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Rated: E · Article · Music · #1595996
This is a piece I wrote for a Virginia newspaper about the Castleton Music Festival.
Castleton Festival: Got It Right the First Time
By Donald Sosin

Maybe it was the llamas in the llobby of the ttent at intermission. Maybe it was singer Matthew Curran, who never missed a beat at the late night cabaret despite the storm that created a thundering wall of rain between him and the laughing, cheering audience. Or the finely-tuned productions of rarely heard operas in a setting as intimate as one could possibly wish for. Or perhaps it was simply the jubilant energy of young musicians who had come from three continents to meld their individual sounds into one vibrant, breathing unit under the baton of one of the world's true geniuses. Whatever it was, there was something extraordinary going on at the new Castleton Festival that created a wave of enormous delight for those who were lucky enough to be there during its opening summer season.

The Châteauville Foundation that Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel founded in 1997 has been presenting events during the year for some time, and has presented operas before, but this year was the beginning of this next phase. Critics from New York and Washington wrote glowingly about the festival, joining the throngs of music-lovers and visiting professionals that came from all over the world to be part of this celebration of chamber operas by Benjamin Britten, master classes in conducting, and mentoring young musical talent.

My regular beat as a music journalist is the northwest corner of Connecticut and its surroundings, where summer festivals are in such profusion that one has to choose from dozens of events within an hour's drive. Each July and August the hills are alive with sounds emanating from Tanglewood and the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, string quartets at Music Mountain, the Bard Music Festival's retrospectives of Shostakovich and Wagner, and a bit farther afield, in Cooperstown, Glimmerglass Opera.

So why would I leave all that and spend six days in the back country of Virginia, with no cell phone access and no shopping malls for miles? Full disclosure: there are no malls close to my home either, and our cell service is dicey. Fuller disclosure: my good friend and colleague Paul Reisler had invited me down to Castleton to help out with some piano accompaniments for his songwriting students. I had also become friends with Dietlinde Maazel earlier in the year after the moving memorial service for Paul's wife, Julie Portman. Ms. Maazel was coaching these young singers in German diction and acting, including improvising opera scenes, so I spent part of my daytime hours immersed in the sublime music of Schubert, Brahms and Mozart, as well as joining the singers in creating instant operas, from the thoughtful to the ridiculous. Paul's class produced some really memorable songs, and all the singers in the class improved markedly under the guidance of their coaches, and the beloved soprano Nancy Gustafson, with whom they study during the year at Northwestern University.

But the rest of the time I was a grateful spectator, beginning with the film night that showcased a short new film, “Elah and The Moon”, starring Ms. Maazel, with cameos by local kids, and a longer documentary, “The Legacy,” that follows the lives of nine young musicians as they tour South America as part of The Youth Orchestra of the Americas. The following night I heard a superb flute recital at the Theatre in Washington, with Robert Langevin, principal flutist of the NY Philharmonic, and pianist Nicholas Ong, that climaxed with Fauré's elegant and noble Sonata in A, originally for violin.

The next morning an orchestral concert showcased the conducting talents of the ten apprentices, who had been working with the Maestro, sponsored by Rolex. It was fascinating to see that despite their individual styles, there was a uniform concern for precision, economy of motion, and concise, direct communication with the orchestra, all hallmarks of Maazel's work. The conductors and other participants I had a chance to speak with during the week were quite forthcoming in their praise of the way the festival had been organized, and filled with gratitude for the rare chance to work so closely with Maazel.

With the evening came the wry and boisterous comedy, “The Beggar's Opera,” by Britten, and I began to realize what a unique opportunity the festival offered. Glimmerglass presents large-scale operas with full orchestra and seats 900 people. Tanglewood is an enormous operation with thousands of people in attendance. Castleton's tent (complete with air-conditioning and luxurious WCs) accommodates about 250; the smaller scale makes for more direct involvement. The outstanding cast, directed by resident artist William Kerley, swept around the bare plywood set with gusto and glee, with a stellar performance by Dominic Armstrong as the rogue Macheath. Britten's musical settings of the 18th century ballads by J. C. Pepusch and John Gay are brilliant, and were played with graceful nuance by members of the Qatar Philharmonic under the expert hands of Maazel, who at one point traded quips with Armstrong to the delight of the spectators, many of whom were smack in the middle of the action, one even invited ontstage to be serenaded.

I was even more captivated by the performance in the cozy 130-seat opera house of Britten's “Albert Herring,” a richly funny and stunningly written comedy of manners and attitudes, with wonderful cast and ensemble, including mezzo-soprano Jennifer Check as an uptight dowager with a mission to reward virtue, soprano Ashleigh Semkiw as a youthful teacher, and Brian Z. Porter in the title role of a simple grocery clerk who makes the most of his initially unwilling role of May King by freeing himself from his mother's iron grip on his life. Timothy Myers led the impressive orchestra from the Royal College of Music.

There were other events: ad hoc chamber music programs, after hours cabaret nights with a number of singers showing the lighter side of their voices in Broadway and jazz standards, and the final orchestral concert, which I heard only at the dress rehearsal, featuring the Grieg Piano Concerto with 15-year old Seongjin Cho, who must have studied musical magic at Hogwarts, joined by associate conductor Andreas Weiser, and Tchaikovsky's “Rococo Variation”s eloquently played by Han-na Chang, herself one of the conducting students; Maazel led the assembled musicians—the London and Qatar groups joined by some American conservatory students and a large contingent of fine string players from Charlottesville High School—in music of Bartók and Verdi to bring the festival to a stirring conclusion.

What impressed me most about all of this was the smooth way that everything flowed—a great accomplishment for a first-time endeavor—and how I spent much of my time grinning. It certainly takes a village to raise the musical rafters, and for this all credit must go to the Maazels and the hard-working team that they assembled, from the local volunteers to the first-chair players of the New York Philharmonic who clearly enjoyed some time to unwind in these serene hills with the man who had led them in stirring performances here and abroad for the past ten years.
But both the Maazels seemed never to stop. And Ms. Maazel was the last one out of the cabaret on two of the nights, staying into the wee hours of the final evening to sit with a couple of the staff to reflect on the goings on of the preceding weeks and how to improve. The music may have a vigorous downbeat, but in my short time there, I sensed the Castleton Festival spirit is all upbeat. There is an easygoing spirit of cooperation, an absence of attitude, and it's small enough so that people can make friends easily, take the time to relax, play tennis, swim and dance together (classically trained they may be, but they responded to the closing night party's iPod playlist, a jubilant mix of rock and hip-hop, with abandon). Next year's festivities begin on July 2, with two new opera productions. I can't wait.
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