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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 35
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Chamber Music Festival, 2007 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
by
Max Dudious

 

If you have a special feeling for classical music, imagine being immersed in chamber music for two weeks, every evening another performance, every other evening another ensemble, for fourteen consecutive nights, all in one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Mexico. I started out curiously, affecting my best intellectual detachment, wondering if I'd be able to fit in with the chamber music regulars; but after a while I was into it, forgetting social concerns. I was eating, drinking, and sleeping chamber music. I mean I began thinking, even dreaming, in chamber music terms. And that turns out to be a huge plus, and for me, a great enjoyment.

For example, at a performance of the Imani Winds (featuring compositions by jazz great Paquito D'Rivera among others) in a barn-like museum of antique horse and buggy vehicles, my wife, Grammy Dudious, noticed the ensemble was out of balance compared with a studio recording of theirs we had been listening to (through a portable CD player and a pair of Shure model E500 PTH in-ear headphones), and also compared with the performance venue where we'd heard them the night before. When we got to examining this observation, that the French horn was too loud for the oboe, clarinet, flute, and bassoon to stand up to, we realized that the temporary stage had been placed quite near the rear wall, which was a sliding door of this "garage" at the Rancho La Loma, just a few miles from San Miguel. The first reflection of sound from the rear wall was so "in time," it seemed to double the power of the French horn which fires rearward.

The night before's performance, at the recently remodeled, over a century old, Teatro Angela Peralta, in San Miguel's Centro, the rear wall was perhaps 20 feet further back, and this made for a better balance. We had begun to think like chamber musicians, at least for the moment. It took the hornist a while to find the ensemble's sound, but he did by aiming the bell of his horn upward and at a forty-five degree angle to the rear wall, and everything went pretty smoothly after that.

Surprisingly, we had become immersed in the music, qua music. We debated over breakfast whether or not the Dvorak selections were "up to" the Haydn or Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms. Some of the Dvorak was truly good music ("Two Waltzes," Op. 54, and String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, "The American"), but other works which shall remain nameless seemed repetitive and wanting for invention. Yet, Dvorak remains very popular.

As we were discussing this paradox, one night while walking back to our B&B hotel, Casa Carmen (quite near the central Jardin), an elderly woman who seemed to be a spritely grande dame though perhaps in her ‘80s, spoke up: "I share your opinion. Dvorak often bores me to tears." Such comments, openly stated at intermission by concert goers we saw night after night, created a bond of sorts. And from such spontaneous conversations as this was born a kind of community. The comments did reflect some serious (if inexpert) thoughts about the music, which on other nights might be more like: "I really liked it." Or, "I really didn't like it much." As Woody Allen might have said if he could get his tongue out of his cheek, "Such Heavy-osity" (of which, I must confess, I was sometimes guilty).

When we got home again, to our little beach shack on the shores of the Chesapeake, and I e-mail reported on the Festival to my long time audio-chum, Cornutto de Basetto, he opined: "Sounds like going to the Bayreuth Festival and listening to the entire ‘Ring Cycle' on four consecutive nights, an immersion into the works of Wagner. Some of the audience came away dreaming about it; or speculating how it might have turned out if Siegfried hadn't been such a dolt." I'm told the total immersion process works well when studying languages, and does seem to focus you onto ‘The Ring' in a way that forces you to plan everything around it: when and what you eat and drink, when and how much sleeping and napping you catch, and when you do your ablutions or hygienic routine (shave and shower) with timing such to best accommodate these marathon four-to-five hour performances so you won't fall asleep.

And so it was at the much smaller, less daunting XXIX Festival de Música de Cámara, or the 29th Annual Chamber Music Festival at San Miguel de Allende / July 28 - August 11, 2007. For two weeks, Grammy Dudious and I took our large meal of the day at about 1:PM in the afternoon, siesta-ed an hour or two, then did our showers and shaves, scented our bodies lest we'd offend, dressed for the occasion, slurped down a café con leche, and set out for the Peralta, about six or eight blocks away. Often it was clouding up, and began to rain with the beginning of the performance at 7:00 PM, but mysteriously was clearing as we left at 9:30 or so. We sometimes got a little wet, or if the rain was hard, we had to wait a while at a charming restaurant/ bar across the street known to friends as Max's (no relation), and Tio Lucas to the public.

