At Castleton Festival, young composer’s symphony is given its premier

Conductor Lorin Maazel is seeing his dream come true as the Castleton Festival, nestled in the Piedmont hills of Virginia, celebrates its fifth anniversary. On Sunday, Maazel introduced the afternoon’s orchestral concert with a plug for a new competition, for composers younger than 25 to have their works premiered at the festival. (Castleton already supports a summer training program for young musicians headed for professional careers.) This year’s winner was Philadelphia-born Charles Peck, whose “Metropolitan” for symphony orchestra was premiered before Rafael Payare conducted a stormy version of Mahler’s 70-minute Fifth Symphony.

The morning chamber music program received dazzling virtuoso playing for Johan Halvorsen’s takeoff on a Handel passacaglia. Violinist Eric Silberger and cellist Daniel Lelchuk raced through the set of variations requiring a wide variety of string techniques and expressive, tonal colors. The same players next took on Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, a three-movement paean to music that Kodály — with composer Béla Bartók, his comrade — had collected from Central European folk music. Both musicians tore into the score with passionate and rhapsodic, even improvisatory, styles.

(Bjorn Bertheussen) - Rafael Payare led the orchestra for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Castleton Festival in Virginia.

Castleton Festival Theatre

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Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat, Op. 20, calls on three winds — horn, bassoon and clarinet — against four strings — violin, viola, cello and bass. At first, the players fell short of impeccable intonation and ensemble. But they soon recovered, capturing Beethoven’s depths of harmonic shading, giving zest to the scherzo and a beautiful singing tone to the adagio. Reflecting a bygone era and the thrill of the hunt, the horn solos of Zach Glavan were captivating.

In his “Metropolitan,” Peck sketched five visions of the sounds and feelings provoked by an urban landscape. His opening “Luminous Canopy” was translated into transparent textures, ranging from softly warbling flutes and violins to the whole orchestra in muted, transparent colors. Through “Urban Glass,” “Magnetic Avenue,” “Iron Organ” and “Midnight City,” Peck etched cityscapes of noisy chaos and darker sounds of night reinforced by low-lying strings and brass. Above all, conductor David Hanlon shaped each movement with a precise baton, giving all five a separate identity.

The Castleton Festival Orchestra, conducted by rising star Payare, was unbelievable in the Mahler. These young musicians, with a few veteran players sprinkled in, rarely failed in technique and expressiveness to voice Mahler’s intent. Payare led them in probing the mournful landscapes of the funeral march; the piece was written at the time Mahler was composing his “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs of Dead Children”).

Most sections of the orchestra had chances to shine. And they did, as this mammoth cycle unfolded its violent emotional cast, relieved only in the rustic scherzo. The strings and harp of the adagietto captured a full measure of its pleasantly unworldly meditation. And the rondo finale transfixed the audience with its breathtaking virtuosity in conveying the music’s ambiguous sense of triumph and equally fervent proclamation of joyous abandon.

And there was nonstop music Sunday at Castleton, as several young singers and pianists serenaded the lunchroom crowd with a mix of old Vienna, musicals and cabaret-style songs, such as selections by Cole Porter, Franz Léhar, Maryland composer Lori Laitman and others.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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