In another of the Chamber Music Society’s recent overseas ventures, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and violinist Arnaud Sussmann joined David, Wu Han, and musicians from Europe and Great Britain for appearances at the Mecklenburg Festival, one of the continent’s largest and most widespread. With the Festival’s new Artistic Partner, violinist Daniel Hope, contributing his creativity and charismatic presence, the Mecklenburg Festival, now closing its 20th season, sees a bright future in which CMS is thrilled to play a role.
in David’s words…
Having never played at the Mecklenburg Festival, but also having heard wonderful things about it, we were excited and curious to learn everything we could about another great festival, to see a different (for us) part of Germany, to make new friends on stage and off. Arriving separately from Denmark and Austria, Wu Han and I reunited at the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm, the site of Germany’s first seaside resort, on the Baltic Sea.
The region of Mecklenburg, part of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, lies in the north eastern part of Germany, bordering Poland. Once part of the Holy Roman Empire and Hanseatic League, and with the powerful and strategic city of Rostock on the coast, the flat, sparsely populated region is rich in natural parks, and is, as it was already in the 19th century, a prime tourist destination.
Heiligendamm, a settlement on the coast, became Germany’s first seaside resort in 1793, when the Grand Emperor of Mecklenburg Friedrich Franz I, on the recommendation of his doctor, took a dip in the ocean for his health and pronounced it successful. A gigantic boulder positioned prominently between the hotel and the sea commemorates the event.
The Mecklenburg Festival, begun in 1990, is spread over the entire region, performing this season 120 concerts in 70 different venues, from concert halls to barns and churches and open air settings. The Festival has a significant component of young performers, the Young Elite, who mix in with established artists, creating a vibrant atmosphere not unlike that of the present day CMS.
For our concerts, we readily agreed to collaborate with artists from the festival, including Austrian clarinetist Matthias Schorn, cellist Josephine Knight, violist Philip Dukes, percussionists Alexej Gerassimez and Simon Klavzar, and of course violinist Daniel Hope.
The repertoire, however, was key, as we decided to bring significant and diverse American chamber music, as well as European classics.
Our opening program was in the opulent salon and ballroom of the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm (all of the CMS concerts were completely sold out well in advance).
We were graciously introduced by festival director Matthias von Hülsen and also by Daniel Hope, who drove in at breakneck speed in his Porsche from Berlin in order to hear the concert.
Anne-Marie McDermott and Wu Han opened with the charming Souvenirs by Samuel Barber for piano, four hands, followed by Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue. After intermission, Arnaud Sussmann, Anne-Marie and I played the Brahms B major trio, luxuriating in the rapt attention of the German audience which sat contentedly through long performance, which included the first movement repeat (which none of us had ever heard or done before!).
Performances at the festival were always followed by much merry-making and partying, including, in Heiligendamm, hors d’oeuvres in the magnificent suite provided for me and Wu Han.
It was an unexpected pleasure to find at our concert a great friend of many years, Dr. Steven Paul, a scholar, radio personality and flutist who was for many years the Emerson Quartet’s Executive Producer at Deutsche Grammophon, and whose brilliant liner notes grace ArtistLed’s Franck and Strauss CD.
For the second concert we traveled 2 hours by car to the state capital of Schwerin. The countryside of the region is quietly picturesque, with seemingly endless fields populated by cows, bales of hay, and numerous power-generating windmills.
We performed in Schwerin’s beautiful Schelfkirche, once again for a packed house, and once again featuring an interesting array of American music. I began with the sublime Fancy on a Bach Air by John Corigliano for solo cello, followed by the wild, beautiful and wacky work by Gottschalk called The Union, bravely performed for the first time by Anne-Marie McDermott. The Gottschalk uses special effects to create the sound of drums, and includes renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle, and Hail Columbia. Mark O’Connor’s Jig for violin and followed, played by Arnaud and the marvelous British violist Philip Dukes, and Wu Han, Arnaud and I closed the first half with a performance of Pierre Jalbert’s Piano Trio, the first work of his we ever heard and have since programmed at CMS in New York and at Music@Menlo.
