Deal

Staunton Music Festival: Small City, Big Deal

By Ken Wilson –

It’s a lotta music for a little city, but then the Staunton Music Festival is no local secret or merely local affair.

With a hashtag #RethinkClassical and everything from a period-instrument performance of Handel’s rarely-heard operatic masterpiece Hercules to a concert performance of Kurt Weill’s “sung ballet” The Seven Deadly Sins, this year’s 21st annual festival—over 30 concerts taking place from August 10-19— will attract the usual impressive array of adventurous musicians from across Europe and North America and music lovers from across the country.

Free hour-long noontime concerts on most days will be followed by longer evening performances. Youth aged 18 and under can attend most concerts for free. Aren’t the locals lucky? Aren’t we all.

The much anticipated yearly Festival sprung from two weekend concerts organized in 1998 by its pianist, harpsichordist, conductor, and festival artistic director Carsten Schmidt. More than 70 musicians take part each year, including members of the New York Philharmonic, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and Metropolitan Opera.

A core group of about 40 players returns annually, attracted by imaginative programming and informed and attentive audiences. A typical program might include a Baroque, Renaissance, or Medieval work played on period instruments, plus Classical, Romantic, modern and contemporary pieces.

“The wonderful Staunton Music Festival this summer,” writes contralto Sara Couden, a Festival favorite, “is the only place I’ve ever been where you show up for the virtuosic period trumpet rendering of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, and stay for the percussionists beautifully playing cacti in Cage’s Child of Tree.”

“The city itself is such a verdant, beautiful spot,” says Richmond-born composer Zachary Wadsworth, another Festival mainstay. “But the people of Staunton make the festival what it is. Audiences come to concerts in droves with open ears, eager to hear not only the most incredible works of the past, but also brand new music. I’ve never been to a festival with such a dedicated and engaged audience culture.”

Most works performed at SMF fall under the heading of chamber music, but a few employ larger ensembles. One such composition opens the Festival at the historic Trinity Episcopal Church on Friday, August 10 at 7:30 p.m.: a semi-staged, period-instrument performance of Handel’s Hercules (1744) directed by Ethan Heard.

Bass Peter Walker sings the role of returning hero Hercules and Sara Couden is his wife, the tragic Dejanira. “Hercules is one of Handel’s best and most powerful operas,” says the Festival’s executive director Jason Stell, “and is rarely heard in the US despite being originally written in English.” Preconcert talks for all evening performances take place at 6:40 p.m.

Serenades at Noon, Saturday, August 11 at First Presbyterian Church, celebrates some of the great works of chamber music, beginning with Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade for String Quartet (1887). Eric Guinivan’s imaginatively scored “Cradle Song” for soprano, piano, and vibraphone (2005), won the 2009 ASCAP/Lotte Lehmann Art Song Competition. Baritone Paul Max Tipton and pianist Heini Karkkainen (an American and a Finn) perform Maurice Ravel’s song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932-33). Allan Blank’s Summer Music for two violins (1993), Georg Muffat’s Sonata for violin and continuo (1677) and Antonin Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for four violins, strings, and continuo (1711) round out the program. Like all noontime Festival performances, it’s free.

A Little Night Music
A Little Night Music, Saturday, August 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal, runs the gamut from classical to theater music and early 20th century avant-garde.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s popular Serenade in G Major is known to even casual classical music listeners as “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (1787). The theater fave “Send in the Clowns” was written for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s adaptation of the 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman, whose centennial is being celebrated this year. Chester Biscardi’s “Witch Dance” (1983) is scored for two percussionists. Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne (1958) is a song cycle for a tenor (Derek Chester here) and a seven-member chamber orchestra.

The centerpiece of the program is Arnold Schoenberg’s epochal Pierrot Lunaire (1912), sung by soprano Megan Chartrand and pantomimed by the Happenstance Theater’s Gwen Grastorf, whom audiences will remember as the hilarious narrator of “The Last Contrabass in Las Vegas” in 2017.

Happenstance Artistic Co-Director Mark Jaster choreographed the piece, working with the original French poems and several English translations of the German text. “I came to think of the piece as a kind of active historical bridge,” Jaster says, “taking the old Romantic character of Pierrot into a ‘Modern’ idiom and world. The Pierrot of the 19th-Century star Jean-Gaspard Debureau was a flexible many-faceted character, capable of violence as well as heart-break.

“The Schoenberg/Giraud/Hartleben exploration takes this to extremes, portraying stark and fractured images while cleaving close to the moonstruck roots of the original, and ultimately, I believe, showing the resilience and enduring truth of the archetype. The visual images in the choreography highlight those in text/lyric, and seek to reflect the moody leaps of the music. The song cycle is divided into three sets of seven pieces each. I chose to leave the final number in each set without visual accompaniment.”

Concert for Young People (of all ages)
Children’s author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff based The Story of Babar (1931) on stories his wife told their children, and Francis Poulenc set the book to music in 1940. The Festival will bring this beloved tale of a baby elephant to heartwarming 3-D life in a 50-minute program featuring a narrator, chamber orchestra, and dancers from Staunton Academy of Ballet on Sunday, August 12 at 3:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church.

