Orcas Island Festival Turns 15
Two Heggie Premieres Triumph
by Melissa Bargreen | American Record Guide
When the big white and green ferry noses its way through a seascape dotted with green islands to the Orcas Island dock, you enter a new world with a different time zone. You’re on Orcas time now, pausing to drink in the vistas from every direction: rocky seascapes, rolling hills and wide valleys, dark green forests, little boats chugging past in quest of adventure or salmon (orboth).
August visitors usually keep an eye on the clock, though, because they don’t want to miss any of the start times for the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival (“Classical Music with a View”). The creation of violinist-violist Aloysia Friedmann and her pianist-husband Jon Kimura Parker, the festival celebrated its 15th anniversary in August with the kind of imaginative and venturesome programming that has drawn great performers and eager audiences to the island every summer. This year the lineup included two world premieres by Jake Heggie, works in many forms (including jazz) inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, an intimate song evening with Frederica Von Stade, and a free concert on the Village Green with two pianos (Parker and Orli Shaham) and instruments with a program extending from Carnival of the Animals to a set of Broadway show tunes.
Friedmann, as artistic director and chief architect of the festival, excels at the “why not?” school of programming that embraces all sorts of instruments, genres, and styles. You never know whether you’re going to encounter a harpsichord or a bandoneon, a beloved seniorcitizen artist or a fresh-faced youngster. And if The Four Seasons is on the program, it’s likely to be by Piazzolla and not Vivaldi.
Over the past 15 years, the Orcas Festival has assembled a veritable kaleidoscope of programs and events—quite a change from its more casual Labor Day weekend opening concerts back in 1998. It was a family-and-friends enterprise, born during visits to the Friedmann family’s summer home in a tiny waterfront community on Orcas Island. Reveling in the scenery and in their happy experiences over the years at the older, larger Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Friedmann and her then boyfriend Parker decided to present a few small concerts with musical friends. Her family was emphatically on board: her violinist father, Martin Friedmann, was a longtime mainstay of the Seattle Symphony’s first violin section; and her mother, Laila Storch, was oboist of the Soni Ventorum Wind Quintet at the University of Washington.
The concerts promptly sold out, and to meet the community’s demand the festival grew a little, especially when floods of mainland music lovers caught wind of what was going on (Lynn Harrell, Chee-Yun, Frederica Von Stade, PDQ Bach-Peter Schickele) and began trekking northward. But the festival didn’t grow too much. Friedmann and Parker never intended to rival the larger Seattle one, where they met as fellow performers and fell in love; the Orcas venues are much smaller, and the organizers have wanted to keep intact the homegrown feeling of the island community. They’re very careful not to spoil what they’ve created by over-inflating it. There’s a happy buzz about the festival as the volunteers dash around, opening their homes for parties, taking the artists out for whale-watching boat rides, baking treats for the participants at “Music Lovers’ Seminars”, and serving up the free post-concert appetizer buffet for all the concert-goers.
After the post-concert reception, all the artists and administrators sit down to a sumptuous catered dinner in an adjacent room, where chefs outdo themselves in culinary presentations based on local ingredients—a seafood bisque flavored with homegrown dill, for example, and a fruit crumble with justpickedberries.
Over time, the festival moved away from Labor Day weekend to a less cramped and busy time span (the 2012 dates were Aug. 9-25) that allows for a lot of enhancements. Thanks to a grant from Chamber Music America, the Orcas Islanders are on the move, presenting “hamlet concerts” in tiny community centers around the island and venturing offshore to the neighboring island of Lopez for an evening with the festival’s 2012 resident Miro Quartet.
The high points of the festival’s 15 years are too numerous to list, but among the most striking innovations was the 2004 presentation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Parker and Anton Nel at the piano, dancers from the San Francisco Ballet interpreting the ballet with a backdrop screen where previously-filmed dance scenes were interwoven with real-time close-ups of the pianists’ hands in action. That one was sold out so long in advance that Friedmann decided to open the rehearsal for a nominal fee and was promptly stampeded by eager attendees.
