Festivalof Music begins with Blaine concert

Published on Thu, Aug 3, 2006 by ack Kintner

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Festival of Music begins with Blaine concert

By Jack Kintner

Area music lovers are in for a real treat as Blaine hosts the first concert of the Bellingham Festival of Music on Friday night, August 4, at 7:30 in the Performing Arts Center (PAC).

As an added bonus, the first 75 people who buy tickets at the door will receive a free CD of Beethoven’s first five piano concertos.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Pacific Arts Association, a generous gift from Totally Chocolate’s Jeff and Wendy Robinson and the persuasive efforts of some Blaine professional musicians, festival organizers agreed to start this year’s 16-day festival here. In doing so they’re bringing a program of Mozart, Ravel and Beethoven that will be played by consummate, world-famous artists, two of whom live in Blaine, along with a 40-piece orchestra of unusual depth and talent.
The orchestra members are principals (first chairs) and major talents from all over that festival co-founder, artistic director and conductor Michael Palmer assembles each August, as he has for the past 12 years. The festival is heavy on Mozart, whose 250th birthday last January 27 is being celebrated all year by orchestras and festivals around the world.

This concert is Blaine’s chance to join the festivities. The evening’s program showcases two Blaine-based performers who are in demand and travel widely, bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann and oboist Joe Robinson, as well as pianist Eduard Zilberkant, currently on the music faculty at the University of Alaska and also music director and conductor of both the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and Arctic Chamber Orchestra.

The two hour concert begins with Mozart’s eight-minute Serenade in G Major, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music), written the same year (1787) that Mozart met and taught a few lessons to the young Beethoven. It was an encounter of epic proportions, the musical equivalent of a young Mickey Mantle taking over center field for an aging Joe DiMaggio.

Local pianist and keyboard collector Don Stagg, a former conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony, said that the two musical giants stand on opposite sides of an historic musical watershed, Mozart the classically trained and refined prodigy against Beethoven the rough-cut romantic, an unmatched keyboard talent whose playing at first sounded to many who were used to Mozart like a bull redecorating a china shop.

Stagg explained that, “Beethoven’s the great transitional figure in music, whose work is both classical early on and leads into and even creates the romantic, leading to Brahms and, ultimately, to such jazz greats as Stan Kenton.”

The first half of the concert ends with Mozart’s only surviving bassoon concerto, written when he was just 18 (and had been a touring musician six months a year since the age of five). Featuring well-known Blaine bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann, taking a break from his overseas gigs to play the same kind of engagement locally, the three movements are characterized by long cadenzas (solos) in which players are encouraged to add their own embellishments within certain formal rules.

“I’ve done that,” said Kuuskmann, “even though it was written for an older style of horn that had fewer keys than a modern bassoon, and somewhat less range.” It will serve admirably, however, to showcase the talents of a local artist who gets flown all over the world to play pieces like this, and once you’ve heard it you’ll see why he’s in such demand. “I love playing Mozart, and this will be fun to do,” Kuuskmann said.

The second half begins with music from a much more modern composer, Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). Local oboist and 27-year veteran of the New York Philharmonic Joe Robinson said that the piece, “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (“In Honor of Couperin,” a famous French baroque composer from the late 1600’s), is as good a test as any for the oboe. “It’s not Bolero,” said Robinson with a smile, referring to the repetitive one-dimensional piece by which most know Ravel even though he wrote it tongue-in-cheek, almost as a musical joke. This languid and sometimes dreamy four-movement piece began life as a six-movement piano suite. “By 1919 he’d orchestrated and dedicated to friends he’d lost during WWI,” said Robinson, “and in doing so reduced it to four movements.”

Pianist Eduard Zilberkant closes the evening with the Beethoven Piano Concerto #1, a selection as different from the Ravel that precedes it as walking in the park is from going to NASCAR. If Ravel composed for the ballet, Beethoven wrote for middle linebackers.

“It’s tour de force for the piano, all right” said Zilberkant, 41, in describing the 40-minute piece, “with one of his most beautiful slow movements and a thrilling third movement.” It’s also a tour de force for the Russian born pianist, who began training at three.

Since leaving Russia at the age of 10 he’s played and conducted orchestras all over north America and Europe. Zilberkant brings the requisite artistic focus that will demonstrate just what can be done with an instrument that was still relatively new when Beethoven wrote his second concerto for it in 1796-97. The piece is officially listed as Piano Concerto #1 because of its publishing date, and was written to demonstrate both the instrument and Beethoven’s mastery of its capabilities. “Without a doubt, he was the best pianist of his day,” said Zilberkant, “so his job was to show that, and this did.”

The technical mastery that the piece demands is daunting, with lengthy passages played so fast they’d make a bluegrass picker dizzy, and yet the second movement ends at a tempo so slow that you’ll want to check your pulse.

The piece was first played in Prague in 1798 and served as the centerpiece to Beethoven’s concert debut in Vienna in 1800. It was Beethoven’s chance to show off as both composer and pianist in front of a city full of Austrian snobs, and it worked well – the audience knew their music well enough to realize what a shattering talent they had before them, and they grew to tolerate his quirks.

It also was when the piano itself was going through changes brought about by improving technology. They were invented almost a century before when an Italian instrument maker began putting hammers on harpsichords (to hit the strings instead of plucking them with mechanical picks). It was an innovation that allowed them to be played both much louder and more quietly, which in musical notation is either forte (loud) or piano (soft), hence the name.

By the time Beethoven, when visiting Vienna for a few months, played for Mozart in 1787, the technology to stretch a steel string over a large wooden sounding board was developing rapidly, leading to factory-produced affordable instruments in the early 1800s that could withstand Beethoven’s rapid fire pounding and still sound musical in the quietest of passages. Expect to hear both from Zilberkant, and when he’s through you’ll want more.

Tickets may be purchased at Pacific Building Center and at the door for $25, or $60 for a four-concert season ticket. Seniors can get a four-event series ticket for just $30, and the first 75 ticket buyers at Friday night’s concert will receive a free CD of Pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the American Sinfonietta playing the first five Beethoven piano concertos, recorded in concert

For more information, call Joan Penney, Executive Director of the Bellingham Festival of Music, at 676-5997, or Sandy Wolf at 371-0141.