Outstanding in their field — and ours, too

Deal: Half-price tickets this weekend

If you’ve missed out on this season’s top-notch opera, theater and classical music performances so far, here’s a reason to make it to the Castleton Festival this weekend: Rappahannock News subscribers can get 50% off on tickets to three of this weekend’s performances.

There’s also a gallery of photos here.

A beautifully restored old downtown movie theater featuring pop and rock bands and curated classic movies? Elsewhere. Metered parking? Elsewhere. Stoplights? Or an objectively written, dispassionate report on this summer’s fifth annual Castleton Festival season?

Elsewhere, sorry.

Here, in the mostly wooded center of Rappahannock County and on the admittedly tree-unfriendly pages of today’s newspaper, you’ll instead be presented a few fresh examples of the sort of classical music and opera performances taking place this July in a big tent-topped theater in the middle of a former hay field — performances on par with those you might otherwise travel to New York or Munich, or that other Washington, to see.

But these are shows reached instead, if you go the same back way some of us do, by taking mostly unlit, unpaved roads, crossing a bridge prone to flooding and swerving to avoid at least one groundhog.

At the end of those roads, the trees obligingly fall back for one of those Rappahannock mountain views we alternately treasure or take for granted. If you’ve been taking the festival for granted because it’s just around the bend, however, think again. If you’ve been thinking your checking balance or classical music experience have not adequately prepared you, two quick suggestions: 1) See the box at the top for half-price tickets to this weekend’s shows, and 2) Reconsider your weekly allowance of surprise.

Elan Sapir works on his viola, and his tan, between performances at the Castleton Festival last week. Photo by Suri Xia.
Elan Sapir works on his viola, and his tan, between performances at the Castleton Festival last week. Photo by Suri Xia.

The latter simply means putting yourself in the the startlingly capable hands of the nearly 200 young musicians, singers, designers and crew — the generally 20- to 30-year-old aspirants and already-rising stars brought to their Castleton Farm each July by renowned conductor Lorin Maazel and actress Dietlinde Turbin-Maazel, the maestro’s wife and the festival’s assistant artistic director.

“That young conductor was just unbelievable,” said Linda Dietel by phone this week, speaking of the wild-haired, expressive and intensely, joyously focused 33-year-old Venezuelan horn player turned conductor Rafael Payare, whom Linda and husband Bill watched lead the Castleton Festival orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 Sunday afternoon at Castleton’s 650-seat Festival Theatre.

Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare led the Castleton Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony last Sunday. Photo by Bjørn Bertheussen.
Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare led the Castleton Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony last Sunday. Photo by Bjørn Bertheussen.

“Mahler is, as far as I know, probably Maestro Maazel’s favorite composer,” said Bill Dietel, “so it’s first of all impressive that he gave the opportunity to conduct to him. It was so evident that [Payare] loved the music, and he conveyed that so well to the orchestra — he turned on those young musicians, and they gave one of the best performances they’ve ever given.”

Mahler’s Fifth is no bunny slope. It moves from all-out, woodwinds-up gallops through themes in constant motion across the ensemble, to the achingly lovely, long, string-breathed notes of the fourth movement — and back again into pyrotechnics and bravado. In a glowing critique, a Washington Post reviewer actually called the orchestra’s performance “unbelievable.”

Payare, as audience member Thom Pellikaan of Woodville put it, “flowed across the orchestra. When the violins lifted their instruments, he lifted their instruments.” Pellikaan said he’d not seen a young conductor connect so well with the players since cellist and conducting fellow Han-Na Chang led the Castleton orchestra in Beethoven’s “Eroica” in 2010; her lithe hands and full-body buoyancy put you in mind of a ballet soloist.

Payare conducted without a score, much like his infinitely more seasoned sponsor Maazel does, and returned four times to stand with the orchestra for an also-standing crowd.

“I was in tears at the end,” said Linda Dietel.

Before Sunday’s Mahler symphony, Maazel took the podium to introduce the short five-movement symphony, “Metropolitan,” by 25-year-old Philadelphia composer Charles Peck, Maazel’s choice this season in his now-annual competition for young composers, whose works are performed by the Castleton Festival Orchestra.

Dietlinde Turban-Maazel in Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine” at Castleton’s Theatre House. Photo by E. Raymond Boc.
Dietlinde Turban-Maazel in Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine” at Castleton’s Theatre House. Photo by E. Raymond Boc.

From the first movement, powered by fluttering strings, woodwinds, butterflies and a radio-controlled helicopter or two, Peck’s work held the audience spellbound (as did assistant conductor David Hanlon’s baton, faltering not amid page after page of meter and tempo changes). In the slow third movement — the tempo is marked “Breathing” in the score — sonorous, string-dominated chords hinted at the Mahler funeral march to come later, and then glided and bumped from chord to dis-chord — and several completely unique combinations thereof. It was not for everyone. It was fabulous.

It underlined, especially in the look on the face of the composer when he stood up and was spotlit in the audience afterwards, what the Maazels have been working at all along at their 500-acre farm  these last five years. That would be actually preparing the next generation of maestros, concertmasters, sopranos and sound techs for the arrival of that spotlight.

Cliched or not, one word really covers it: Bravo.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 539 Articles

Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.