Rutland Herald
By Jim Lowe
August 25, 2017
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Audience embraces challenge of new music

How many music festivals can boast that the majority of audience members show up for preconcert discussions? The Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival can claim that and, after Wednesday’s performance at FlynnSpace, nearly the entire capacity audience remained for the after-concert discussion of contemporary music.

And they weren’t disappointed. Renowned American composers Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964) and Marc Neikrug (b. 1946) discussed their works that had just been performed and the composers’ influences, as well as taking questions from the audience.

Particularly intriguing was Neikrug’s String Trio (1917), a piece co-commission by the festival and Salt Bay Chamberfest. The knotty but fascinating three-movement work was essentially musical storytelling, tonal but harmonically and rhythmically adventurous, the first beginning with a turgid drive. The second, almost a traditional slow movement, was more lyrical, often brooking dissent among the lines and ultimately haunting. The finale began fugally and colorfully building passion to a nearly unrestrained excitement. The work was given an expert and impassioned performance by the Variation String Trio; violinist Jennifer Koh (several times a soloist with the Vermont Symphony), violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith. That ensemble also performed several of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (arranged by Dimitry Sitkovetsky) with elegance and finesse, providing an influence for the Thomas works.

Thomas was represented by two movements from two different string quartets. The first, “Spirals” is the third movement of the three-movement “Helix Spirals” (2015), a musical response to the 1957 Meselson-Stahl DNA experiment. Each of the players offered similar linear thoughts, in various orders, building contrapuntally to an edgy and turgid drive. Thomas’ music too was tonal, but rhythmically and harmonically imaginative.

Thomas’ “Invocation” from the string quartet, “Sun Threads” (1999-2002), was edgy in a very different way. More of a conversation among equals, the four took a journey that became quite exciting before it found calm. It was fascinating.

Thomas’ works were performed by the newly formed Kafka Quartet, the festival’s string quartet-in-residence, in its first performance ever. Violinists Rebecca Anderson and Danny Koo, violist Cong Wu and cellist Jiyoung Lee, all recent conservatory graduates, exhibited easy virtuosity and real sense of ensemble. More importantly, they played with a comfort with and real passion for this music.

Still, the most exquisite moments came from more than a century earlier, two of Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder — Neikrug cited Mahler’s Symphony 5 as a life-changer for him — written in 1902. Baritone Randall Scarlatta and pianist Gloria Chien, festival co-artistic director with her husband Soovin Kim, gave deeply felt and sensitive performances of “Liebst du um Schönheit (Lov’st Thou for Beauty)” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Now Lost to the World).” Scarlatta was intimately and richly expressive while Chien achieved an affecting delicacy that resulted in a truly touching experience.

In the public discussion that ensued, both composers espoused views that seemed to relate directly to their music, which is not always the case. Neikrug claimed German music as his musical parent, and Mahler in particular. “It’s the most beautiful, profound sadness I know,” he said about Mahler’s Fifth. “It bears the weight of the earth.”

Thomas claimed a broader sphere of influences, not only music from classical to pop to jazz, as well as “responding (to) the earth,” she said. She sees her music as very abstract and a “cosmic flow.”

And sure enough, Thomas’ music has a wonderful indefinablity, more of an experience to be had. Conversely, Neikrug’s music follows the German musical tradition — perhaps in the style of Alban Berg, he said — with a discern able musical logic, not without its surprises, that proves finally rewarding.

Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival’s annual new music concerts have always been fascinating, but they are being enjoyed by more and more people.


Remaining major concerts:

— Friday, Aug. 25: Music of Brahms and Bartók, 7:30 p.m.

— Sunday, Aug. 27: Music of Chopin, Debussy, George Crumb and David Ludwig, 3 p.m.

Tickets to major concerts are $35, $15 under 18; for daily programs, $20 per day, free under 18; call the Flynn Regional Box Office, 863-5966, or go online to Concerts and events, except where indicated, are at Saint Michael’s College’s Elley-Long Music Center, Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester. For a full schedule, go online to

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