After the 2+1/2 hour sunset-lit drive north on I-91 through some of the most pristine forest lands in the Northeast, I arrived Friday night at the United Church of Newport only to discover I didn’t have the $10 admission fee for the night’s concert. At least, I didn’t think I did until in a desperate flash of inspiration I said, “I do have $10 Canadian”, offering the two blue bills to the woman with the cash box. “That’s great!” she said, smiling and reaching out to accept them.
There just aren’t many places in the US where you can pull that one off.
Newport, VT is around six miles from the Canadian border. This time of the year it’s host to the Warebrook Institute and Contemporary Music Festival, now in its 17th season. The whole last week has been devoted to workshops held at the Coventry School in Coventry, VT, just down the road a piece. Participants can spend five days in intensive sessions on composition, choral singing, or chamber music. The end of the week holds four concerts on Thursday and Friday evenings, and Saturday morning and evening.
I left Burlington around 4:45pm and arrived just in time for the Friday concert’s 7:30 start time. It’s been a rough couple of weeks in this area with high temperatures and equal humidity levels, and the United Church was quite stuffy for the night’s performance. I only noticed it until the music began, and then my thoughts were on tritones, non-traditional harmonies, and the great musicianship on show with the Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival performers.
The Concordia String Trio opened with Walter Piston’s Three Counterpoints (1973), a set of pieces whose reward lies in the delicacy of the inner voicings and interplay between the instruments. The Trio played these beautifully, infusing Piston’s spare score with warmth and luminosity. The next two works were by William Anderson and performed by the composer himself, and his guitar partner Jason Sagebiel. Of Course (2004, for solo guitar) and Coursing Again (2007, for guitar duo) . These two pieces were followed by Anderson changing out his guitar for mandolin, and playing another duet with Sagebiel in Frank Brickle’s Genius Loci (2008). Really lovely.
The last piece in the first half is a contemporary classic, the Fratres for Violin and Piano (1980) by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The musical conversation between the two instruments resembles the economy in certain poetic forms, like Japanese haiku or sijo, where the structure is as relevant in appreciating the work as what is actually expressed in the content. Violinist Susan Jensen and pianist Daniel C. Padgett played Fratres with great rapport and gentleness, punctuated by brilliant flashes of color and volume that elegantly communicated the work’s underlying vitality. Fratres is typical Pärt in its essentially contemplative and quiet nature – but never underestimate the fire that simmers just below the surface, waiting to find just the right fissure to explode wide open.
The second half commenced with another guitar duet featuring the same performers from the first half, in Charles Wuorinen’s playful Dodecadactyl (2003). From there we moved on to the second of the Three Postludes for solo piano (2010), a world premiere performed by Joan Forsyth. And, Anderson was in the audience to hear it! I always enjoy that aspect of contemporary music, there’s often a good chance the composer will be in attendance for the premiere of their music. John Orfe’s Barcarolle (2009) was next, a work written for Eb Clarinet, Violin and Cello. This and the last piece were probably my favorite works in the concert. Mark Margolies expressive clarinet was matched by violinist Marcia Henry Liebenow and cellist Darry Dolezal, alternating phrases throughout the piece.
The evening’s finale was another work written this year, the premiere of Sara Doncaster’s Songs of Whimsy and Devotion, a setting of six poems by Vachel Lindsay and William Butler Yeats. Pianist Padgett was joined by tenor Jon Garrison in a passionate, riveting reading of the songs. There are certain considerations one has to make when listening to song settings of verse – how well does the music support the text? Does the music enhance the text, without overcoming it? Franz Schubert and Ned Rorem are exemplary in these ways, and so is Doncaster. From the first song, Lindsay’s hymn-like St. Francis of Assisi, to the last one – Yeats’ typically idiomatic and rollicking The Fiddler of Dooney – the music was in complementary balance with the strength of the poetry. Padgett and Garrison’s performances were also deeply engaging and entertaining, with Garrison gesturing to underscore the music in appropriate moments. I talked briefly with Padgett afterward and he confirmed, he had acquainted himself thoroughly with the text of the six songs to be able to offer the best possible interpretation along with Garrison’s singing. The Six Songs were a fine finale.
Warebrook’s season is over now, but if you enjoy freshly written music played by invested performers, consider adding it to your list of must-experience events for next summer. Guaranteed whatever the program, it will be an adventure, and undoubtedly a very rewarding one at that.
And don’t forget to bring a few dollars to get in – or don’t, and hope you at least have the amount to offer in Canadian currency. It just might work!