MARLBORO — Marlboro Music Festival is back, and it seems to have lost nothing in its year of COVID hiatus. In fact, the opening concerts, Saturday and Sunday, revealed the festival’s legendary expert execution and passionate music making.
However, Marlboro’s audience looks just a bit different this year. There are only 175 seats — socially distanced in pairs and singles — as opposed the usual 625; hence, the season sold out before its opening. Marlboro, however, is inviting the public to selected rehearsals at no charge. (Registration is requited.)
One weekend performance epitomized Marlboro at its best. Sunday’s performance of Béla Bartók’s 1938 “Contrasts,” written for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, was a joy from beginning to end. Acclaimed clarinetist Charles Neidich, violinist Robyn Bollinger and pianist Ariel Lanyi coalesced as well as any jazz combo in this jazz and klezmer tinged piece, though Bartók’s harmonies go further than most jazz. The performance was not only expert, it was inspired.
What many don’t realize is that Marlboro is a chamber music school for young musicians at the beginning of their careers, though its formula is unusual. Young musicians are joined by a veteran artist, often in a secondary role, rehearsing a work. But it isn’t performed until senior artists deem it ready. The two keys of Marlboro’s success are collaboration rather than obeisance and time.
Spectacular is the only way to describe the success of Heitor Villa Lobos’ (1938 and 1945) “Bachianas brasilieras” No. 5. From the famous opening vocalise it was pure joy as Caitlin Aloia let loose with her large, brilliant and pure soprano. Eight cellos, led by senior artist Marcy Rosen’s espressivo playing, filled out rich sound that overcame the hall. It was a brilliant moment.
Perhaps the most unusual work was film composer Bernard Hermann’s 1967 “Souvenirs de voyage,” performed by New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, violinists Hye-Jin Kim and Emilie-Anne Gendron, violist Zhanbo Zheng and cellist Nathan Chan. The three-movement neo-Romantic work was full of ideas and a bit too long, but the performance was excellent.
Also interesting was the 1913 “Drei Stimmungsbilder,” Op. 12 by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff. The three-part romantic song cycle was given a compelling performance by the brilliant and sensitive pianist Rebecca Printz, matched by Gendron’s expressive violin. Lydia Brown, who leads the festival’s vocal department, who provided the piano support of this fine performance.
Another fine performance was of Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (1796-7) Friday by violinists Lun Li and Maria Ioudenitch, violist Zheng and cellist Peter Wiley, a senior artist. The performance was elegant, Classical in style and, most importantly, compelling.
Two works, otherwise fine suffered from the same problem, Wolfgang Amadeus (1785) Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 Friday and Haydn’s Piano Trio in C Major, Hob. XV:21 Saturday. In both, the piano never overpowered the strings, but the strings never achieved the appropriate level of equals. In Saturday’s aggressive performance of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60, the piano and strings never coalesced. Still, it was exciting.
It’s great to Marlboro’s high level of programming back. I can highly recommend attending the free rehearsals. And next year, get your tickets early.