Archive for September, 2011

A single day at the end of August separated the end and beginning of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) tours on two continents.  David and Wu Han were the common denominators of the artist rosters, with one festival being a return visit and the other breaking new international touring ground.

In David’s Words

Germany: August 22-29

With a solid week of New York work under our belts after returning from Music@Menlo, Wu Han and I headed out over the Atlantic on August 22nd for the idyllic village of Heiligendamm on the Baltic Sea.  The spectacular Grand Hotel Heiligendamm awaited our return, as did the equally spectacular Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festspiele.

Arriving over the next two days were CMS musicians Ani Kavafian, Yura Lee and Richard O’Neill, who would join us for four concerts in three locations throughout the region. The festival – the third largest in Germany – runs for the summer months and presents concerts in eighty (!) different venues.  Now in its twenty-first season, the festival has grown in size and popularity, and, according to festival director Matthias van Hülsen, there are now more venues offered by local towns and wealthy landowners with castles and barns than they can even accommodate.  What a luxury of infrastructure!

The resort town of Heiligendamm came to life in 1793, when the Grand Emperor of Mecklenburg Friedrich Franz I, on advice from his doctor, jumped into the chilly Baltic and emerged a new man, apparently.  The fashion of visiting Germany’s only sea coast caught on, and famous white buildings sprang up along the coast, soon becoming Germany’s first and most important resort. Mendelssohn once visited the hotel, and said that his Midsummer Night’s dream music was inspired, in part, by walks in nearby forests.

An added pleasure of this residency is the opportunity to collaborate with other world-class musicians.  Among them on this visit was violinist Daniel Hope, who is the Artistic Partner of the festival, and young cellist Li-Wei Qin, who is this season’s Artist-in-Residence.

Daniel, with a barrage of new recordings from Deutsche Grammophon, his fourth book just published (Toi Toi Toi, a collection of stories of concert disasters to which I contributed a dubious story as well), with his fluent German, winning personality and stunning violin playing, is riding the crest of one of most exciting – and meaningful – career waves I have ever seen. Music directorships in Mecklenburg, and at the Savannah Music Festival, give him the opportunity to assume, what is for him, natural leadership roles. He speaks beautifully to the audiences before every concert, and the people love him (he is truly the Wu Han of his own festivals). He deserves every bit of his success and we are very proud to be a little part of his enormously exciting artistic life.

Li-Wei Qin was a pleasure to come to know, both musically and personally.  A “big” style cellist, his playing is generous in every way, with a large, beautiful sound, solid technique, and keen ensemble skills and instincts that make him a wonderful collaborator. Li-Wei is a truly international character, born in Shanghai, raised in Australia and now living in Singapore.  We hope to see him soon in the U.S. so that American audiences can enjoy him as we did.

Our first concert, as it was last year, was in the spacious dining room of the Grand Hotel.  And the program was certainly not for faint-hearted players, consisting of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet on the first half, and the Schubert Cello Quintet after the intermission.

The capacity audience responded warmly, making us feel they remembered us from last year.  Green room festivities led to a sumptuous buffet dinner at the hotel, during which Richard O’Neill bestowed his gift of flowers to a woman from the front row who had gallantly retrieved his music for him when it got knocked off the stand.

Daniel seems to have fun wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, and during the week he couldn’t seem to get enough of Li-Wei’s charismatic son Stanley.  Actually, none of us could get enough of this lovable boy.  Daniel, despite his heavy responsibilities, always has energy and interest in a late-night bar opportunity, for which we were happy to join him.

The following day we journeyed to the tiny town of Schönberg, about two hours southwest of Heiligendamm, for our second concert, which took place in a breathtaking 13th century church.  This program also had its unique challenges: a string trio by Haydn, transcribed from his piano sonata Op. 55, that none of us had played before; a Mozart violin-viola duo; a little piano trio in tribute to Haydn by William Bolcom; and finally, after intermission, the Schumann Piano Quintet.  Fortunately, the performance went off without a hitch and the German Radio (NDR) got a good recording of it for broadcast.

The concert setting was absolutely wonderful.  An elaborate drink-selling truck was parked in the little space near the church, as well as a würst-boiling trailer.  The drink truck was staffed by pretty girls and the hotdogs were cooked by burly men.  The crowd arrived plenty early and ate and drank before, in the interval, and after the concert.  Fortunately, they stayed late especially for the musicians and we stood out in the nice weather, happily wolfing down food before boarding the cars back to Heiligendamm.

Friday could have been called a day off except for the need to rehearse for our final two programs on Saturday and Sunday.  The weather gave us some nice moments to eat on the restaurant terrace overlooking the lawn and the sea.

Our last concert locations were too far away to perform as run-outs from Heiligendammm, but no matter: when we drove into the castle grounds of Ulrichshusen, none of us could believe our eyes.

