The Greenwich Music Festival's founders, Ted Huffman and Robert Ainsley, have created a new musical dimensionality, both in the performances and in the ideation of the Festival, now in its 10th season. This year, it is devoted to the music of Igor Stravinsky.
Finding the most accomplished young performers, they tease and restructure, always challenging our notions about musical performance, history, and form. New performance platforms are found, lines are crossed, tangential relationships are forged, translations are made. It is musical reimagination at its very best.
In an afternoon performance on a bare stage at the Greenwich Country Day School, the composer's music for ballet was transposed to chamber music. The stunning performance of Pergolesi's "Orfeo" Cantata by the excellent tenor Peter Tantsits, and the prodigious playing of young pianist Conrad Tao in three movements from "Petrushka" simply soared.
These works bracketed a reworked vocal version of the "Pulcinella" ballet. Mr. Huffman told the audience that all pieces were all "Stravinsky-ized" versions, taking the essence of Stravinsky's compositions to new and imaginative scorings.
"Orfeo," a cantata in the Baroque style, whose themes were later used in Stravinksy's "Pulcinella," opened the program. Sung by Mr. Tantsits, who not only possesses a glorious voice, but a riveting stage presence and dramatic intensity, the work was scored for and played by cellist Elad Kabilio, pianist Djordje Nesic and flutist Eric Lamb, who wore short pants, invoking the god Pan.
Interestingly, this work echoed standard sonata form, going from an impassioned opening to a sad elegiac middle section (adagio) then to a lively, dramatic closing (allegro), with the soloist holding one impossibly long note. Mr. Tantsits' performances are always hypnotic: it is impossible to take your eyes off him.
The "Pulcinella Suite," artfully arranged for voices, cello and piano, opened with Overture, a stately melody played by the instruments. A thrumming bowing, throbbing, plunking percussion in cello opened the Serenata, with characteristic Stravinsky chords and high drama.
As the aria Contenot forse, Mr. Tantsits again performed his magic joined by the mature, modulated voice of bass David Salsbery Fry and lovely mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, who was score-bound in her first section, but later exhibited her high range to great effect.
The interplay between the singers and musicians was fascinating, and showed the talents of each in both solos and collaborations, always anchored by the articulated playing of Mr. Nesic. Mr. Tantsits' exasperated, driving exposition in a vocal trio was followed by Stravinsky's unique dissonances in the instrumentation. The trio performed a strong, swelling Minuet, and on to the Finale. With the voices mimicking traditional orchestral instruments, this was a daring arrangement, and a bit hard to follow.
Young Chinese-American pianist Conrad Tao took the stage, then immediately became his own piano mover, thanking the audience for bearing with him. We soon discovered why he wanted the audience to see the keyboard. He attacked the piano arrangement of "Petrushka" with the driving force of a missile.
Originally commissioned by Artur Rubinstein from Stravinsky himself, the eminent pianist of the day found the piano version too difficult to play, and never performed it. Nor did anyone else, until now. Mr. Tao was giving a world premiere of this piano transcription in Greenwich.
His fingers were a blur in the Dance Russe, his head bent in total concentration. In Chez Petrouchka (Petrushka's room), the agony of the protagonist finding himself confined was intensely moving, as Mr. Tao's playing evoked the character's frantic desolation.
The pianistic demands of La semaine grasse were great, a river of notes with flowing, dynamic energy and a percussive, grand sostenuto. Stravinsky's music never rests, nor did Mr. Tao, moving to a recognizable melody played in octaves. In a marching cadence, a melody broke out, leading to a quiet small chord, a rebuilding. Compelling, the music then moved to crescendo, and a rapid scampering. Mr. Tao had simply taken ownership of this arrangement.
This concert was a pure musical experience, without lights or amplification, without sets, performed in a darkened school auditorium on a sturdy old piano. How do you say "wow" in Russian? How do you say "wow" in Italian? Or in French, or in Chinese? We, the audience, settled for "Bravissimo" and a standing ovation for the astonishing artistry of young Mr. Tao. He is seventeen, and a true piano wunderkind.
The opera "The Soldier's Tale" featuring The Deviant Septet will close this year's Festival. For tickets, go to www.greenwichmusicfestival.org/tickets/soldiers_tale
Linda Phillips, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee for her music review column in the Greenwich Citizen, is an amateur pianist and was a member of the performing duo Amor Artis. She writes on musical topics for Newport Life Magazine and won a Best Criticism/Review award in 2009 from the Connecticut Press Club. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.