Fuse Concert Review: Opening Night at the Monadnock Festival, Peterborough Town House

The emphasis of Monadnock’s coming concerts is, quite happily, American music by composers with strong ties to New England. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to hear such fare or a better group of musicians to play it.

Tessa Lark

Saturday’s soloist was the excellent Tessa Lark, making her Monadnock Music debut.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

There are few spots more idyllic than Southern New Hampshire in the summer and hardly any more tranquil locations for a summer music festival. Monadnock Music, which began its 49th season on Saturday in Peterborough, takes full advantage of the region: not only are there orchestral concerts and staged productions (mostly in Peterborough), but also village chamber concerts in various towns and hamlets around the area. What’s more, the programming, devised by the festival’s artistic director, Gil Rose, is typically as varied and engaging as, well, we’ve come to expect from Rose’s programming for his other ensembles (primarily the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera). It all adds up to something far from predictable, even when the music is familiar.

Take Saturday’s opening night program. It read like a Mendelssohn greatest hits parade, on paper about the safest set of pieces imaginable. And yet, the playing of the Monadnock Chamber Orchestra (MCO) was anything but. Rose and his band were electrifying. They took risks with the music. Mendelssohn, for at least one night, sounded, if not exactly like the cutting edge of new music (which he was in his day), then at least like the consequential, worthy forerunner of some of the 19th and 20th century’s giants that he is (and that his posthumous reputation hasn’t always acknowledged).

The evening’s first half focused on the beginning and end of Mendelssohn’s career as an orchestral composer. The Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when he was just sixteen, received a performance that was light on its feet and filled with character. Rose and the MCO seemed to delight in its many busy lines, delivering a reading that was appropriately lithe and evocative (the short passage depicting the braying ass, Bottom, has rarely hawed with more glorious color) but also touched with nostalgia: the plagal cadences in the brass towards the very end were haunting and wistful.

Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto has a melancholy side, too. His last completed work with orchestra, the Concerto, like the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, met with quick and enduring popularity after its 1845 premiere.

Saturday’s soloist was the excellent Tessa Lark, making her Monadnock Music debut. Winner of a spate of high-profile awards (including, in 2012, the prestigious Naumburg International Violin Award), Lark brought superb technical chops as well as an inquisitive, musical mind to her performance. Her tone was rich but not cloying, her vibrato – especially in her uppermost register (where, on several occasions, it sounded very similar to Anne-Sophie Mutter’s) – dedicated above all to interpretive nuance.

And (also like Mutter) she’s not averse to the occasional expressive gesture (including, on Saturday, a nifty portamento or two). Now, whether or not you think the latter belong in Mendelssohn’s Concerto is likely a matter of taste, but I didn’t mind it one bit. On the contrary, I thought it added a nice dose of personality to a piece that, even in the most experienced hands, can sometimes sound wooden.

Overall, Lark’s playing was urgent and clearly focused. There were a couple of moments in both the first and last movements in which she indulged in some exaggerated dynamic contrasts and I wouldn’t have minded had she continued further along that interpretive path. Even so, hers was a lively, satisfying reading with few complacent moments.

Rose and the MCO took a little while to settle in to both the fast movements: there were some tempo tensions between soloist and orchestra that weren’t comfortably resolved until well into each. Still, the orchestra teased out the lyricism in Mendelssohn’s writing and subtly highlighted its motivic elements.

After intermission, Rose and the MCO returned with a taut, turbulent account of the Hebrides Overture and a dazzling performance of the Symphony no. 4.

The latter wasn’t slow. Rose took the outer movements at snappy paces and didn’t linger much in the middle ones. Despite the fast speeds, everything was shaped with care. Rose and the orchestra paid close attention to the details of the score, which resulted in a reading that was both forceful and, texturally, remarkably clear. Many of the music’s subtleties came through vividly: the gentle, lapping woodwind figures in the recapitulation of the first movement, evocative of a soft, Mediterranean breeze; the rich sonority of the stately oboe/bassoon/viola trio that recurs through the second movement; the manic, whirling layers of string figures in the tarantella. The last have, to these ears, rarely sounded so clear, menacing, and Bartók-ian: at that point in the evening, the “Italian” Symphony suddenly morphed into a miniature Concerto for Orchestra.

Saturday’s opening night concert was both the most traditional program of the summer and marked the only time the MCO will be performing this season: the remainder of Monadnock’s orchestral programs will be given by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The emphasis of Monadnock’s coming concerts is, quite happily, American music by composers with strong ties to New England. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to hear such fare or a better group of musicians to play it, even if, on the merits of Saturday’s performance, an all-Mendelssohn festival with Rose and the MCO would by no means be undesirable.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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