Arts & Events

New: Festival del Sole, Part 2

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday July 28, 2014 - 05:41:00 PM

On Wednesday, July 16, I was again at Castello di Amorosa for a 6:30 PM concert given by the Zukerman Chamber Players, a group founded by Pinchas Zukerman in 2002 and, for this event, consisting of Zukerman on violin, Amanda Forsyth on cello, and Angela Cheng on piano. Opening Wednesday evening’s concert was Beethoven’s “Allegretto” movement for Piano Trio in B-Flat Major. This deceptively simple work was dedicated to the twelve year-old daughter of Franz and Antonie Brentano, “to encourage her in playing the piano.” Though the opening of this “Allegretto” is indeed simple, it soon broadens in complexity, shifting unexpectedly to a minor key, and deftly working out a number of inventive variations. This single movement is perhaps most closely related to Beethoven’s magisterial “Archduke” Trio, also in B-Flat Major. As performed by the Zukerman Chamber Players, the “Allegretto” was a crowd-pleasing opener. However, it was somewhat marred by a mysterious metallic squeaking sound that seemed to emanate from somewhere on or near the stage. 

These intrusive squeaks became critical in the next piece, a Suite Populaire for Cello and Piano by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. The six songs, transcribed for cello and piano, that comprise this Suite were constantly intruded upon by more squeaks. I mentally hypothesized that they might be the result of microphone feedback, but this seemed unlikely. The Suite’s first song, featuring brisk Andalusian rhythms and melodies, fairly successfully warded off the squeaky intrusions. But the second song, a quiet lullaby, had no defenses. The third song, calling for the highest registers of the cello, admirably played by Amanda Forsyth, was also marred by squeaks. The fourth song, a lively folk dance from Aragon, weathered the intrusions; but the fifth and most famous song, Asturiana, suffered badly in its appropriately mournful mood. The final Jota, a lively and boisterous folk dance, seemed almost a celebratory victory over the squeaks. 

Now Pinchas Zukerman replaced cellist Amanda Forsyth on stage for the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major by César Franck. So ravishingly beautiful is this work, which inspired Proust as a model for his fictional Vinteuil sonata, that it almost made me forget about the intrusive squeaks. In the first movement, after a wistful four measures of introduction by the piano, the violin enters with a lilting melody, gorgeously played by Zukerman, that serves throughout all four movements as a guiding theme in Franck’s famously “cyclical” style of composition. When a second theme is introduced, this time by Angela Cheng on piano, the violin refuses to take up this second theme, as is the usual practice, but sticks to a reiteration of the first theme. Without any develop-ment section, a reprise brings back the first theme on violin, now backed by massive chords from the piano. Meanwhile, the second theme continues only on piano. When the two instruments briefly join, the violin offers a soaring and broadening of the first theme while the piano evokes the wistful figure it played in the four introductory measures.  

In the second movement, marked Allegro, an animated and exciting theme is introduced, first, by the piano, then picked up by the violin. A second theme is then introduced on violin, with a harp-like accompaniment on piano. Both the first and second themes are developed; and, now and then, the main theme from the first movement returns like an idée fixe of the work as a whole. In the third movement, there is a long violin solo, rapturously played by Pinchas Zukerman, which is only sparsely and intermittently accompanied on piano. The overall mood of this long violin solo is wistfully capricious, while the piano establishes a pensive, almost gloomy mood. The fourth and final movement is joyful and gay; and it is largely in the form of a canon, in which the violin plays the same passages note-for-note as the piano, only a measure behind. There is much playful banter back and forth, as now one instrument now the other takes the lead. When the work’s main theme eventually returns, in canon, it now sounds as if emanating from cathedral bells, proclaiming their joyful message to the world. Indeed, this beautiful Sonata for Violin and Piano in A-Major by César Franck, majestically played by Pinchas Zukerman and Angela Cheng, was for me the highlight thus far of the Festival del Sole – and this in spite of the squeaks! 

After intermission a host apologized for the squeaks, which, he explained, came from wind blowing the guy wires fastening floodlights to a wall of the castle immediately behind the stage. He assured us that the problem had been remedied and there would be no further squeaks. We all applauded. I gazed up at the Romanesque bell-tower atop the Castello’s chapel and gave silent thanks for the elimination of the squeaks. 

The sole work performed after intermission was Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor. This work was written in 1839, soon after Mendelssohn’s marriage and his move to Leipzig where he became conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a musical institution he transformed into one of Europe’s leading orchestras. In the D Minor Trio, a cello opens the first movement, which is in classic sonata allegro form, with an exposition, development and recapitulation. This movement’s beautiful string melodies and pulsating rhythmic drive directly engage our attention. In the second movement, the piano opens with a lovely solo, then the strings enter with the cello uncharacteristically taking the upper register while the violin takes the lower. In this movement’s middle section, the cello plucks the strings in pizzicato fashion while the piano and violin play the melody. The third movement, marked Scherzo, features more pizzicato plucking by the cellist, and maintains a joyful exuberance throughout. The D Minor Trio concludes with a passionate final movement, in which three themes are developed, with the cello breaking forth in a passionate melody just before the work’s rousing conclusion. 

After this concert I drove south on Route 29 to the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville where I had an invitation to partake of the Patron Dinner. This year, the July 16 Patron Dinner held special significance, for it celebrated the 75th birthday of violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Guests were handed a glass of Chardonnay immediately upon arrival; and servers brought out trays of hors d’oeuvres on which we munched while awaiting the arrival of latecomers and a call to proceed to our assigned tables. Among my tablemates was pianist Angela Cheng of the Zukerman Chamber Players, whom I congratulated for her moving performance in the Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major.  

