Opinion: A Master And A Prodigy, Distinctive performances
at the Music Festival
By John Jonas Gruen
Festival galas come and go, but some remain firmly anchored in the mind and heart.
This was the case when the Music Festival of the Hamptons gala opening concert,
heard last Friday night in the festival tent on Snake Hollow Road in Bridgehampton,
produced some major reasons for rejoicing.
It was all, of course, a matter of programming. Now in its ninth season, this festival,
founded by the indefatigable Eleanor Sage Leonard and led by Lukas Foss, its music
director, has long strived for but has not always attained true distinction.
Last Friday, however, it achieved it by presenting Benjamin Britten's seldom heard
Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings and Mozart's ravishing Sinfonia Concertante
for solo violin and viola. Maestro Foss produced lightning strikes on both counts,
erring only in the evening's opening work, Mozart's quite inconsequential overture
to "La Finta Giardiniera."
The soloists in Britten's Serenade were the young American tenor Scott Murphree
and the fine horn player R.J. Kelley. Mr. Murphree not only offered compelling
personal insight into this haunting 1943 work, but sang with an authority and allure
that literally held the audience spellbound.
This work, originally written for Britten's companion, the tenor Peter Pears, and the
horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, centers on six poems (by, among others, Tennyson,
Blake, Ben Jonson, and Keats), each of which dwells on aspects of the night - the
darkness that envelops the world and can lift, confound, or crush the soul.
Suspended within a terse panoply of harmonic wonders and charged with dark
secrets and enigmas, the work demands a singer whose voice can not only soar
toward the highest reaches of the tenor range but must also be in firmest control of diction and mood.
Mr. Murphree, with his fresh, beautifully modulated, innocence-tinged voice, his
finely chiseled features, and alert demeanor, not only fulfilled these difficult criteria,
but transformed an unusually seductive work into a memorable musical experience.
Indeed, Mr. Murphree is that rarity, an artist of instinctive taste and uncommon
My first encounter with Mozart's Sinfonie Concertante was in 1947 when George
Balanchine choreographed one of his major ballets to this score, with Maria
Tallchief as "the violin" and Tanaquil LeClerq as "the viola." For me, a 19-year-old,
it was the shock of the too madly beautiful! The gorgeous choreography. The superb
dancers. And, above all, that score, with its unending sinuous lines, crossing and
recrossing and echoing one another in achingly beautiful sequence.
Last Friday, Maestro Foss understood the perfect symmetry of this immensely
moving score, leading the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra with vigor and elegance. His
soloists were the violinist Michael Guttman and the violist Jesse Levine, both of
whom acquitted themselves well, with Mr. Levine being perhaps the more refined
Mr. Guttman, who is the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra's founder and music director
(and who should really retire that coy photograph of himself and his violin, in
bizarre juxaposition, which, in its overexposure has become truly tiresome) tends to
have easily correctible intonation problems.
The festival gala ended with two salutes: one to Representative Tim Bishop, the other
to the playwright Edward Albee. Both men accepted their honors with charming
* * *
It would seem that no one really knows just what produces a child prodigy. Experts
have it that the causes may be genetic, evolutionary, cultural, historical, or a
combination of of all of those things.
Whatever the cause, this mystery was astonishingly on display last Sunday morning,
when the Music Festival of the Hamptons, in a delightful programming coup,
presented Drew Petersen, age 10, in a piano recital that included works by
Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Aaron Copland.
Master Petersen, a sweet, open-faced boy in a white dress shirt, black bow tie, and long pants, walked quietly to the concert grand piano, took a brief bow, then sat at
Pausing a moment, he slowly lifted his arms and attacked the sonorous, majestic
opening chord of Beethoven's Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13. It was clear from the
strength and resonance of that chord, that what followed would have clarity and
Indeed, the sonata, with all its technical hurdles, its ebb and flow of melody, and its
rush of contrapuntal invention, proved a natural challenge for the pianist, who, while
perhaps not always equal to the work's more nuanced emotional demands, gave the
music its full due. His runs were light and limpid. Melodic passages were lovingly
articulated, and the whole had both cohesion and breadth.
But it was with his playing of Chopin's Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat major, that the
miracle of being a prodigy came wondrously to the fore. It seemed as though Drew
Petersen instinctively understood that Chopin was spinning a long, contemplative
dream - that the filigree lights and shadows of this hushed work contained the
sophisticated languors of a yearning heart.
To hear a 10-year-old boy breathe life and romantic subtlety into so expressive a
work, is to encounter the true mystery of what makes so very young a person leap
toward the flames of artistic maturity.
In the remainder of his short program, consisting of Mendelssohn's Rondo
Capriccioso, Op. 13 and Copland's Scherzo Humoristique ("The Cat and the
Mouse"), plus an encore by Khachaturian, the pianist negotiated all manner of wizardly keyboard feats, offering his hugely responsive and enthusiastic audience,
thrilling pianism wedded to astute, quite astonishing musicianship.
Bouquets and bravos to master Drew!
Opinion: A Master And A Prodigy, Distinctive performances