Grammy Dudious and the blessed increase soakin' up the rays in San Miguel

Amazingly, at Max's we ran into a woman with whom I'd gone through middle and high-school, the well-respected Baltimore artist Sally Kravetz. She said, "Oh my God! Maxie Dudious! The girls voted you ‘Cutest Boy' in the seventh grade. I remember you!!" I hadn't thought of that in two generations. Such things happen to grandfathers in San Miguel. We know of cousins who hadn't seen each other in a half-century and were reunited in San Miguel. Sally and I hadn't seen each other in decades though we'd lived in the same town, so we sat there, catching up, reminiscing while sipping dark Indio beer, munching on guacamole and chips, or mushrooms in olive oil and garlic until the rain let up. Grammy smiled benignly. It was a great sacrifice, but something one does for Art.

The day after the performance of the Cypress String Quartet, Grammy and I ran into their cellist, Jennifer Kloetzel exiting a restaurant as we were entering. We stopped to chat. Turns out she grew up in the Baltimore burbs and studied music at the same time our daughters were studying at the Preparatory School of the Peabody Conservatory. She being on the strings side of things, and our girls being on the piano side, they didn't have much contact. Yet, she said she remembered them, but I thought she was probably just being polite. It didn't matter a bit. Another San Miguel connection. You could start to think there were cosmic forces involved.

Grammy and I had taken a bunch of wash and wear, no-iron, primary color clothes with us, which made for an appropriate wardrobe in which to go to concerts and get caught in the rain; sort of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in our minds we were. Grammy had found a pair of Mary Jane shoes and wore them with white knee socks that engorged me with fond memories. Mary Janes have been making a small comeback since Meg Ryan wore them in Sleepless In Seattle, and Grammy was so adorable that night I assaulted her in the taxi cab. She easily dispatched me with a peck on the cheek, and the mere feint of a karate chop. But I digress. Forgive me.

The most apt analogy of chamber music might be to, of all things, sports. There are team sports, like football, where one man's mistake might be away from the focus of the energy. The team can get away with such a mistake. Or, on other occasions, there are moments when one man's mistake can be overcome when a team-mate makes a correction and compensates for the error. Sometimes in smaller scale sports, such as basketball, the whole team has a sense of interconnectedness (mutual dependency) such that once a pattern is recognized each player knows what to do in cooperation with his team-mates. He or she can't go it alone. The team must execute with precision. Of course there are sports that involve one-on-one competition, like racquet games, or boxing, etc. Here a small mistake can be one's undoing, as in playing music as a soloist. There are no team-mates to rely on. Chamber music is like a small-team sport, perhaps basketball. Everyone has to perform in-synch with the ensemble. There are moments when each will have his time to shine; but, for the most part, chamber music is most like a tightly knit small team game, with lots of head bobbing and eye contact for signals.

Opera and orchestral music are like a high-scoring football game, with lead changes, and temporarily tied scores. There are large swings of energy and emotion. In some Beethoven "program music" quartets, there are great swings from the bucolic sounds of the countryside to the bombast of Fate's pounding out our destiny. And then there is his purely musical Grosse Fuge, or the string quartet called "The Great Fugue" which is sometimes noted as a high-water mark in all of Western classical music, (along with Mozart's sumptuous opera Don Giovannii, and Bach's supernal chorale Mass in B minor); some say, a high-water mark in all of Western civilization. Not bad company, for a piece of mere chamber music.

There are also mood swings that come from other chamber ensembles, similarly on a smaller scale (Schubert's Cello Quintet, Schubert's Octet, etc.). Each individual player is responsible for carrying out one of the lines of the music. He or she is alone in his or her efforts without the security of playing the same notes with 10 others in a "section" of an orchestra. The success of the music (developing suspense, say, or creating tension and later resolving it) depends on each player's doing his job expertly and without error.

If we listen attentively, we can recognize all the component parts of large orchestral works stripped down to their musical elements. There is rising and falling loudness, and propulsion developed by increasing and decreasing tempo; there are moments when one player becomes prominent as soloist, or plays in duet, or trio, all depending on the sonority the composer seeks (thickening and thinning the sonority, if you will allow me the conceit). For example, there may be moments where half the quartet is playing a long, singing line while the other half is playing pizzicato-like ornamental accompaniment. There is melody, harmony, and counterpoint in abundance.

