The Castleton Festival ended last weekend with a bang. Actually several.
One was related to the weather. A microburst — or, as one of technical director Terry Robey’s crew put it, “the world’s biggest dust devil” — approached the 400-seat Festival Tent between performances Sunday afternoon as a “cold” front arrived, following a spate of 90-degree-plus days that roughly coincided with the four-week festival itself. “There was a loud pop — the pressure inside the tent just reacted to the pressure drop outside,” he said. “Nothing bad happened.” The front continued on, and wound up taking out much of the electric power in an unnamed cultural center 70 miles east of here.
Another few bangs came during the three performances of the not-often-staged comic opera “Master Pedro’s Puppet Show” by Manuel de Falla, in which the excellent baritone Paul LaRosa, as Don Quixote, gets so caught up in the puppet drama that he tries to help reunite the star-crossed, hand-operated lovers — and brings down the walls of the puppet theatre.
In a slyly and appropriately low-rent staging by William Kerley, with hilarious and athletic work by the half-dozen hidden actors of New York’s Puppet Kitchen, De Falla’s opera was paired for two performances with Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du Soldat” during the final week of Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel’s second annual opera and classical music festival for more than 200 young and up-and-coming musicians, singers, conductors and others.
The festival, which began with bracing and beyond-professional performances of Puccini’s “Il Trittico” triptych of emotion-laden one-act operas, ended Sunday with a final bang: an all-Beethoven concert performance by the young and astonishingly accomplished Festival Orchestra.
Maazel, grinning at and cajoling his players while missing not one beat or cue, conducted most of the concert’s first half, taken up by an impressive rendering of Beethoven’s difficult and under-appreciated 8th Symphony.
Conducting fellow Han-Na Chang (aka cellist Han-Na Chang), with the lithe hands and full-body buoyancy of a ballet soloist, really got the festival players to pull out the stops for the concert’s closing, “Eroica,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.
She, in other words, rocked.
Other bangs gotten out of the festival — aside from the truly wonderful music heard by those Rappahannock and D.C.-area fans who made it to at least one of the festival’s nearly two dozen performances — were not as easy to hear, but no less powerful.
In an e-mail interview this week, for instance, Festival participant Daniel Lelchuk — a 21-year-old first-chair cellist in the festival orchestra who studies at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington — made it clear what the festival does for many of its young participants.
“The festival for me was a truly wonderful experience,” he wrote. “It was a densely filled month that not only contained a wide variety of music, but a wide variety of music that was consistently presented at highest standards. I would absolutely return.”
Asked what his biggest musical challenge was, Lelchuk said: “Putting together Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ with a rather small orchestra that had never played together before and whose members, for the most part, had never played ‘Trittico’ . . . Maestro Maazel is a totally expert guide through the richly expressive sonic world of Puccini.”
Besides the music, Lelchuk said, “it was a great time in Rappahannock. My hosts, Connie and Joe Tasker of the Tasker House, could not have been more warm, comfortable and welcoming. I also spent much time on the porch of the Laurel Mills Store chatting with some of the locals. I also got to know Mrs. Fannon and a few others there. What great people! This absolutely contributed to the ‘Castleton Experience,’ as did Sonny’s Best Ribs, which I had weekly.”
Lelchuk said he would tell his colleagues that “working with Maazel is unlike working with any other conductor in the world. He is, to my mind, the finest conductor, in the sense that every single one of his gestures, large or small, has a direct correlation both to the music and to a specific result he desires in the moment from the players. He is as precise and clear with the beat as one can be, but beyond that, he is a hugely expressive, and (as exhibited perhaps most in the Puccini) a warm and generous musician. Rehearsals with him can be very intense, and his standards are unrelentingly high. It is very rewarding playing with him, especially in concert.”
Former Richmond Times-Dispatch music critic Clarke Bustard said it best, on his blog, after Sunday’s concert. After providing a link to Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette’s affectionate-to-glowing review of the final week, he added:
“The New York Times reports that Lorin Maazel was paid $3.3 million in his last season (2008-09) as music director of the New York Philharmonic,” Bustard wrote. “His earnings from the Castleton Festival? Zero.
“In 1999, then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told Virginians that they should gratefully accept the city’s garbage in this state’s commercial landfills because, as he said on PBS’ NewsHour, ‘we’re a cultural center, because we’re a business center . . . . So this is a reciprocal relationship.’
“Reciprocally, then,” Bustard continued, “the big bucks that New Yorkers paid for Maazel’s services now subsidize a first-rate music festival in the hill country of Virginia.”
* * *
As the audience left the final concert and headed out of the Festival Tent Sunday night, the alleged “cold” front had indeed cooled and dried the air — and there was an extra light shining directly ahead and above the pasture-turned-parking-lot where gas-powered mercury lights on tall telescopic poles temporarily lit concertgoers’ way to their keyless-entry vehicles.
It was not another utility light, however. It was a full moon — and, like a lot of things you run into unexpectedly here in Rappahannock County, the effect it had is hard to explain in words.
I am told that’s what music is for.