A few weeks ago, I was in steamy Rome, where I dropped in on the second annual Rome Chamber Music Festival, an event that has enlivened the Eternal City’s midsummer doldrums with an injection of American sass. Most of the sass comes from Robert McDuffie, a concert violinist from New York who founded the festival two years ago after spending six months as a visiting fellow at the American Academy in Rome. For the festival’s six concerts, which took place during the third and fourth weeks of June, Mr. McDuffie persuaded the academy to lend him a gilded salon in its most splendid building—the 17th-century Villa Aurelia. He invited a few of his pals to join him in programs that featured both familiar chamber pieces and a work by an American composer unfamiliar to most Italians. This was my second visit to the festival, and so far the formula—espresso spiked with bourbon—is working beautifully.
I caught the last of this year’s programs, which opened with an elegant new work for two violins and viola by Paul Moravec, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2004. (The other American selection in this year’s festival was a string trio by the virtuoso bass player and bluegrass-influenced composer, Edgar Meyer.) Entitled “Atmosfera a Villa Aurelia,” the Moravec piece is dedicated to the New York socialite Mercedes Bass, who (with the help of her husband, Texas oil billionaire Sid R. Bass) picked up most of the tab for the sumptuous restoration of the villa and its beautifully regimented gardens. A magical work that evokes both the linear fervor of the Italian Baroque and the harmonic spaciousness of contemporary music in the New World, Mr. Moravec’s trio deserves a life beyond its occasion. It was a seductive tease to the doubling of forces that followed: Brahms’ String Sextet in B-flat Major and Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” in D for String Sextet, both of which received readings whose sheer drive more than made up for whatever they lacked in polish and subtlety.
Mr. McDuffie’s preppy good looks and Southern charm belie a take-no-prisoners style of playing that he picked up from a mentor he describes as “the only Hungarian violin teacher in Macon, Ga.” The other members of the multinational sextet—violinist Janine Jansen, violists Misha Amory and Hsin-Yun Huang, and cellists Enrico Dindo and Jan Vogler—struggled mightily to match his ardor. Notes crackled; phrases soared; sweat flew. Without slighting the other players, I was particularly taken with Mr. Dindo, the one Italian in the group. His rich sonorities and singing phrases reminded everyone that although the music may have come from 19th-century Germany and Russia, we were hearing it in the land where opera was born.
I arrived back in New York just as that annual assortment of exotica, the Lincoln Center Festival, was beginning to spill forth. Still to come were head-twisters by such eminences as Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Wilson. But for pure enchantment, I doubt if anything in the festival will equal the first offering—Basil Twist’s production of La Bella Dormente nel Bosco (“Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”), an opera for puppets, supported by human voices and orchestra, by the early 20th-century Italian composer Ottorino Respighi.
After the opera’s premiere in 1922, La Bella Dormente enjoyed worldwide popularity as well as a significant enlargement: In 1934, Respighi revised the piece for child mimes and a bigger orchestra. For the festival version, which was staged in the spacious auditorium at John Jay College, Mr. Twist used mostly outsized marionettes or string puppets, manned by 12 puppeteers. His musical collaborator, Neal Goren, the artistic director of the Gotham Chamber Opera, conducted seven soloists, the 20-member Fuma Sacra Chamber Choir, and a large chamber orchestra. All of them (including the efficiently choreographed, hard-working puppeteers) were in more or less constant view of the audience, which only added to the evening’s spirit of homemade fun.
Respighi, whose Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome remain the quintessential travel-poster music of the last century, was a shameless borrower from the past (no wonder Mussolini was a fan). La Bella Dormente, a tastefully assembled pastiche rife with near-quotations from Rossini, Wagner, Verdi and Strauss, is probably his most fully realized dramatic work. He was a fantasist whose gift for vivid orchestration and direct melodic expression—unsullied by modernist ambiguity—was perfectly suited to the gentle charms of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale. Musically and dramatically, La Bella Dormente goes down as easily as a cone stuffed with multi-colored gelato.
Resphigi is the ideal composer for Mr. Twist, whose best-known previous New York show was a staging of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for abstract marionettes in a giant fish tank. Unlike Julie Taymor, whose puppets fly through the air bearing the stamp of cultural importance (“Ah, the wonders of Bali!”), Mr. Twist’s creations seem to come straight from the fairy tale itself. Innocent of any intention other than to be obdurately what they are (a quality reinforced by the visible workings of their masters), they move us with their utter lack of guile. I have nothing but praise for the fluency and the verve with which Mr. Goren kept this lovely extravaganza musically afloat. The soloists, especially the soprano Olga Makarina as the Blue Fairy and the Nightingale and the tenor Eduardo Valdes, were all superb, singing with a gusto that could have done justice to a fully flesh-and-blood Tristan.
Elegant and Earthy
Caramoor International Music Festival, in northern Westchester County, has been on a high ever since its new artistic director, Michael Barrett, arrived last summer to give this previously rather tatty event a real identity. Mr. Barrett is one of the co-founders, along with Stephen Blier, of the redoubtable New York Festival of Song, and it’s not surprising that NYFOS (as the enterprise is known to its followers) is making a strong contribution to this summer’s fare. One of the most rewarding of the many brilliant thematic programs in the NYFOS anthology is a recital devoted to Cuban composers whose names—Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, Eliseo Grenet, Jorge Anckermann, Odaline de la Martinez, Harold Gramatges, Hilario Gonzáles, José Mauri, Rodrigo Prats, Gonzalo Roig, Maria Matilde Alea, Auarelio de la Vega, Alejandro García Caturla, Alberto Villalón, Ernesto Lecuona, Moisés Simons—aren’t likely to ring many bells with gringos. They couldn’t have found a more appropriate setting than Caramoor’s Spanish Courtyard, whose walls and shutters look as though they haven’t been touched up since before the Revolution.
In his program notes, Mr. Blier notes that “Cuban music is like other Latin music—only it’s different … filled with mysterious resonances and hidden meanings.” He adds that the music “served as an important forum for expressing and (sometimes) synthesizing the social and political tensions of the island”—especially “the clash between Cuba’s Spanish and African elements—the dominant class and the underclass.”
This is undoubtedly so, but during an evening that Caramoor billed as “Dance Date with Cuba,” I found myself forgetting about social and racial conflict and being swept away by the beguiling tension between elegance and earthiness that permeated each of these remarkably diverse songs.
The most memorable contribution was the least “Cuban” of the selections: four “Canciones” by Odaline de la Martinez, a composer who grew up in the United States and lives in Britain and who chose for her texts poems by the Spanish master García Lorca. Death-haunted, tear-stained, driven by abandoned love and suffused by the night, they became hallucinatory as melodic outbursts punctuated by a percussionist’s painfully spare accompaniment. The singer was Vivica Genaux, a mezzo-soprano of Modiglianiesque beauty with a voice of penetrating purity. The incisive percussionist was Danny Villanueva.
No less essential to the evening’s delight were Monique McDonald, an irrepressible dramatic soprano; Jeffrey Picón, a tenor with winning charisma and unforced expressiveness; Alexander Fiterstein, a nimble clarinetist; Thomas Kraines, a grave cellist; and Mr. Blier and Mr. Barrett, who provided, as usual, loving support at the piano. The temperature in the courtyard never got below 80; the air was still to the point of suffocating. But it didn’t matter: There was more than enough breeze blowing from Havana.