Listening to a string quartet is a lot like listening to a piano sonata, where all the elements of great music can be distilled to skeletal form, yet the essentials of music are preserved. In their stripped down form, the best string quartet compositions are seen as concentrated, like grande champagne distilled to champagne cognac. So if you've never been able to catch the charm of chamber music, a festival like the one at San Miguel is a good way to catch on, and to bring yourself up to speed, so to speak. All in a jewel box of a music hall, refurbished to capture the charm of the mid-nineteenth century. I half-expected Kirsten Dunst, dressed as Marie Antoinette to come down the aisle and sit next to me.

To further explain the relationship of music to audience the learned neurologist Oliver Sacks has written in his new book, Musicophilia (2007):

A piece of music will draw one in, teach one about its structure and secrets, whether one is listening consciously or not. This is so even if one has never heard a piece of music before. Listening to music is not a passive process but intensely active, involving a stream of inferences, hypotheses, expectations, and anticipations. We can grasp a new piece – how it is constructed, where it is going, what will come next – with such accuracy that even after a few bars we may be able to hum or sing along with it. Such anticipation, such singing along, is possible because one has knowledge, largely implicit, of musical "rules" (how a cadence must resolve, for instance) and a familiarity with particular musical conventions (the form of a sonata, or the repetition of a theme). When we "remember" a melody, it plays in our mind; it becomes newly alive.

I don't know if I agree with all of what he writes here, or if I find it complete enough; but it is a good beginning. For more about him, or his other writings, see www.oliversacks.com. This citation does explain, to my satisfaction, why folks might come to such a festival without much background in classical music, or in chamber music in particular, and enjoy it immensely. Chamber music has an uncanny ability to cut through social pretense, to present in bare bones fashion musical ideas without the expensive trappings of opera or the extravagance of symphonic scoring. One might say: "Chamber music democratizes classical music."

Listening to first-rate chamber music can be fascinating to anyone with an ear for music of any kind. Marketing firms have found interest in classical music, and membership in symphony orchestra audiences, increases at about age thirty-five. And San Miguel is inexpensive such that you can bring an older cousin along to baby sit your kids. So, if the shoe fits...

Each time I've been lucky enough to hear large doses of chamber music I've come away feeling refreshed, as if my run-down battery had been recharged (welcome at my age). And I've been to some other festivals that had this effect on me, as well. The Spannungen Festival (Musik Im Kraftwerk, Heimbach) in Heimbach, Germany (2002); and The World Cello Congress III, in Baltimore, MD (2000) to name but two of the most eye-catching. My modest point here is, I've been immersed before and been revitalized. One can survive two weeks of classical music without drowning in it; but, if that's too much of a baptism, one can always sign up for only the first week, or only the second, or every other night. It may take an extra-heavy dose to recharge me.

Heimbach has the charm of a German mountain village, at the northern tip of the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest), an hour east of Cologne, centered around a medieval castle, and where the music was performed at (what had been) a hydro-electric dam's powerhouse (Kraftwerk), in a fashion that was electrifying with high voltage tension (Spannungen). Baltimore, for those of you unfamiliar with it, has the charm of a port city, with great seafood restaurants, and with its symphony orchestra and its conservatory it has an embarrassment of riches in terms of musical events. It is said that connoisseurs from France, and knowing Americans like Richard Schram (Parasound's hip C.E.O.), come to Baltimore during the soft-shell crab season to dine on this delicacy as it is prepared in the best eateries.

But San Miguel has the charm of a Mexican mountain town, one that has been designated by law as a national monument, much like our Williamsburg, VA, and has retained all of its colonial architecture, landmarks, cobblestoned streets, and such in the central district (Centro), and forbade gas stations, golden arches, all forms of neon, traffic lights, parking lots, and parking meters, which gives it an atmosphere in which ........time ........stands ........still. Where else can we get a chance to hear a concert in a UNESCO World Monument Watch site? Athens? Rome? Jerusalem? It is a short list.

San Miguell has been pretty well established as an international tourist town for some decades now, with its chamber music festival, jazz festival, film festival, and regular arts and crafts shows. It has proven a haven for artists and writers. With the opening of two nearby international airports (Leon and Queretero), San Miguel has been positioned on the fashionable circuit; so much so, a jewelry boutique near our hotel had business cards printed that said "Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and San Miguel." People in the arts come for visits, and some buy second homes there. It is a very hospitable place to live, favored as it is with friendly climate, spectacular vistas, great cuisine, low cost, high culture, colorful characters, and historical tradition.
(For more information, see their excellent website at www.internetsanmiguel.comm.)

