BWW Reviews: Bowdoin International Music Festival Presents a Dazzling Evening of American Music
July 5, 2013 Festival Friday Concert, Crooker Auditorium, Brunswick, ME
"Three hundred miles north of everywhere," the small but bustling college town of Brunswick, Maine, attracts some of the world's most prestigious musicians to its summer festival. The Bowdoin International Music Festival, now in its forty-ninth year, is a performance and practice program where 250 carefully selected students from twenty-five countries and thirty-six states come to study with world-renowned faculty instructors and guest artists. In the course of the six-week session, these musicians perform over one hundred public concerts. With the resources at their command the results are generally astounding!
On Friday, July 5th the all-American program admirably illustrated the virtues of the festival. Faculty soloists, guest artists, and the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra shared the stage in an eclectic range of works by Ives, Gershwin, Barber, and Copland. The musical threads of folk tunes, jazz, and classical European influences were beautifully blended into the program which began with Ives' Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, followed by a new piano transcription of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and then in the second orchestral half, Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14 and Copland's A Lincoln Portrait. The diverse group of musicians, representing an impressive cross section of the festival's history, gave testimony to the universalizing bond of music, as teachers and students both past and present played as colleagues.
In the opening work, Charles Ives' Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, festival Artistic Director violinist Lewis Kaplan and his colleague from the Aeolian Chamber Players, pianist Peter Basquin played the often inscrutable Ives with an unassuming deftness and a subtle sense of humo. The third movement, The Revival, which ends on what is described as a whisper, became a provocative question mark.
George Gershwin's popular Rhapsody in Blue in a new piano transcription created by the pianist, Eric Zuber, received its first public performance here, and it is definitely a rendering which should be heard more often since it includes some melodies frequently cut from the orchestral version. Zuber, a member of the Bowdoin Virtuosi and a young pianist who has medals from nine major piano competitions, is an artist of dazzling technique and luminous tone. His take on the piece was less glitzy than some; rather he infused it with lush, rounded tone, a playful sense of banter, a miraculous touch, and a virtuosic velocity that brought the cheering audience to its feet at the conclusion.
The second half of the program was devoted to two orchestral works with Lewis Kaplan conducting the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra. In the concertmaster's chair was Laura Lutzke, also a Bowdoin Virtuosi and past festival student, who demonstrated her musicality and maturity. As a conductor, Kaplan communicates musicality, joyfulness, and respect not only for the composer, but also for his young musicians. There is a powerful sense of support and nurturing in his performance, and the orchestra responded with great vibrancy. The strings were particularly lush; the woodwinds, but for a few spots, had a rich tonality, and the brass and percussion played with a rounded resonance.The difficult Samuel Barber concerto was played by violinist David Coucheron. His ties to the festival go back many years, and he boasts Kaplan as one of his teachers. He holds the distinction of being the youngest concertmaster ever appointed (at twenty-five) to an American orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony. Playing completely from memory with a passionate feeling for both the classicism of Barber's form and the romanticism of his line, Coucheron turned virtuosity into something far more transcendent.
In the final crowd-pleaser, Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, former Maine Governor and now U.S. Senator AnGus King read Lincoln's words. His plainspoken, prairie honesty, while less theatrical a reading than some, had an appealing forthrightness, though the problematic sound system at Crooker Auditorium left him occasionally overwhelmed by the powerful acoustic orchestra. Perhaps what granted this well-known work a freshness was the sense of conversation Kaplan created among the musicians, a kind of statement and reply - speaking and listening - reminiscent of the antiphonal strains often found in American music.
This is perhaps what gives the festival and, indeed, the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra much of its caché. Here is a vibrant ensemble with a wide range of age and experience engaged in joyful storytelling and bound together by that glorious common denominator, music.
Photo Credits: Courtesy Bowdoin International Music Festival