NOTE: This article is by former Colorado Springs resident David Sckolnik, now of DeLand, Fla., who is a journalist-in-residence for the 2019 Colorado College Summer Music Festival.
We’ve reached the midway point of the 2019 Colorado College Summer Music Festival. A new infusion of festival artists is taking place while a number of great musicians are gone until next summer. The fellows are being assigned a second round of chamber music to play with some reshuffled ensembles, and they also will begin rehearsals for the festival’s finale, featuring the Brahms German Requiem.
Thursday night was the hub—the third of five chamber-music concerts given by the festival artists. And, as if to mark the occasion, the music began early with a free pre-concert recital: Tangos From Around the World. Here, finally, was the chance to hear Kevin Cobb on his real instrument—the trumpet.
Cobb, joined by violinist Robin Scott and pianist William Wolfram, offered a warm and lush traditional-style tango by Eric Morales with an opening that sounded like Ennio Morricone’s music from spaghetti westerns. Next, Daniel Gilbert on clarinet, John Rojak on bass trombone, and Susan Grace on piano charmed with a more abstract piece by Hendrik Hofmeyr. But the best was saved for last. Cellist David Ying, who had only arrived on campus hours before, made his dynamic presence immediately felt by joining Susan Grace for Le Grand Tango for Cello and Piano by the great 20th-century tango master Astor Piazzolla. The performance was meaty and delicious.
After a wine reception in the Packard Hall courtyard, the concert proper was ready to launch. Like most of the festival artists’ concerts this year, the chosen selections caused me to initially react by thinking, “Where’s the beef?” This is, after all, a year in which the festival artists’ concerts are bereft of any obvious chamber-music masterpieces. Be that as it may, this concert was played to perfection and did provide an abundance of entertainment.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet opened with a fantasy quintet of its own: Stephen Rose, violin; Stefan Hersh, violin; Toby Appel, viola; Phillip Ying, viola; and Bion Tsang, cello. These are incredible players and chamber-music masters that turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, the real theme of the evening.
Thankfully, this music has true soul and spirit. With his liquidy opening solo, Appel set the tone for the work: a convergence of the ancient and modern. Then, as if he were uttering a prayer, came the welcome sound of Rose, making his debut for 2019. The ensemble breathed and bowed together as if they were a single living entity.
From the sublime to the almost ridiculous: Guillaume Tell Duo Brillant by Jules Auguste Demersseman and Félix Charles Berthélemy. When it was published in middle of the 19th century, it afforded superior amateur musicians the chance to play the great themes of Rossini’s operatic masterpiece in the intimacy of their own homes. It must have been exciting stuff for them. Due to the overexposure of these melodies in our age, this once serious music occurs more often as a cartoonish experience. Need I say it: The playing here was magnificent.
This was the debut for flutist Julie Thornton, the wife of festival veteran Michael Thornton. She produced an effortless tone with an exuberance of expression that won over the hall. Pretty much the same could be said for oboist Jonathan Fischer. The two tongue-in-cheeked it through much of the music, but, when the moment called for it, they lavished the hall with lyric beauty. Pianist William Wolfram performed his role as accompanist with style and made the most of his few opportunities in the spotlight.
With the arrival of Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73, the sublime of the art form was once again present. The festival is missing two of its most beloved artists this summer—clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu—who have been touring Europe of late. Like a sports team with a deep bench, the festival reconstituted this combo with clarinetist Daniel Gilbert and pianist Susan Grace. The two Jons may have lost their starting positions!
Beauty and intelligence was on hand throughout these three short musical poems. Gilbert’s music-making occurs as if he and his instrument are one. His rich tone seems to emanate from all about. Grace was given beautiful musical language by the composer and performed as an equal partner, mining the intimacy of the score. This nature-filled music was a perfect piece for the season.
Back to the ridiculous? Not quite, but it was a sight and sound to behold the Franz Hasenöhrl’s quintet reduction of Richard Strauss’ late-19th-century showpiece Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Violinist Stephen Rose and clarinetist Daniel Gilbert reveled in their chance to play solos ripped directly from this comic work. Michael Thornton on French horn embodied the sound of a full section of horns. Michael Kroth was at his best, animating his bassoon, and Susan Cahill displayed stunning agility on her potentially unwieldy double bass.
The major work of the evening was Septet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 26 by Alexander Ernst Fesca. Don’t know Fesca? Join the club. He is an obscure German composer from the first half of the 19th century who died too young at the age of 28. For those in attendance at last night’s concert, he is the talk of the town.
Right from the start, it was obvious that this is a composer with a penchant for producing highly energetic, rhythmically infused drama while writing idiomatically for the instruments at his service. The Allegro con spirito was a flesh-and-blood musical celebration that provided pianist William Wolfram his first opportunity at this year’s festival to really light it up. The intricate keyboard writing at times channeled the more classical side of Chopin, easy pickings for Wolfram.
Susan Cahill’s focused double bass gave the proceedings a rich undertone, often doubling up with the pristine sound of Bion Tsang’s cello. The sweet, pure tone of Robin Scott’s violin was the perfect foil to the musical engine churning beneath him.
The Andante con moto slow movement was less original, more formulaic. It did contain some beautifully realized trio writing from Scott, Tsang, and violist Phillip Ying. Jonathan Fischer’s inspired oboe joined in the party, and Michael Thornton was shimmering on French horn although I did detect a minor imperfection at one point, something I had previously thought impossible.
The Scherzo was a wild ride with a tip of the hat to Mendelssohn while being prescient of the great movements of this variety to come from Bruckner later in the century. Wolfram’s piano seemed to be speaking to us.
Everyone shared their best in the exciting finale—Allegro con fuoco—but, as the dust settled, it seemed that all the great playing of these inspired musical ideas and engaging textures did not add up to art of the highest order. Fesca had great facility but could not tell a musical story in the manner of the great masters of his age.
The music only heats up in the second half of this great festival. Catch what you can by visiting https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival/.