War (and Piece)
It will be all war and no peace (just pieces) at Blackfriars Playhouse on Sunday, August 12 at 7:30 p.m., a program dedicated to musical masterpieces composed during times of strife. But oh, what pieces—Richmond-born composer Zachary Wadsworth has been premiering work in Staunton since 2011. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra oboist Roger Roe is coming to play his latest Festival commission, entitled Letters Home.   

“This year marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the first World War,” Wadsworth says, “and I wanted to write a piece that explores that enormous event through the letters of one soldier. The piece is for oboe and electronics, and the pre-recorded track includes text from letters by Alan Seeger, an American poet who died fighting with the French in 1916.  (He was also, incidentally, the uncle of folk singer Pete Seeger).”

Haydn’s Mass in a Time of War (1796) bears the subtitle “Paukenmesse” (Kettledrum Mass) because of the unusually prominent role of the timpani. Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) features three voices, strings and continuo. “Monteverdi invented new musical techniques to express the agitation of combat in 16th-century Italy,” Stell says.

“He asked players to perform pizzicato (set bow aside and pluck the strings). This may have been one of the earliest examples of pizzicato. He also invented the tremolo, which is rapid repetition of the same note—very fast bowing—to capture the sounds of excitement, combat.”

Kagel’s Match, for two cellists and percussionist (1966) is a musical depiction of a tennis match

between two cellists, with a percussionist for chair umpire. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for orchestra (1880) closes the program. Often heard on the Fourth of July, celebrating American freedom, the piece originally commemorated Russia’s successful struggle to repel Napoleon’s invading army.

Gabriela Lena Frank
Composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank’s music has been commissioned by numerous leading musical groups including Kronos Quartet, Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and all major U.S. orchestras.

The Washington Post called her one of the 35 most significant women composers in history. Born to a father of Lithuanian Jewish heritage and a Peruvian mother of Chinese descent, Frank writes music for classical ensembles that reflects her ethnic heritage and often evokes the sound of the Peruvian pan flute, the charango guitar, and other Latin American instruments.

“My sense of self has developed inexorably along the simple principle of storytelling and creating objects of beauty through sound, leaving the earth hopefully a bit better,” Frank writes. “As this self-awareness has continued to grow in force and ease, sharing my experiences with my emerging colleagues as well as new, even untraditional, audiences has become both more joyous and urgent.” Frank will discuss her work and perform excerpts from her choral and piano music on Monday, August 13 at 3:00 p.m. at First Presbyterian.

I’ve Got Rhythm
The power of rhythm across centuries is the theme of I’ve Got Rhythm (1930), also on August 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal. The program opens with Wadsworth’s arrangement of “I’ve Got Rhythm” and closes with Gershwin’s variations on the song for piano and orchestra (1933-34), dedicated to his brother Ira, the song’s original lyricist.

Bela Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937) pushed rhythm to new heights and is one of the Hungarian composer’s most frequently performed works; the work’s two pianists and two percussionists play seven instruments – timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, gong and xylophone.

Frank’s Danzas de los Saqsampillos (2006), Johann Strauss’s Banditen-Galop (1877) arranged by veteran Festival violist Vladimir Mendelssohn, medieval French composer Guillaume de Machaut “Motet’s Ad te suspiramus” and TerVeltdhuis’s “able to be” round out the program.

Auspicious Beginnings
Few beginnings are more auspicious, or more provocative, than the “Prelude” to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which famously makes listeners wait four hours—till its conclusion—for the musical resolution of its opening measures. A chamber ensemble arrangement of the “Prelude” will begin the Auspicious Beginnings program, Wednesday, August 15 at 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal.

The composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) fused his native Argentinian tango with elements of jazz and classical music to pioneer what became known as nuevo tango. He wrote the first (summer) portion of his celebrated composition The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires  overnight, having forgotten it was to be recorded the next day. The Winter and Spring sections (1969-70), parts of which allude to Antonin Vivaldi’s popular The Four Seasons, will be heard here in an arrangement for piano trio.

Also on the program are Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Kyrie,” from Missa Papae Marcelli (1567), Guilio Caccini’s “Dolcissimo Sospiro” (1601), for soprano and continuo, Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” (1908), Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1801), and an excerpt from Gabriela Lena Frank’s Milagros, for string quartet (2010).

A Mozart Finale
Festival programs continue through Sunday, August 19. The final day begins with a 50-minute program featuring two compositions by Mozart along with Soviet-era master Alfred Schnittke’s witty and surprising violin duo, “Moz-Art.”

Mozart’s Canons for four voices opens the program, which begins at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, August 19 in Blackfriars Playhouse. His String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516, scored for two violins, two violas and cello closes it.

Schnittke’s “Moz-Art” (1976/77) is based on an unfinished work—actually a fragment of the first violin part—by the Austrian master. The title means “sort of” in German, an allusion to the fact that the amount of source material is slight, and much has been made of relatively little.

The Festival concludes at 4:00 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal with two of Mozart’s greatest works, his final symphonic composition, Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 551, Jupiter (1877), and his Requiem in D Minor, K. 626, left unfinished at his death in 1791.

From traditional favorites played in period style to cutting edge creations receiving their first performances, Staunton Music Festival pursues its stated goal of rethinking classical for the modern era. And when the music stops, the streets of a cultured city beckon. Festival attendance surpassed 8,000 in 2017, with attendees coming from 24 states and 3 foreign countries. Is it any wonder?

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