This place was bought and renovated some years ago by Helmuth von Maltzahn, a descendent of the original builders of the place in the 1650’s.  The grounds contain vast fields and lakes, numerous outbuildings, the castle itself which contains a massive central dining space and guest rooms, and a large stone barn where the concerts happen that seats one thousand people.

As we climbed the stairs to check in, we got a call from Daniel and his more-than-charming friend Sylvana in their top-floor suite.

The concert on Saturday night was the festival’s annual gala. For this, all the most important supporters of the festival were on hand, including politicians, heads of corporations, etc.  For the first time, instead of a full orchestra concert, the festival tried a chamber music performance and liked it even more.  I hope this aspect of the festival becomes a tradition.

The program was a collection of spectacular, sure-to-be-crowd-pleasing works: the entire Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence as the first half, and a second half of Gypsy-inspired music which included Ravel’s Tzigane, played by Daniel and Wu Han, and finished with an arrangement for all of us of Brahms’s famous Hungarian Dance.  The crowd would not let us go until we had walked the long distance from backstage many times.

Even more memorable than the concert, I have to say, was the party.  For part of the tradition here is a crawfish dinner, something people go wild over.  The pre-dinner scene back at the castle was a sight to behold: giant cauldrons over wood fires boiled the crawfish, and waiters lined up to deliver bowl after bowl of them to the ravenous Germans.  On top of that were sausages, steaks, and all the wine and beer one could imagine.  It was quite a night.

The only blemish on this evening, and the entire week, was the increasing decline in health of Wu Han’s parents back in Taiwan.  Just before the gala concert she received word that her father’s situation was grave, and with a heavy heart she asked Daniel and Matthias for permission to leave as soon as possible, to which they graciously agreed. Wu Han departed in before dawn for flights from Hamburg to Beijing to Taipei and into that region’s typhoon. Instead of the Brahms g minor piano quartet on Sunday for our final concert, the musicians enthusiastically reprised their performance of the Schubert Quintet from our first night, which followed the Tchaikovsky Sextet and a lengthy intermission.

The concert being at 4pm gave us the opportunity – as tempting as it was to stay another night in the castle – to journey in the early evening, by daylight, to Hamburg from where our flights would leave early the next morning. During a farewell musician dinner of Riesling and Wiener schnitzel, we recalled the week’s good times, and finally, quite late, bid fond goodbyes. Wu Han and I were immensely proud of our musicians’ stellar playing, which rose to the highest level on every occasion and was deeply appreciated by the discriminating audiences. It was a very good week for CMS.

Colombia: August 30-September 4

After a single turn-around day in New York, we (along with violinist Erin Keefe and violist Mark Holloway) boarded flights for Medellín, Colombia, to inaugurate CMS’s first concert tour in South America.

This visit was organized by the Cartagena Music Festival, which for some years was run by founding CMS artistic director Charles Wadsworth, and is now directed by the estimable pianist, composer, and arranger Stephen Prutsman.  (CMS listeners who were there will undoubtedly never forget Stephen’s landmark recital, Bach and Forth, presented by us during our Baroque Festival of 2010.)  Cartagena sits on Colombia’s north coast and is a tourist destination, with the annual festival taking place in January. The festival is reaching out across the country, though, gathering listeners and creative festival awareness throughout Colombia. Hence, we were scheduled to appear in three cities: Medellín, Cali and Bogotá.

Medellín, a city I visited for the first time only last May on an Emerson Quartet tour, is the second largest city in Colombia, founded by the Spanish in 1616.  It is recently and unfortunately known the world over as the home of the infamous Medellín drug cartel that flourished in the 1980’s, making the city at one point the most violent in the world.  Today, however, a visitor feels safe, welcome and entertained by the city’s vibrant culture and spectacular setting, a mile high yet set in a picturesque valley.

Upon arrival we were greeted by Stephen Prutsman himself, and his indomitable staff assistants Luisa and Sergio, who accompanied us virtually everywhere on the tour. Our first meal, on the steep road leading down into the city, afforded us delicious Colombian food and spectacular views.

The next day brought us to our venue to rehearse in the afternoon.  The luxury of our hotel was strongly contrasted by sights along the way, with a considerable number people seemingly living off the streets .

However, it is obvious that people in Medellín are hard-working and industrious, and are making efforts to beautify their surroundings (notice the trees painted on the wall that augment the living tree in the foreground).

Another sign of local pride are the immaculate, shining buses, elaborately decorated, that enliven the city streets.

A converted factory, the Museo de Arte Moderne is a striking space, with galleries in the alcoves and a high vaulted ceiling.

Later in the day, on the way to our concert, we were treated to a tour of the headquarters of fashion designer Ana Urrea, a music enthusiast and Cartagena Festival patron.

We all admired the clothes, and appreciated the hospitality of her staff.

Ana and Wu Han discussed concert dresses.  Who knows what may come of it?

