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The Other Woodstock Festival

New York
Maverick Concert Hall
08/10/2008 -  

“Mahler’s World: Vienna and Budapest”:
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No 1, Opus 7
Anton Bruckner: Quintet for Strings in F Major, WAB 112

Borromeo String Quartet: Nicholas Kitchen, Kristopher Tong (violins), Mai Motobuchi (viola), Yeesun Kim (cello); Guest violist: Michael Klotz

(© Dion Ogust)

Query: What and where is the oldest summer music festival in America? Hint: Compared to the winner, Tanglewood is a toddler, Glimmerglass is a gangly teenager. And when they began, centenarian Elliott Carter was a mere 7 years old.

The answer is Maverick, which could be called the other Woodstock Festival, though they prefer to call themselves “Music in the Woods”. For 93 years straight, this beautiful barn, with its 30-foot-high timbered roof, its big paneled windows looking out on the forest, its giant equestrian sculpture and spacious stage has been a delight not only to the 600-odd visitors each weekend concert but to musicians, who love the wrap-around acoustics of the all-wooden interior.

The history is unique as well. From its outset as a writers/musicians colony in 1915, with the auditorium built soon after by its amateur denizens, both theatre and music have encompassed legends. James Cagney debuted as a child actor/dancer here. Helen Hayes, Edward G. Robinson and Lee Marvin, amongst others, acted and schmoozed and reveled in the arboreal surroundings . Mainly chamber musicians have played with pleasure, and audiences, both local and New York City and beyond get involved.

For me, though, Maverick was (gulp, blush) a first time affair. Woodstock was familiar, but it took a New Yorker notice encourage a trip up here. And the initial attraction was not Maverick itself but the highly interesting program last night.

Wolf’s Italian Serenade is hardly unknown , but is only a bagatelle. In fact, for some reason, an old program had listed the opening as Webern’s Langsamer Satz. Not that I would have minded either one, but the mind had to switch from a musical spoonful of Oesteria caviar to a fresh primavera salad.

Next was the Bartók First String Quartet, hardly played as much as the next five. Third was the real rarity. A string quintet by Bruckner, not a student work but composed in his maturity. More on that later.

The young Borromeo Quartet is so highly acclaimed that they are quartet-in-residence at three different schools, from Boston to New Mexico to Japan. While they naturally swing to contemporary music, the violins have a technical innovation: a laptop computer showing the full score as they play.

But it was the performances themselves, especially in this so natural environment which were astonishing. It began with the Italian Serenade, which too often is a Teutonic version of Italia. Not here, First violin Michael Kitchen’s bow hardly touched the strings at all, and the others let the bouncy opening float above them. Wolf was a song-composer above all, and the Borromeo made lyrical light work of the tiny treasure.

Bartók is hardly as simple, but here the Borromeo showed a special individuality. Far from being a seamless tapestry, these four players had their own personalities. Violist played hard muscular solos (especially in the improvisation-sounding first movement), first violin Michael Kitchen had a tone both strong and sweet, Yeesun Kim’s cello technique was faultless, but the sound never really aggressive, and Kristopher Tong offered the filling which second violin must have.

But the whole was greater than its parts, and that finale was a masterpiece of stops and starts, of rhythmic vitality. Add to this the authentic Magyar folk influences. Bartók realized that Liszt and Brahms were using pop and Gypsy tunes having just finished his adventurous explorations, and those exotic relationships and harmonies created a world of whirlwind exotica. More to the point, this quartet had moments of sheer romantic (and post-Romantic) beauty, and the quartet exploited these to the fullest.

After the intermission came the Bruckner Quintet. The composer always called himself “a symphonist”, but this, his only mature chamber music could be more digestible at first or second hearing. The duration, at around 30 minutes, is half the symphonies, and the personnel is five percent of an orchestra.

One never felt that Bruckner was denying himself his usual forces, but we listeners (mea culpa!) frequently filled in the orchestral forces on our own.

Not, though, the Adagio movement, which was a heavenly revelation.. The main theme, introduced by viola and developed with the most intricate and soul-stirring inspiration, could be compared easily to the finest slow movements of Schubert or Beethoven. And in its passion, it far exceeds Barber’s own so self-conscious Adagio. Perhaps the full quintet will never have the popularity of its rivals. But the crowning beauty of this slow movement could easily be performed by itself, even as the final work in a program.

Note that the Maverick has many more concerts to go through September, . with details at www.maverickconcerts.org.

Note Two: amongst its less renowned attributes of the theatre is an adjacent outhouse, probably the original. It is immaculately clean but has its original mechanism. The directions are simple. On the floor is a wooden spoon and a wooden basket. The instructions read: “Place Two Spoonfuls of Sawdust In The Toilet.”

Obviously, after nearly a century, Maverick is no flush-in-the-pan phenomena.

Harry Rolnick



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