Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival: Here Was Exuberance

The 33rd season kicked off on July 31 with “Mozart: A Portrait in Music and Words,” narrated by Alan Alda
Alan Alda narrated a concert of Mozart’s music as part of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival’s program this year.

Two concerts with imaginative programming and outstanding performances marked the beginning of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival’s 33rd season. One was an overview of a great composer’s life and music, and the other was a sampling of shorter, lighter pieces that are not often heard.                                                                                     

The series kicked off on July 31 with “Mozart: A Portrait in Music and Words,” narrated by Alan Alda. Mr. Alda, the actor, director, screenwriter, author, and visiting professor at Stony Brook University, who is a well-liked figure on the East End, was a perfect choice for the narration. He had crafted a storyline of Mozart’s life, drawing on some of his letters centering around the four pieces to be heard, and delivered it with warmth, affection, charm, and humor.

On the instrumental roster were Marya Martin, the flutist who founded the festival and is its artistic director; Kristin Lee on violin, Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu on viola, and Raman Ramakrishnan on cello, all familiar to festival veterans. Appearing with the festival for the first time was the pianist Jon Kimura Parker.

The first piece on the program, the “Sonata for Flute and Piano, K. 13,” was written in 1791 when Mozart was just 8 years old, and showed that the prodigy as a “beginner” had already absorbed the style of mature composers around him. The first movement was cheerful and in strict sonata form, the slow second movement showed interesting melodic interplay between the flute and piano, and the closing Minuet skillfully used chromatic lines. Of course, the high artistry of the performers brought out the beauty that lies beyond the written notes; one wonders if the child composer realized how much was hidden there.

The “Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello in D Major, K. 285,” next on the program, sounded more like the Mozart we know, having marks of his distinctive style. Although Mozart wrote in a letter that he hated the flute and having to compose for it, the picture that Mr. Alda portrayed with amusing touches suggested that his dislike of it probably was because he found composing a great distraction at that moment, because of his attraction to a certain young woman. Nevertheless, the piece was unabashedly delightful and masterful. In the first movement, the eye contact and facial expressions among the players were especially engaging, and their expressive tone and tight ensemble were apparent. The next section was a flute solo with pizzicato strings, and Ms. Martin’s playing shone with perfect quality, even tone, expressive pianos, and long, arching lines. The closing Rondo was high-spirited and exultant.

For the sake of good listening, the next entries on the program were in reverse chronological order. We jumped ahead to near the end of Mozart’s all-too-short life, at a time when, Mr. Alda touchingly described, Mozart had begun to come to terms with death and seemed to know his time was limited. The “Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in C, K. 548,” had great passion, drama, and pathos, and, unlike the earlier works, more questions than answers. This was especially true of the second movement, which for me had some of the most poignant moments of the evening.

One of the characteristics of Mozart is that we hear such incredible beauty and meaning in comparatively few notes — sometimes rapid and intricately ornate passages, to be sure, yet the texture is usually transparent rather than heavy. How can one say so much and say it so profoundly, and at the same time seem so understated? Indeed, that is his genius.

Yet Mozart was ahead of his time and was not fully understood. This reminded me of a telling little vignette between Mozart and Emperor Joseph II from the movie “Amadeus.” It goes something like this:

Emperor (perhaps overwhelmed but having to find something to criticize): “It seems to have too many notes.”

Mozart (defiantly, trying to stay calm): “There are just as many notes, Your Majesty, as I required; neither more nor less.”

Emperor: “Just cut a few, and it will be perfect.”

Mozart: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Cutaway.

Mr. Alda then took us back to a happier, earlier time, “a high moment in Mozart’s life,” in 1786, when he wrote the “Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello in E flat, K. 493.” Here was exuberance; every note was played with intention and life. Another favorite part of the concert for me was the last movement, Allegretto. On hearing the opening theme, one might not expect that there would be such twists and turns in melodic themes and harmony to follow, and so many of them. But what a joyful and surprise-filled ride it was. In one playful section the players really acted it out, bringing chuckles from the audience.

Mr. Parker proved himself to be an outstanding addition to the roster. He has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Berlin’s Philharmonie, the Beijing Concert Hall, and the Sidney Opera House, to name a few. Mr. Parker, who perhaps carried the lion’s share of the elaborate passagework throughout the evening, was incredible, especially in the closing piece, playing some extremely difficult florid passages with seeming ease and impeccable clarity and expression.

My only minor quibble was the use of the church’s sound system for Mr. Alda’s voice, which gave it a somewhat thin sound and overemphasized the sibilants; too bad next to the superb quality of the instruments.

The evening ended with the packed-solid house giving a well-deserved standing ovation with bravos.

The chamber music festival’s annual outdoor concert, on Aug. 3, which is offered free to the community, was in a new location this year, the field behind the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. One big advantage of this location compared to its previous one was that it was away from the noise of Montauk Highway. Last year, I wrote that noise from motor vehicles covered up some beautiful, quiet passages a few times. This year, fortunately, there was none of that.

The concert, called Summer Winds, featured five woodwinds: Ms. Martin, flute; John Snow, oboe; Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; and Stewart Rose, horn, as well as four strings: Ms. Lee, violin; Ms. Wu, viola; Jakob Koranyi, cello, appearing for the first time at the festival; and Karl Doty, double bass. The repertoire for the one-hour concert consisted of quite short, mostly 20th-century pieces, and the composers’ origins represented an unusual array of countries: Czechoslovakia (Bohuslav Martinu), Denmark (Carl Nielsen), Hungary (Gyorgy Ligeti), and Lichtenstein (Josef Rheinberger), in addition to France (François Poulenc). The opening and closing numbers were nonets (using all nine instruments), but the others were in various smaller groupings, including one with the uncommon but colorful combination of just clarinet and bassoon.

While definitely modern in in their freer forms, jagged rhythms, and unpredictable harmonies, the selections were all very engaging, easy to listen to, and fitting for an outdoor summer evening. The closing piece was the final movement of a Rheinberger nonet, offered as an appetizer for Sunday’s concert, which was to feature all four movements. It was the only piece that was more substantial and romantic, with soaring, expansive Alpine themes. Over all, I thought that rather than the “winds” in the name of the concert, the evening felt more like sunny, happy, lovely, refreshing summer breezes.

Chamber music aficionados will want to check out the festival’s remaining seven concerts, including a Romantic Adventure, Unfinished Business, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill; the annual Wm. Brian Little Concert at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, with three of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and a Baroque Saturday. The series culminates with a festive finale on Aug. 28. The Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church is the main venue.

Tickets for most events range from $35 to $55, and student tickets for $10 will be available for most concerts. Complete details and ticket information can be found at bcmf.org or by calling 631-537-6368.