A conversation with Yonah Zur
This summer I will occasionally post conversations with the artists who were scheduled to come to Newburyport this summer.
REFLECTIONS ON NCMF SUMMER 2019: A Visual Portrait
Performing at summer festivals is fundamentally different from playing in a regular year-round ensemble. When I was a member of Ensemble Epomeo, it was great to live with a piece for years. We performed some works possibly 50 times - reworking, refining, tuning (always tuning!), sometimes in rehearsal or in the crucible of the recording studio. At a summer festival, with its incredibly limited rehearsal time, you rarely have the time to zoom in with a microscope on every measure. That said, you always manage to do some work like that: working closely on one measure inevitably has an effect on the whole.
Bartók IV is the most difficult work we’ve undertaken at NCMF. Which is not to say I’ve avoided programming monster works such as Beethoven 130 with the Grosse Fuge or Crumb’s “Black Angels.” But this piece constantly knocks you off balance - we players can’t trust our ears or innate sense of rhythm at first and the Hungarian folk ethos mixed with a new approach to tonality is fundamentally different from anything that came before. The music requires tremendous virtuosity both individually and as an ensemble.
Bearing this in mind we began rehearsing earlier than usual and later piled on hours to an already packed schedule when we could. As artists it is our job to give the best concert we can in the time we have and if that means rehearsing after a concert then so be it. It was worth it. The performance felt terrific from first to the last: confident, balanced, even comfortable.
I’m moved at how many people approached me to say they enjoyed it. I understand this music is difficult for the uninitiated but it is breathtakingly alive. That some who were skeptical became open to what Bartók achieved means my mission was accomplished.
It was a treat to have two opportunities to play Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit.” Both performances of this magical work felt different partly because we had time between each concert for the music to sink into our hands. However, the two different spaces and the extraordinary setting of Brown Chapel in the dark had an effect on all of us. I’m planning Nachtmusik again in 2020 along with a commission for string quartet and tuba by legendary Juilliard faculty composer Eric Ewazen. The dates of the summer festival next year are Monday, 3 August to Sunday, 16 August 2020 – put it in your book!
The Bartók and Dutilleux were nicely balanced by the grounding presence of the Mozart D Minor. From the very first note when Lisa entered with that exquisite, dark, sotto voce I knew it was going to be good.
Shostakovich 6 turned out to be trickier than expected as we struggled to find the right tempo throughout. Sometimes a group needs time to settle into the right speed and, as in baking, some things just can’t be rushed. Does one follow what the composer marked even if it is unconvincing? - Shostakovich himself was notorious for altering his own markings. And while Shosty 6, unlike “Ainsi la nuit,” appears straightforward on the page, if you don’t work diligently with your ears open wide then subtleties of the piece can slip by unnoticed. The process of discovery in rehearsal might be what I enjoy most about playing the viola. As we’ve expanded the amount of open rehearsals it feels good to welcome you into this bubble.
This summer I also programmed the Ravel Duo. As a father, it is a dream to see Eliana on stage and watch her blossom into a colleague I respect and admire.
The festival began with our annual collaboration with Theater in the Open, with Teddy and his crew pulling it off brilliantly yet again.
Hausmusiks continue to be sold out weeks before the festival starts. I still find it vaguely amusing that people pay to listen to us sight-read and I harbor the sneaking suspicion you all enjoy it when we mess up. Go figure!
Our traditional opening weekend panel discussion/demonstration at the Custom House Maritime Museum traveled an unexpected path comparing the different sensations inside a group playing composers as varied as Mozart, Shostakovich, and Bartók.
Lastly, there was the much-anticipated commission, “A Day in the Life of Newburyport.” We kicked off with Composer-in-residence Robert Bradshaw at an open rehearsal/panel discussion in the Newburyport Art Association.
The whole evening was extraordinary with Mayor Holaday’s introductory remarks, Rhina and Alfred’s poetry, and all the paintings on display (a special shout out to Jessica Pappathan of NAA).The concert itself turned out better than I dared to hope and throughout the performance I felt an unusually intense link with the audience. After the final movement, “Moonrise over Plum Island,” the hall was quiet for what seemed an eternity.
That’s it for summer 2019. In the meantime, circle the date Sunday, 15 December 2019 in your calendar for our annual Winter Baroque concert with Nurit and the spring 2020 piano recital on Saturday, 28 March 2020 with the return of Michael Brown. NCMF is year-round and I hope to see you around town.
Artistic Director, Newburyport Chamber Music Festival