warebrook contemporary music fest 2011

There is something very special about sitting in the audience right alongside the people who wrote the music being played.

That’s a normal part of the experience at Vermont’s Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival, now in its 20th anniversary season in Newport and other area towns.

You may recall my recounting of last year’s visit, when the temps were still near 90 (and around that much humidity) at concert time and the only thing I had to offer for my ticket was Canadian dollars. (It worked!) And it was a terrific evening of new music.

This year’s Friday night concert came at the end of a gorgeous, warm (not humid) day with July’s full moon just beginning to bloom on the horizon. The venue was the same as last year; the United Church of Newport’s golden interior welcomed the audience of around 60 for another night of freshly minted music.

bill pfaff & his quintet

Earlier in the week I’d had a conversation with Dr. William Pfaff, whose Quintet for Clarinet, String Trio and Piano opened the evening’s program. He said he’d written the work in honor of former Warebrook resident composer Donald Martino, who passed away in 2005. The work is around seven minutes, a flashing and fiery canvas anchored solidly by the clarinet. For all of its airiness and heady harmonics, the lines always return to the grounding of the clarinet’s rootsy woodiness. At least, that’s how I heard it. I talked to Bill afterward and he mentioned that the piece’s dedicatee, Don Martino, was also clarinetist – so, yes, that instrument is at the center of the Quintet‘s gravity and spiritual core.

As usual the rest of the program was an eclectic, inventive and engaging combination of guitar, singing, and chamber works with none being older than 1999.

bill pfaff and martin boykan

And, after many of them, the composer was beckoned from the audience to share a bow with the performers. I just love that about Warebrook – we’re not only talking about new music here, much of it being played publicly for the first time. The composers of it are also active participants in the performance.

It was great meeting and sharing a few moments afterward with Martin Boykan, whose exquisite “Rites of Passage” Piano Trio #3 was one of the highlights of the program’s second half. This was a piece of deep maturity and expression with many elegant moments of phrases being handed off seamlessly between the instrumentalists: duet finger trills with violinist Susan Jensen and cellist Darry Dolezal; a soft answering murmur in the left hand from pianist Paul Jacobs; and the sheer beauty of fragmented melodic lines filtering into the mix like light in a forest.

Boykan said the inspiration for it was a drawing done by his wife, Susan Schwalb. The artwork features a single jagged vertical line as it’s transformed by everything from smoke and ripped paper to candle wax drippings and fire in its path across five very large panels. The Piano Trio is in five connected but distinct parts too, with the opening six notes of the cello forming the motif that changes in its journey through the work, interacting with the piano and violin.

Here are a couple of other memorable moments from the concert:

The final musical adventure of the evening was the world premiere of the Carl Sandburg Songs by composer and Warebrook executive director Dr. Sara Doncaster. The first half of the program held four other of her newly written songs, a continuation of the Songs of Whimsy and Devotion cycle that premiered at last year’s Festival. (Eventually that series will contain a total of 16 songs – hoping we’ll get to hear the final additions next year!) Where the Whimsy and Devotion songs are lyrical and almost folk-like in character as settings of verse by W.B. Yeats and Vachel Lindsay, the Sandburg Songs are harder-edged, busier and sharper but curiously for that, no less melodic than their predecessors. That is to say; these new songs evoke the urban – but not necessarily unlovely – origins of the poems they illustrate.

Doncaster’s Carl Sandburg Songs are a strong statement. As I listened they brought to mind some of the vivid scenes from Jose Orozco’s powerfully stylized mural, The Epic of American Civilization which lives on the walls of the library at Dartmouth College. Like the mural, despite their settings these songs are ultimately about people and – more importantly – they’re about humanity:

In a quick conversation after the performance, Sara mentioned she had Chicago in mind with these works because the librettist she’s been working recently on an opera project is from the Windy City. Check out her thoughts on the piece:

So, that was the evening. And the full moonlight drive south on Route 100 on the way home capped off a perfect night. Another season’s over now with the Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival. I encourage you to get there next year and experience the joy of brand new music in the hands of excellent musicians.

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