You never quite know what you’re going to encounter on Orcas, whether it’s Alp horn calls summoning the audience to the little theater, or the thunder of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or a theatrical performance of Michael Daugherty’s Dead Elvis lighting up the house.
And then there was the year when they brought together the legendary 97-year-old filmmaker-photographer Otto Lang (1908-2006), pianist Claude Frank, and commentator Gerard Schwarz for a discussion and presentation of Lang’s film Beethoven: Ordeal and Triumph (in which Frank, who also played the piano in that evening’s program, had starred as Beethoven).
Or how about the 2009 debut of Craigslistlieder? That was a quirky and entertaining song cycle by Gabriel Kahane, based on anonymous ads from www.craigslist.com. The same season also was the year of the animals: each program started out with an animal themed piece, from Gershwin’s ‘Walking the Dog’ and Copland’s ‘Cat and Mouse’ to Kahane’s Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog.
All these novelties, alongside the “usual suspects” of the chamber music festivals (all the Brahmses and Beethovens and Schuberts, and the ever-popular Mendelssohn Octet), keep audiences and performers alike on their toes and well entertained. So did the second outdoors concert this season on the Village Green in Eastsound, the island’s little central hub of a town, where residents brought their blankets and lawn chairs in for a festive lightclassics program (with narration by children’s author Jack Prelutsky and Broadway songs sung by baritone Rod Gilfry) that was free for all.
Over the years, world premieres are a fixture at this festival, and 2012 was no exception with two brand-new works by opera composer Jake Heggie (whose opera Moby-Dick was also represented with an aria sung by Gilfry). Heggie wrote an affectionate tribute to Friedmann and Parker, with each of them on two instruments: Friedmann on violin and viola, and Parker on piano and harpsichord. Called Orcas Island Ferry, the four-movement suite captured what Heggie called “the sense of journeying out on a crowded ferry and then arriving someplace magical”.
Heggie’s brand-new song cycle, This Is My Beloved, got a tremendous performance from Gilfry (who sang the challenging 20-minute work without a score), accompanied by the composer at the piano and two other instrumentalists, violinist Andres Cardenes and cellist Anne Martindale Williams. Based on a book of erotically charged poems by Walter Benton (1907-76), the song cycle (like the book) traces the arc of a love affair from the first rush of joyous emotion to the lonely resignation of the end.
Heggie chose PG-rated excerpts from some of the free-verse poems to set to his wonderfully descriptive music. The opening song moves edgily forward and then erupts into a full-blown tango; the second is an idyllic succession of dreamy, reverent chords that ideally support the text, as the lovers “move closer to heaven”. Later, at a less optimistic point in the cycle, Heggie underscores the foreboding with spare, repeated notes that almost recall the opening of Ravel’s ‘Scarbo’, as it finally devolves into a wild instrumental tarantella underneath the singer’s despairing lines. As the love-affair text and music begin to fade, the soloist hums the closing theme. Once again, it was clear that Heggie is at his very best with voice and text; and it is hard to imagine a better exponent than Gilfry.
A pair of charming flute-based pieces opened the program: CPE Bach’s Trio Sonata in B-flat and Mozart’s spirited Flute Quartet in D (the former with Parker at a harpsichord that was built in 1963 by his father-in-law). Both of these works displayed the agile, expressive, and beautifully centered sound of flutist Lorna McGhee. (Both pieces have extra-musical associations too: Friedmann’s parents recorded the CPE Bach piece together in Salzburg in 1957 as newlyweds, with Laila Storch taking the flute part on the oboe. And McGhee and the evening’s violist, her husband David Harding, first met while performing that very Mozart quartet.)
The evening’s finale had Gilfry and Parker performing Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ followed by the great Death and the Maiden Quartet, whose second movement was inspired by it. The Miro Quartet explored the full expressive range of this death-obsessed work, concluding with a finale whose fierce energy drew gasps and riotous applause.