August 24, 2013

Music through Rosé-colored Glasses

Music in the Vineyards
By Steve Osborn

Jonathan VinocourAs befits its name, Music in the Vineyards is as much about the venues as it is about the music. Encompassing nine Napa Valley wineries and the Napa Valley Museum over a three-week run, the festival allows music to shine through Rosé-colored glasses.

This year’s festival culminated with three weekend concerts at the venerable Silverado Vineyards, just off the Silverado Trail on the valley’s somewhat less traveled east side. In keeping with the Mexican California theme, the concerts were held in the third-floor Silverado Room, a classic high-ceilinged space whose terrace offers billion-dollar views of the grapes — soon to be liquid silver — stretching for miles in all directions.

The Silverado Room is a great acoustical space, with hardwood floors, plaster walls, and a peaked wood-plank ceiling. The only drawback is the portable stage that tends to amplify performers’ foot shufflings and tappings.

Those errant feet were most in evidence in the opening work, Schumann’s Märchenbilder for viola and piano, in which pianist Wei-Yi Yang’s bipedal extremities occasionally distracted from violist Jonathan Vinocour’s otherwise liquescent performance. Vinocour, playing from score, established his luscious tone right from the start, with a gorgeous opening on one of Schumann’s most heartfelt compositions, beloved of violists everywhere.

Vinocour’s full tone was matched by his impeccable bowing and spot-on intonation. The quick middle movements were both fiery and passionate, with the artist at times in perpetual motion, his bow darting effortlessly across all four strings. These soon gave way to the slow finale, which was completely enchanting. Beginning the haunting melody entirely on the viola’s low C string, Vinocour moved upward through the instrument like a lyric tenor. The result was pure song.

Songs were also at the heart of the next piece, Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2, which uses folksongs from the North Caucasus region, about 900 miles south of Moscow. Like other Soviet artists, Prokofiev was sent there in 1941, when a Nazi invasion of Moscow seemed imminent. He took advantage of the pastoral location to collect some local tunes and incorporate them into a deceptively cheerful quartet.

Vinocour moved upward through the instrument like a lyric tenor. The result was pure song.

The performer on this occasion was the esteemed Escher String Quartet, a no-nonsense group that got right down to work. They did an admirable job of conveying Prokofiev’s distinctive forward motion, which is at times rollicking and otherwise lurching. Everything is slightly off balance in the quartet, which invests its folk tunes with modern elements, including the insistent drumbeat of war.

While the first two movements were more than adequate, the Escher didn’t really get moving until the third and final frame. The unison sound at the beginning was riveting, engaging everyone present in a demonic forward march. The solos from the cello were particularly outstanding, but everyone played with conviction, bearing down right through the abrupt ending.

For a little comic relief, yet another string quartet came out to play Hindemith’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman as Played at Sight by a Bad Spa Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 in the Morning. The title of this rarely performed farce conveys everything you need to know, but it’s difficult to pull off without top-notch performers.

Fortunately for the audience, the performers, led by violinist Erin Keefe, proved to be masters of virtuosic ineptitude. They stumbled onto the stage, still in the grips of cataclysmic hangovers, second violinist Aaron Boyd gripping a vodka bottle for dear life. Keefe was arrayed in a shapeless sweatshirt and an unkempt beehive hairdo, her eyes sheltered by black makeup. Violist Michael Adams went one step farther by wearing dark glasses.

Fortunately for the audience, the performers, led by violinist Erin Keefe, proved to be masters of virtuosic ineptitude.

The performance was even better than the costumes. Keefe was especially adept at “massacring” Wagner, playing his bombastic passages with the utmost disdain. She was utterly convincing as the hard-partying musician who would rather be anywhere but on stage. At the overture’s merciful end, she staggered off without a glance at the roaring audience.

Escher String QuartetThe standard wine-sipping intermission allowed the audience to settle down and prepare for the much more serious Shostakovich Piano Quintet, performed by yet another assemblage of musicians. The stars, in this case, were first violinist Arnaud Sussman and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, joined by second violinist Daria Adams and the lower half of the Escher String Quartet: violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Dane Johansen.

As is often the case with pickup bands, individual performers stood out, but the group had trouble melding into a convincing whole. Sussman’s playing was intense and often compelling, his entire body frequently rocking back and forth to propel Shostakovich’s insistent rhythms. Jokubaviciute was likewise engaged, but her tempos sometimes flagged. The well-known Scherzo at the middle of the work was noticeably slow.

Despite these ensemble problems, the Allegretto finale was sparkling, with wonderful playing all around. Sussman bounced up and down in his seat, spearheading a long crescendo that culminated in a feather-light ending, as if happiness had finally been achieved.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.