After arriving at the museum, Erin, Mark and I warmed up in the company of lively works of art.

Stephen, in fluent Spanish, welcomed the audience.

Our program for all three concerts consisted of Haydn’s famous “Gypsy” trio in G major, the Beethoven sonata for piano and cello in A major, and the gigantic Brahms Piano  Quartet in g minor.  For an encore, we offered the enthusiastic audience the heavenly slow movement from Brahms’s c minor piano quartet.   After the concert (as seems to be the norm in South America) we were besieged with young listeners seeking autographs and photos.

The next day we flew south to the city of Cali.  The industrious staff carried with them all the promotional materials for the concerts, loading boxes of posters into the back of a pickup truck.

Cali, which sits in south western Colombia, was founded in 1536 by Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spanish explorer who came to the New World with Columbus on his third voyage.  During the period of South American uprisings against Spanish rule in the early 19th century, Cali was taken over by the Criollos, people of predominantly Spanish descent who had been born locally.  Simón Bolívar, the great Venezuelan liberator, arrived in Cali in 1822.

After a brief rest in the elegant Casa del Alfarez hotel, Wu Han taught a master class with Stephen Prutsman at the Conservatorio de Bellas Artes, our venue for the concert later that day.  She was astounded to find a group of gifted students tackling the Elgar Quintet.

Later we were all driven (in beautiful SUV’s) to the Conservatorio for our rehearsal and concert. The building was teeming with students and  bustling with musical activities.  I felt right at home.

The beautiful hall, with warm acoustics, seats about five hundred, and was packed for the concert with the Cali elite and a horde of students.

After the concert, we were treated to a chic reception in the small hall upstairs. The food was pinned to the walls in little plastic cups, and green lasers flickered on the guests.

On the way to the airport the next morning, we shared the highway with a herd of cattle.

The final city of our Colombia tour was Bogotá, the country’s largest city (more than 7 million inhabitants), and its capital.  Our hotel, graciously provided by the festival (as were all of our accommodations), was the beautiful Hotel Casa Medina, in the city’s most elegant neighborhood.

Our venue was the concert hall of the magnificent new Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo, located somewhat on the outskirts of town, but fast becoming the arts center of choice for locals.

As was the custom on this tour, our dress rehearsal was filmed for broadcast for the local television station.  Would that North America afford classical music such media exposure!

In addition to the footage shot for local news, the concert itself was broadcast live, adding a bit of an edge to our final performance of the tour.  The large hall held a very well-to-do looking crowd, which joined us in an adjacent theater space for a high-end reception.  It was here that we first met Julia Salvi, the Cartagena Festival’s lead patron, pictured here with Stephen Prutsman and festival artist-in-residence Mateo López.

The following day, after a late dinner and a good night’s sleep, we headed over to the Auditorio León de Greiff in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to give a lecture-demonstration.  The University is public, and, by law, the police are not allowed to enter the campus. The place therefore has a kind of revolutionary feel, with elaborate graffiti proving the institution’s defining visual feature.

The concert poster, carried from city to city by the festival staff, was prominently positioned above the theater entrance.

Inside, television crews scrambled to set up for the 11am event, and Stephen Prutsman directed the action masterfully in Spanish, English and body language.

Backstage, the musicians found a moment to relax.

On stage at 11:05, in front of several hundred students, we were interviewed about our lives in music, answering numerous questions about our young years, our families, how we had chosen music, our studies and our careers. It was a fascinating talk, interesting  to us as well to hear about Erin’s and Mark’s musical beginnings.

After a brief break to set the stage, we performed the entire Brahms piano quartet for the students, who listened intensely and rewarded us with a standing ovation.

In front of the hall we had the chance to meet the many enthusiastic students.  I showed a couple of cellists the tuner and metronome on my iPhone, Erin and Mark posed for photos, and Wu Han signed programs and posters.

At this moment, Wu Han and I would like to acknowledge the contributions to this tour of two fantastic sets of people: our musicians, and our presenters, the Cartagena Festival.  Erin Keefe and Mark Holloway not only performed at peak levels in all varieties of situations, but were gracious representatives of CMS, endearing themselves to public and presenters alike. And the festival staff who accompanied us on the entire tour were not only friendly and caring, but diligent, hard-working and tireless in their service to the project. Stephen Prutsman proved as inspiring an arts leader as he is a performer, and is setting a stunning example for the festival in all ways.

A drive across town – always interesting – took us to our final event of the tour.

This restaurant, called Andrés D.C., consists of many floors connected by open staircases, and was one of the wildest and most fun places we have ever visited.  Between the Mojitos, the mouthwatering barbecue, the teeming crowd and the entertaining actors and musicians (enacting the Cinderella story) it was a lunch to remember, and a fantastic way to end the first CMS tour to South America. The following photos certainly speak for themselves.

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