The quality of the groups that performed at the 2007 Chamber Music Festival was exceptional. They included The Turtle Island Quartet, The Imani Winds, The Cyprus String Quartet, The Rosetti String Quartet, The Brentano Sting Quartet, The Casatt String Quartet, and La Catrina String Quartet. They ranged from nearly excellent to beyond excellent. What would that be? Outstanding. Right on. Some were truly outstanding. Even, "Outbleepingstanding" or, "Unbebleepinglievable."

Last summer, The Turtle Island group began by offering a night of John Coltrane's music (viewing him as a modern composer of chamber music), and music of composers who influenced him, such as Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and Frank Zappa. That was a "statement" that the festival would be infused with modern composers, which it was to a considerable extent. During the second week The Imani Winds featured works by more than a few Latin American composers, such as Astor Piazzolla and Paquito D'Rivera. The other groups featured (alphabetically) Beethoven, Bloch, Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Ravel, Schubert, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Spohr, as well as some other excellent modern composers less well known to me. So while there was an infusion of contemporary composers, there was as much traditional chamber music as one might expect. In all, an ear-opening, delightful mix.

Moreover, while most of the performances were performed in the Teatro Angela Peralta, an exquisitely refurbished 19th century music hall, on other nights, to mix it up, some of the performances were played in the amphitheater-like hall of the Bellas Artes, a nearby art school; in the Santuario Atotonilco, which was once known as Iglessia des Penintentes (The Church of the Penitents), in the nearby town of Atotonilco, a venue sometimes called The Sistine Chapel of Latin America due to its ornate decorations, that just happens to have a fabulous acoustic; at the aforementioned transportation museum, in the garage of nineteenth century vehicles, at nearby Rancho La Loma; and at a private home of an anonymous sponsor of the event, in a room with a panoramic westward view of the town from further up the hill, in a living room designed as a "performance room," across the valley to the mountains where the sun sets. This was no run-of-the-mill commercial offering, where you pay for your tickets and are forgotten. For most of these away games, the transportation was provided by the festival's staff. So, in all, it was a red-letter-day experience to be remembered. Most probably, I'll never forget it. Right now, Grammy is making arrangements for at least the two of us to return this coming summer, so she must have liked it, too.

By the way, the music was often breathtaking. Not always, but often. So, if you're in the market for an incredible immersion into chamber music, as it was likely experienced in nineteenth century Europe (or Mexico), you might consider the Chamber Music Festival of San Miguel. Plans are just now being made for 2008. So get on your computer, and go to www.chambermusicfestival.com; that ought to do it for you as far as reservations and ticket prices are concerned. Last year, if you attended each performance, the price breakdown was less than $20 per performance. With movies creeping up to $10 per performance, the price per performance of $20 seems a great bargain for world-class chamber music. If you are of the age and income group our marketing guys say you are, you ought to dig this as a family vacation. If you are older, of the grandparental generation, that's OK too. You are more than welcome. Think of the festival as a theme park for grown-up music lovers.

If you are involved with Chamber Music, this is a great festival to attend. If you're not, this is a way to quickly find out what's what with Chamber Music afficionados. It is not large scale music. It is small and intimate. Obviously, the instruments in question do not generate the great walls of sound that a one hundred piece symphony orchestra might, say, playing a Mahler symphony. But a solo violin can fill the Peralta with cascades of sound, as violinist Timothy Fain has demonstrated. And with a seating of only 250 (not 2,500), you might experience the epiphanous moment when the whole audience holds its breath simultaneously, and sees the light.

Well, that's about it from the little beach shack on the shores of the Chesapeake. I hope I've whetted your appetite, Dudes. (Now don't you ladies out there get all bent out of shape. Recently, when I saw the film Juno, I was amused when the girls in the film addressed each other as "Dude." My daughters refer to me as "The Dude," but address each other as "Dude" when they're being playful. So you are included even if I don't makeup a special neologism for you, OK girls?) When some small number of you, as our marketing guys suggest you will, get in touch with the festival, be sure and tell them that Max Dudious sent you. And I'll be glad to meet some fraction of the top one percent of you at the festival. You'll know me by my uncanny resemblance to the sketch above. See you in San Miguel. Ciao, for now.

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