String players
Valley of the Moon Music Festival string players | Courtesy of VMMF

The Valley of the Moon Music Festival’s eighth season, “Fantastic World,” teems with a lush topography of sound. Chamber music played on period instruments is at the heart of the festival — this year with a focus on compositions inspired by nature. The festival will run from July 16–31 in venues around Sonoma County and includes a concert titled “American Landscapes,” which delves into music from the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The ‘American Landscapes’ concert is probably our most pushing-the-envelope-concert in terms of what you would normally think of as historical performance practice, which can be anywhere from medieval and then going forward,” said Tanya Tomkins, VMMF founder and codirector. “To hear it on these appropriate instruments for the music, it’s really ear-opening and mind-opening — not just for the audience but also for the players.”

The concert is “a sightseeing tour of the musical U.S. from the mid-19th century through the Roaring ’20s.” This will include 19th-century sentimental ballad styles nudging into early 20th-century jazz and blues styles that heavily influenced composers like Maurice Ravel and William Grant Still. Violinist and festival regular Rachell Ellen Wong started out as a VMMF apprentice and is now coaching others as junior faculty. She will play Still’s Suite, along with pianist Audrey Vardanega, and the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2, with pianist Eric Zivian.

Hands at a piano
“American Landscapes” will feature a period piano made by Chickering & Sons | Credit: Golnaz Shahmirzadi

“We thought this William Grant Still and Ravel would just be perfect for her because she’s got such a wonderful sensibility and it’s so emotional,” said Tomkins.

For this concert, VMMF borrowed an 1895 Chickering & Sons piano from the University of California, Berkeley, bringing the time period of the instrument and of the music in sync, so much so that both Tomkins and VMMF codirector and cofounder Zivian proclaimed similar sentiments as if in unison: “It makes all this American music sound great!”

Zivian will also accompany tenor Kyle Stegall, performing songs by Harry Burleigh, Charles Ives, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The pianist described how the compositions of Burleigh and Ives sometimes feel rocky, as if “the music almost has a landscape to it.”

“American Landscapes” further includes the “supercharged romanticism of Amy Beach” and modernist European-influenced music with the Charles Ives Piano Trio, to be performed by the Delphi Trio with violinist Liana Bérubé, Tomkins on cello, and Allegra Chapman on piano.

“The Ives Piano Trio can be seen as a microcosm of the emotional journey of this program: It is at once naïve, overblown, humorous, overly serious, impertinent, and finally heartbreakingly earnest,” said Tomkins.

Preceding the concert will be a talk in the festival’s Blattner Lecture Series, entitled, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” UC Davis musicologist Beth E. Levy will explore the rich terroir of music created by composers contemplating the varied cultural traditions of the U.S., the distinctive feature of which, much “like its landscapes, lies in diversity and contrast.”

“American Landscapes” will occur at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 24, followed by a post-concert wine reception. For more information, and to purchase tickets for this concert and other summer performances, visit the Valley of the Moon Music Festival’s website.