CONCERT REVIEW | 2016 Twickenham Fest finale

Music | August 29, 2016 | 0 | by Edward Forstman 

Susanna Phillips narrates Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat” Sunday, Aug. 28 at Twickenham Fest 2016. (from live streaming of concert) 

Igor Stravinsky once said, “Form, in my music, is derived from counterpoint. I consider counterpoint as the only means through which the attention of the composer is concentrated on purely musical questions.” In his chic fable “L’histoire du soldat,” that fact explodes from the page. Each instrument of the famously hodge-podge ensemble (violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion) whirls around the piece’s moralizing narration seemingly to the beat of its own drum. The appeal of “L’histoire” lies in the success of both Stravinsky and the performers to control the herd of cats that are its shifting time signatures and cartwheeling motifs. At Sunday’s final concert of the 2016 Twickenham Fest, the musicians took the risk of going conductorless and gave a reckless tour de force that flirted in its faster moments with the limits of their coordination, yet was undeniably impressive. 

Spinning out some of the most hair-raising ear-fouettés were clarinetist Jonathan Cohen and trumpeter Chris Coletti, often doing so in a vertigo-inducing high-wire tessitura; they were nothing short of amazing. Susanna Phillips as narrator read a rhyming adaptation of the story, seasoned with comic timing and a hilariously absurd and virtuosic one-breath sales pitch. The star of the performance was, however, violinist Itamar Zorman, whose gorgeous line furled and unfurled around a part which can in the wrong hands be repetitive, mechanical, and dry. The centerpiece of the work has the eponymous soldier playing his violin for a princess, who is healed on her sickbed and compelled to dance. When Zorman had led the ensemble through this climax, I did not find the mythical claims to be too unbelievable. 

“Southern Sweet,” a short set of two songs with an intermezzo, was commissioned by the festival from pianist and composer Michael Brown and was written expressly to highlight the talents of its founding duo — Phillips, a soprano, and bassoonist Matthew McDonald. Besides these two, the forces included a string trio. The odd instrumentation had trouble balancing, as the bassoon, by virtue of its size and design, was so much louder than the strings. Humorous texts by William Carlos Williams and Lewis Carroll earned a few laughs but not as many as they could have. “This is just to say,” by Williams, is a poem of delicate, wry subtlety, lacking punctuation or capitalization. In Brown’s setting, each line was caricatured, italicized, drawn out, turning the tongue-in-cheek “forgive me” into an exaggerated plea. Generally, the writing for voice was halting and unflattering, without a long phrase of moment, pushing Ms. Phillips through leaps and awkwardly approached high notes. 

The Intermezzo did have nice energy, though, and McDonald played his perpetual motion part with gusto. 

The beginning of the concert treated the attendees to a love duet for viola and alto (here sung by mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor), with piano. The synergy of the three was perfect. Joy Fellows, on viola, sang her part with unaffected tenderness and dialogued phrases, with O’Connor and the piano in a consistently engaging, nuanced performance. Amy Yang had such a perfect legato in the first song “Gestillte Sehnsucht” that it was difficult to believe she was playing the naturally percussive piano at all. Her bass was rich, supportive, her treble never overpowering the lower-pitched melodic instruments beside her. Full of the most conservative and traditional qualities of good music, the set was a good contrast to the modern/postmodern works to follow, and began the final concert of this year’s festival with heartbreaking beauty.