Once seated, we were served, as a first course, a compressed watermelon salad with cucumber, pickled red onion, feta cheese, baby greens and a Fumé Blanc vinaigrette. This salad was paired with a 2012 Robert Mondavi Winery Oakville, Napa Valley Fumé Blanc. Without any fish course intervening (in the French tradition), or any pasta course (in the Italian tradition), our next course was a Rib Eye steak with a mild (very mild) pesto polenta, wild mushrooms, corn, cherry tomato and arugula salad. This meat course was paired with a 2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Oakville, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. With no intervening cheese course, we proceeded to a dessert of birthday cake with blueberries, blackberries and lemon curd, paired with a 2013 Robert Mondavi Moscato d’Oro, served in a tulip-shaped glass with shaved ice. Once the dinner party broke up, I drove home to Berkeley, safe, sober and delighted, above all, with the music I had heard, which, at least for this one night, indicated that music does indeed hold a primary place in the Festival del Sole. 

On Sunday, July 20, the closing musical event of the Festival was an Opera Gala featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani, soprano Nadine Sierra, and the Sphinx Orchestra conducted by Carlo Ponti, the son of Sophia Loren and Italian film producer Carlo Ponti senior. The Sphinx Orchestra, by the way, is the unique all Black and Latino orchestra of top musicians from around the USA. This concert, which took place at Yountville’s Lincoln Theatre at 5:00 PM, originally listed Sicilian Maria Agresta as soprano. But with no explanation offered for Ms. Agresta’s absence, Nadine Sierra stepped in to replace her. (One major complaint I have about Festival del Sole is that neither online nor in the printed program is it clearly noted who, when, where, and in what music will musicians perform, much less the price of a ticket.)  

Just as the Festival’s opening concert on July 13 began with a surprise tribute to Athena and Timothy Blackburn, the closing concert also included a surprise tribute to Athena Blackburn in the form of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, richly performed by the Sphinx Orchestra. Next came the overture to Gioacchino Rossini’s opera La Scala di Seta/The Silken Ladder. This lively overture has outlived the opera itself, which is now rarely performed. (I’ve seen it only once, in Vienna in 1969.) Fol-lowing this overture, tenor Matthew Polenzani came on stage to sing “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Jules Massenet’s opera Werther. Matthew Polenzani, whom I have enjoyed in Met HD Live sim-ulcasts as Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, has a bright lyric tenor voice with surprising power. Singing in French, Polenzani exhibited his com-mand of both diction and dynamics in this poignant aria from Act III of Werther. 

Next came Nadine Sierra singing “Depuis le jour” from Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise. Incidentally, it struck me as odd that with this concert introduced under the rubric “Bella Italia,” the first two arias performed were from French operas. Nadine Sierra is a young soprano who has won numerous international awards and has sung in concerts with the San Francisco Symphony. She gave a fine performance of “Depuis le jour,” exhibiting excellent diction and great vocal control in an aria full of vocal flights of fancy and exuberance. Following this aria, Carlo Ponti conducted the Sphinx Orchestra in preludes to two Verdi Operas, Rigoletto and La Traviata. These two preludes couldn’t be more different: the Rigoletto prelude is agitated and ominous, featuring blaring brass, while the La Traviata prelude is quiet and introspective, featuring limpid strings. Rounding out the first half of the program was the duet Parigi o cara” from La Traviata sung by Matthew Polenzani and Nadine Sierra. From the beginning, conductor Carlo Ponti established the tempo as a slow, dreamy interpretation of this duet, as if Alfredo and Violetta were indulging in some illusory dream they momentarily shared even in the face of her terminally ill and weakened condition. Beautifully sung by Polenzani and Sierra, this brief duet was infinitely poignant. 

Following the intermission, conductor Carlo Ponti led the Sphnix Orchestra in the overture to Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. As the program notes indicated, the overture contrasts the opening military march with ensuing moments of tender lyricism. However, Ponti’s conducting failed to bring out these contrasting dynamics; and I found his overall approach too broadly (and loudly) portrayed. Next came Nadine Sierra singing “Je veux vivre” from Charles Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette. In this aria, young Juliette, who has not yet met her Roméo, sings of the joys of youth before the onset of love, which will bring inevitable suffering. Nadine Sierra sang this aria beautifully, her own youthful voice expressing both Juliette’s naïve momentary happiness and her dread of what lies in store for her.  

Now Matthew Polenzani returned to sing the famous Neapolitan song “O sole mio,” com-posed in 1898 by Eduardo de Capua with lyrics in Neapolitan dialect by Giovanni Capurro. Polenzani gave a full-throated rendition of the famous first stanza, with its repeats, then gave a pianissimo rendering of the opening lines of the second stanza, later returning to full voice for the famous concluding refrain. For the concert’s final number, Nadine Sierra rejoined Matthew Pol-enzani on stage to perform Act I’s closing scene from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Pol-enzani’s aria “Che gelida manina” was beautifully sung, full of emotion and longing, as was his follow-up, “Chi Son? Son un poeta.” Likewise, when it became Nadine Sierra’s turn to give voice to Mimi’s response to Rodolfo’s opening, Sierra sang “Mi chiamano Mimi” with just the right touch of simplicity and humility, while establishing the beauty of Mimi’s character with her rapturous voice. Then, as the final scene of Act I of La Bohème drew to a close, Polenzani and Sierra, as Rodolfo and Mimi, walked arm-in-arm offstage, disappearing into the wings as their voices still rang out with words of love.  

Thus came to a close the musical events of the 2014 Festival del Sole. As for the events pairing food with wine, as in a Patron Dinner and a Closing Dinner, I found them enjoyable but underwhelming in the former and rudely disappointing -- or should I say, disappointingly rude-- in the latter. Let’s leave it at that.