The skyward soar of its fir and pine planking makes its setting in the woods feel natural in two senses. The breezes that chase each other across the meadows run unbothered through its rows. A volunteer chorus of finches and wrens emerges to perform at sunset with the settled-in ease of a house band. The whole place leans lazily but attentively into its hillside like one of the listeners on its lawn.
And when the rain rolls in — which it sometimes does — the Filene Center becomes something like a hearth in the wild: a symbol of the warmth and light that draws us to gather, and a reminder of how the greatest art always strikes a balance between shelter and exposure.
Of course, when the rain really rolls in — as it did on Thursday evening — the Filene Center just makes a better umbrella than your average umbrella. No metaphor required.
That spot of rain wasn’t the only throwback to Wolf Trap’s opening a half-century ago.
The National Symphony Orchestra, led at that inaugural concert by Julius Rudel, resumed their seats as the center’s longest-running artistic partner, this time under the baton of JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. A nod to Van Cliburn (who had joined Rudel and the NSO for the opener) came in the form of Joyce Yang, who won the silver medal at the Van Cliburn competition in 2005 at age 19 — playing the very same Chopin piece. And the Filene Center’s rich operatic legacy, launched at the 1971 concert with a performance by the bass-baritone Norman Treigle, was represented by Christine Goerke, Wolf Trap Opera alumna (and new Michigan Opera Theatre associate artistic director). Treigle’s granddaughter, the mezzo-soprano Emily Treigle, now in her second season at Wolf Trap, also gave a short performance at a pre-show dinner.
But on other fronts, it would have been hard to mistake Thursday night’s concert for the one 50 summers ago. The lawn was staked out in a grid of little numbered flags, and throughout the covered expanse of the amphitheater, “pods” of up to eight guests were separated by six feet and alternating dead rows. The center is operating at less than 25 percent of capacity — roughly 1,000 people attended Thursday’s concert — though it plans to return to full-capacity performances in August and September. This meant a lot less “pardon me excuse me sorry just need to squeeze by oops sorry” in the rows, but it also provided a lingering reminder that even this deep into the forest, we’re not quite out of the woods.
The program, too, cast its look forward, using the occasion of the golden anniversary to honor another of Shouse’s primary objectives: to set a stage for women in music. Along with Falletta, Goerke and Yang, the bill was topped by actress and singer Cynthia Erivo — just one inevitable O short of EGOT status.
“Some serious girl power here,” Goerke noted from the stage.
It was during Goerke’s set — a throat-clearer of “God Bless America,” an uncannily rich inhabitation of “Voi lo sapete o mamma” from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” and a soaring “Climb Every Mountain” — that pocketed phones started to buzz against the seats, an outburst of digital cicadas that spelled trouble. Just as Goerke was imploring us to ford every stream, the National Weather Service was advising us to take shelter due to flash floods and possible tornadoes.
As a deep blue dusk started nesting in the treetops, their upper boughs started to shimmer and hiss with rising wind. Yang articulated Chopin’s “Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante” in gentle ripples that surged into grand waves of sound from the orchestra. And the wind followed suit. Above her piano, a giant screen started to swing with a slow precarity that seemed to fan the tension.
To say that Yang powered through the disruption would mischaracterize the nimbleness and grace with which she maneuvered between the demanding dynamics of both Chopin and the weather, lighting into trills that blurred into a chromatic storm of her own making. Yang rode the wind and the din with confidence, force and precious little regard for the squalls of the storm — or the squeals of suddenly soaked lawn-sitters, who scrambled en masse into the open rows under cover once the rain opted to go horizontal.
If the drop in temperatures didn’t induce chills, Erivo’s turn onstage made up for it fivefold (plus a slightly less compelling encore of her own single, “The Good”).
The first live performance from the British actress since the start of the pandemic bore no traces of rust — her register serving generous helpings of Franklin and Riperton, her tone steely and sharp but not too proud to bend into aching blues.
Erivo’s bombastic take on “I (Who Have Nothing)” — a song she selected “because I love drama in general” — pushed back forcefully against the storm’s flashy interjections. And a smoldering, slowly gathering account of “I Never Loved a Man” seemed to dare the wind to do its worst, which it did. Erivo’s exquisite control came across as a sublime counterpoint to the world swirling around her.
And yet, even as the lot of us glanced nervously toward the parking lots in grim anticipation of a drenching, it was as though we’d cultivated our own weather under the ceiling of the Filene. Fifty years in, Wolf Trap is still something of a miracle — a place where music feels like a form of shelter, nature comes off like a collaborator and stars assemble below a canopy of clouds.
Correction: In an earlier version of this review, the second mention of conductor JoAnn Falletta misspelled her last name as Faletta. This version has been corrected.