Sunday, September 30, 2007

Review: Alexander Paley Music Festival

Sept. 29-30, Virginia Commonwealth University

Pianist Alexander Paley closed the 10th season of his Richmond music festival with onstage remarks suggesting that this event has run its course. He spoke of differing philosophies with local supporters on "what a music festival should be" and a financial situation he termed "a catastrophe." The festival, started on his own initiative, has never had institutional backing, other than what a couple of local churches could provide; it never drew consistent support from the patrons who sustain other arts ventures, and it rarely played to large audiences.

Paley has publicly aired such frustrations before, only to come back for more. But unless the festival is put on a firmer footing organizationally and financially, it appears we’ve seen and heard the last of it.

If so, it ended splendidly. The Sept. 30 finale, an all-French program, featured two high-powered guest pianists, Marie-Catherine Girod and Bertrand Chamayou, and Paley and violinist Amiram Ganz, with violinists Laura Leigh Roelofs and Susy Yim, violist Rolandas Romoslauskas and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw, in an energized yet idiomatic account of Ernest Chausson’s Concerto in D major for violin, piano and string quartet. The program concluded with a real novelty, Albert Lavignac’s "Gallop-Marche" for piano eight-hands – four pianists at one keyboard, a comically tight fit.

Girod wasn’t quite note-perfect in the original piano version of Ravel’s "La Valse," but was utterly persuasive in conveying its tipsy humor and apocalyptic waves of sonority while keeping the timing and spirit of the waltz in the soundscape. In Bizet’s "Jeux d’enfants" Suite for four hands, Girod and Chamayou played up humor and evocative sound effects, but their reading was a bit too brisk and literal in dreamier sections such as the nocturne.

Ganz, who performed with Paley in the bookstore debut of the festival in 1998, barely made this edition because of delays in a flight from Italy. He arrived (minus his luggage) barely an hour before the evening concert of Sept. 29. Ganz and Paley played Richard Strauss’ Sonata in E flat major, Op. 18, on the strength of their long association, which proved both technically and musically sufficient. They were to have been joined by other string players in Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, but that was dropped from the program for lack of rehearsal time.

Chamayou opened the Sept. 29 evening concert with Mendelssohn’s "Variations sérieuses," Op. 54, played with brilliance but lacking something in moodiness. Paley, Roelofs, Romoslaukas and Shaw followed with a more romantically inflected reading of Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47.

Paley has made a point of presenting rarely heard works in his festival programs, and this time chose two very challenging departures from mainstream programming: Alexander Dargomizhsky’s chamber opera "The Stone Guest," in the apparent U.S. premiere of its original version with piano, and Strauss’ setting of Tennyson’s "Enoch Arden" for narrator and piano.

"The Stone Guest," set to Pushkin’s text on the downfall of Don Juan (the denouement of "Don Giovanni" with slight differences), is an intense hour of dramatic vocalizing in Russian – the text is set exactly, so it’s basically all-recitative – with high-powered but unrefined piano accompaniment. Paley handled the latter with characteristic energy. A cast of young singers – tenor Darren Chase, soprano Victoria Cannizzo, baritones Eric Keller and Jin Heo and mezzo-soprano Hanna Shen – were in good character and vocal form, although only Heo sounds to have the natural weightiness of a Russian voice.

Following the opera in the Sept. 29 matinee, Paley, Girod and Chamayou played two pieces for piano six-hands by Rachmaninoff, and Paley, Roelofs and Shaw played Rachmaninoff's "Trio Elegiaque."

"Enoch Arden," performed in the Sept. 29 evening program, is a chamber melodrama, already an antique form when Strauss prepared this setting in 1897, and an endurance test for modern listeners. Aaron Anderson’s narration closely followed the composer’s musical cues, fashioned for a German translation of Tennyson; that leaves awkward spaces between words or within phrases when the text is recited in English. Pei-wen Chen (Paley’s wife and regular four-hands partner) played Strauss’ piano part with an ear towards its pre-echoes of the composer’s subsequent music of love and loss, as a kind of germinal "Rosenkavalier."