The first week of the season for the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival kicked off with a series of gala performances from the 7th through the 10th. The line-up was stunning: Richard Stoltzman, clarinet, Eliot Fisk, guitar, Mika Yoshida, marimba, Laura Ardan, clarinet, Michael Cebulski, percussion, and festival director Artistic Director William Ransom at the piano.
Organizing this annual feast for the ears is entrusted to a board consisting of citizens from both Highlands and Cashiers – the latter pronounced not at all like the clerk who rings up your groceries but instead with emphasis on first syllable. Imagine sorting out this schedule: Highlands concerts are held on Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. in the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center (a very nicely converted church with great sound), and the Cashiers concerts are held on Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. and Mondays at 7:00 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd (a cozy and intimate space set apart from the main sanctuary. Each time I attend there's a puzzle of mileage, time, location, and possible fog – and a burning desire to hear the next program.
This concert began off with Stoltzman and Ransom performing "Scaramouche" by Darius Milhaud. It seems we hear that title more through aging Queen recordings than in concerts or from knowing the stage character of Molièré's day. The work started off as incidental music for a children's play and was later transcribed by the composer for clarinet and piano and then, at the request of Benny Goodman, for clarinet and orchestra. It is in a busy fast-slow-fast format that gives each instrument plenty of features.
The second work featured Mika Yoshida on solo marimba in "Mika Rimba," a work written specifically for her by William Douglas. Her instrument is a five-octave behemoth by Douglas Morrow. Just transporting this thing around must have required a second committee. Yoshida lives in her native Japan but was educated at the University of Toronto and has performed worldwide. This solo piece begins with an interesting eighth note bass line supporting a sixteenth-note melody above. The second movement opens with majestic chords positioned in the lower register, which create a striking effect. The third movement uses all the typical "attack" instrument devices to the fullest; at one point I thought I heard an echo of "Hearts" by Yes.
Next was the American guitarist Eliot Fisk, who performed three of the violin Caprices from Op. 1 of Niccolò Paganini: Nos. 6 in G minor, 13 in B-flat, and No. 24 in a minor (the famous set of variations). Playing a recent Steven Connor instrument, he proved how these pieces can work on a guitar. Both his performance and the transcriptions themselves are quite remarkable, and they provide a spectacular showcase for the artist and his instrument.
Next was a fascinating Duo Sonata for clarinets by Francis Poulenc, performed by Richard Stoltzman and the equally redoubtable Laura Ardan of Atlanta. This is light fare consistent with the general objectives of "Les Six"; the work respects the listener by holding back on the sugar. It has much to offer in the way of serious content yet doesn't weigh too heavily on the ears. The artists performed with enthusiasm, delivering matched tone and very high levels of woodwind playing.
The marimbist then came back for two Japanese folk songs played solo and then a jazzy rag-like piece called "Girlfriends Medley" with Ransom at the piano. Throughout this group it was clear that Yoshida has tremendous talent and enthusiasm. Using both hard and soft mallet sticks, she played all over the instrument, all the time, and as far as I could tell she never missed. She also made clear to the audience her pleasure at being a part of the festival.
The program ended with "Feast" by Bill Douglas. This is basically an ad hoc arrangement of a larger work that brings together all the performers on this program. Percussionist Michael Cebulski joined the group for what turned out to be a loosely structured improvisation, much to everyone's delight. Stoltzman walked around the stage, at one point even venturing into the audience while playing his part. Fisk kept a continuo line in place while Ransom's piano and Cebulski kept the beat. The marimba and clarinet had the lion's share of the tunes, mostly made up. (At one point, there were about 24 bars of spoken rhythm!) It was fun all the way and a great end to this program.
Afterward we all retired to a reception of champagne and chocolate; they had one of those machines that melts the chocolate and then cycles it though a fountain so you can coat your own strawberries or cookies or pretzels or... whatever. 'Twas wonderful fare and wonderful playing. This festival in the western mountains is a delight every summer.
The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival continues through August 6.