This concert closed with the Dvorak Piano Quintet, played by Daniel Hope, Arnaud, Philip Dukes, Josephine Knight and Wu Han. The crowd would not let them leave, and they had to repeat the Scherzo.
After a gracious reception at the offices of the Festival (which are in Schwerin across from the church) we drove back to Heiligendamm to rest up for the next night’s performance, our final one, in the city of Stralsund, this location two hours to the north east and on the Baltic coast.
Stralsund is an ancient city which boasts, as many cities in the region do, Hanseatic architecture, which features gabled brick buildings. Some structures on the town square dated from the 13th century, among them the magnificent façade of the town hall, which is emblazoned with the coats-of-arms of the six historic Hanseatic cities.
The concert took place in a large, formal concert hall steps from the town center, and once again was completely filled with eager audience, some of whom had traveled to hear all three of our concerts. The program was once again challenging, beginning with Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for viola, clarinet and piano (with Philip Dukes, Matthias Schorn and Wu Han), and continuing with George Tsontakis’s Knickknacks for violin and viola (played by Arnaud and Philip, originally composed for and premiered by Ida Kavafian and Steven Tenenbom), and closing the first half, Paul Schoenfield’s hair-raising Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, played with consummate virtuosity by Matthias, Arnaud and Anne-Marie.
The intermission – as well as the bulk of the all-day rehearsal preceding the five p.m. concert, was given over to preparing the stage for George Crumb’s masterpiece Music for a Summer Evening, a work that has particularly captivated us ever since Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish (for whom it was composed) performed it for the CMS 2008-09 series Night Fantasies. Wu Han has since programmed the work for herself to play in Aspen, at Music@Menlo, during the coming season at CMS again (the Night Fantasies performance was hampered by a fire at the Society for Ethical Culture), and in Mecklenburg.
The work is a natural for some special lighting, with fade-ins and outs at the beginning and end, and working out the timings with the crew is always a complicated challenge. In the rehearsal, Wu Han, who possessed by far the most experience with the work, directed everyone with authority.
The percussion instruments are numerous, and it takes a good two hours to lay them all out, not to mention learning how to play them in perfect coordination with the two pianists. Anne-Marie, the real trooper of the tour, also gave her first performance of this work, and was unfazed, learning how to negotiate all the tricks inside the prepared piano, play various percussion instruments, and performing the vocal effects required from the performers, which include sighing, groaning, whistling, mumbling and yelling various words which have no meaning but which carry visceral impact.
As the lights went down, the audience, instead of quieting down as we wanted them to, started talking even louder. I could tell this was going to be a new experience for many of them. Finally, some started to shush the crowd (me among them and possibly the performers themselves, who had sneaked on stage in the dark). As in every performance of this work I’ve heard, however, the people really seemed mesmerized after a short time, and by the end were listening as reverently as if it were Schubert.
A long ovation followed, of the German type – not hugely vocal, but steady and very persistent. I lost track of how many bows were required, and, toting flowers, the all the musicians of the day were recalled to the stage again and again, until the public finally gave up, and our Mecklenburg Festival residency was at an end.
Returning to the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm, we were treated to a lavish dinner by the hotel’s owner, who had also journeyed to hear the concert. A very early departure for New York curtailed the evening’s revelry, but we were gratified by the apparent success of this partnership, and excited to be talking at length with Daniel and Matthias about future seasons.
We could not have had more gracious and enthusiastic hosts, or a better festival to help cultivate CMS’s overseas activities. Our musicians were proud to share the music of America, and thoroughly enjoyed the collaborations and new friendships with the great players who were there. Although there were only four of us participating, this time, we sensed that CMS, as a whole, grew from the experience and that indeed a exciting and vital dimension of the organization’s artistic future lies beyond our shores.