Festival performance offers “intense encounter with the human spirit”
By Ramsey Nix
When I began working for the Morgan County Citizen three years ago, one of my first assignments was to cover the third annual Madison Chamber Music Festival. The task struck me as daunting, as I’d never really studied chamber music. I assumed that any festival devoted to it might be reserved for a social echelon foreign to me.
Living down the road in Athens, my idea of a music festival consisted of neon wristbands, cheap keg beer in big cups, and a tangle of wires and amplifiers in the streets. Still, I appreciated classical music and respected its enduring legacy and influence on succeeding forms, so I agreed to cover Madison’s music festival. (Actually, I didn’t have a choice.)
As it turns out, the Chamber Music Festival was the perfect introduction to Madison, a town that goes to painstaking lengths to preserve its heritage and yet remains accessible and welcoming– a bastion of old Southern hospitality. I remember stepping into the historic wooden auditorium of the Cultural Center for the first time to hear renowned cellist Lynn Harrell and violinist Martin Chalifour, principal concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, perform Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3” with several other world-class musicians. The upbeat, joyful feeling of the music was reminiscent of a gypsy wedding in a field of wildflowers– there was nothing stuffy about it. And, I was blown away by the sound effect of the old auditorium: Its wooden walls reverberated like the violin, itself.
All of the faces were new to me then, and I recall standing under a big white tent in the Cultural Center’s front lawn for a post-concert reception. I warily approached well dressed ladies and gentlemen sipping wine for quotes about that evening’s performance. I scribbled names like Wayne Vason, Jane Symmes, and Jerry Caldwell onto my notepad as they warmly indulged my timid questions. Someone recommended I speak with Christopher Rex, himself. While I worried that the festival’s artistic director and principal cellist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra wouldn’t deign to speak with an inexperienced reporter, he scheduled time to explain chamber music to me one day over coffee.
Ever since, I have happily anticipated the Chamber Music Festival every summer. Last Tuesday evening, I attended the “Americans in Paris” dinner concert in the Cultural Center Hall. Enjoying a delicious dinner catered by Hallie Jane before the concert began, I glanced around the hall at faces now familiar to me. Every year I spot fewer strangers in the crowd.
As he has in the past, Rex welcomed the audience and offered an educational introduction to the musical entrée of the evening– pieces by turn-of-the-century French Impressionist/Expressionist composers, Ravel, Debussy, and Franck. “The work of the Impressionists fell straight from the heart of dramatic influences,” Rex explained, before joining his new ensemble, Trio RPM, for a stirring performance of Ravel’s “Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello.”
Ravel’s piano compositions demand considerable virtuosity, but pianist Elizabeth Pridgen gracefully met the challenge. Whether she was opening a section with a bang or sliding through a slow crescendo, she provided a lilting backdrop for violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and Rex.
After their finale, the trio surrendered their seats to the internationally renowned quartet, American String Quartet. Playing one cello, one viola, and two violins, they performed Debussy’s first and only composition for quartet. Their rendition of Debussy’s colorful and textured composition was one of ethereal harmony.
Last Tuesday’s performances reaffirmed there is nothing priggish about chamber music, at least not here in Madison. On the contrary, it is one of the most intimate, and therefore vulnerable musical forms. Watching performers up-close-and-personal as they put so much passion into producing every note is an intense encounter with the human spirit.
If you haven’t caught any of this year’s Chamber Music Festival performances, there’s still time. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa will perform in a private home this Friday at noon and again on Saturday night with her husband, Alexei Kudnetsoff. The Tchaikovsky Trio will play on Sunday evening at the Sandy Creek Barn at Lake Oconee. The Chamber Music Concert will come to a close next Thursday with a free Independence Day concert performed by the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet on the front lawn of the Cultural Center.