The opening work, J.S. Bach's Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from Cantata No. 170, saw Fischer joined by Allan Vogel (oboe d'amore), Steven Copes and Bella Hristova (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Peter Wiley (cello), Samuel Suggs (double bass) and Daniel Schlosberg (harpsichord). The logistics presented problems from the first. Fischer was standing at the back of a 7-piece orchestra playing modern instruments, and so her voice often had trouble cutting through the texture of the chamber players. Perhaps this arrangement would've worked with a gut-strung HIP orchestra, but it was unsatisfactory as presented: too often her sound was swallowed. 18th-century composer and lexicographer Johann Mattheson nailed it when he is reputed to have said: "The singers must stand alltime in front."
Mozart's Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio, an aria extracted from Clemenza di Tito for mezzo, clarinet obbligato and piano quartet followed, and the same logistical arrangement was used. Schlosberg switched to piano, and Hristova was the only violinist. David Shifrin was a delight; if there's anything finer than Mozart played on the clarinet by someone who really knows his instrument--well that would be something indeed to hear. He was in not so much of a dialogue with Fischer as a role of running commentary. Fischer, possessed of an undoubtedly fine instrument, came across at times as disinterested, and so was I for parts of this piece. One must I suppose give the benefit of the doubt; standing in on such difficult music with who-knows-how much notice can't be easy even for a top-notch performer. Towards the end she seemed to come more alive; her flourishes and cadenzas were actually quite spectacular and she had bedazzled the audience by the end of the Mozart.
The newly commissioned piece Crossroads (commissioned by CMNW and a multitude of other entities) by American composer John Harbison (b 1938) was like an entirely new world. The poetry of Louise Glück was featured, and set to the music of five strings (Hristova, Copes, Neubauer, Wiley and Suggs) and oboe (Vogel). The absence of a keyboard instrument was somehow bracing, and it began with a simple yet intriguing and profound opening statement from the strings, like a harbinger. The first movement, Twilight was a still-life, and there was much humor to be found in the text. Telling the story of a millworker dreaming at an evening table at dusk, Fischer's intensity and complete engagement with the text was spellbinding; each nuance and subtle turn of phrase was impeccably executed; Fischer seemed to inhabit the constantly changing emotional spaces. There was no straining to become involved with and completely subsumed by the story at hand. Harbison's textual underlay was fascinating; set off just enough from the accompaniment at times, it was constantly fresh, and both propelled the story and created space for the diction. A dissonant final soliloquy for the oboe seemed odd and disjointed, but in the context of the second movement, Primavera, it suddenly made perfect sense.
Primavera was like a misnomer in some ways, or a dichotomy. A high harmonic squawking from the strings programmed the scene: "the warm air fills with bird calls..." This movement seemed a naturalistic interpretation of life; even in the glories of spring it spoke of an end to all things, and the dissonant clarinet from the end of the previous movement felt like a foreshadowing. The music gloried in the transience of life rather than seeking to hide from it or become fearful of the inevitable end. The strings were not just an accompaniment to Fischer's recountal, but an equal partner in imparting meaning. The final movement, Crossroads, is really about the crossroads between life and death. Exactly the opposite of the story in the Bach cantata--here the music moves into atonality at the bitter end, not in trepidation of what comes after...but really the end doesn't have to be so bitter after all.
Die Forelle, (D. 550, Op. 32) a quick study into the life and death of a trout, was an oddly appropriate accompaniment to the Harbison, and presaged the "Trout" Quintet (D667, Op. 11) to follow. Neubauer, Wiley, Suggs and Copes were joined by Anna Polonsky on piano. These festival favorites dove into the chestnut with gusto. Polonsky in particular seems to have an innate ability to discern and perfectly execute the role of her instrument. The ensemble playing was spectacular, in addition to the individual fireworks. Copes displayed a spritely, rapid-fire saltando in the third movement, and Wiley and Suggs anchored the work nicely without being overpowering. It's a joy to hear Wiley--whatever he brings to the table is always fine. There was no grasping for glory by any performers; simply a purely professional and profoundly artistic ability to work with what was there at any given moment. The variations on the Trout theme in the fourth movement were spectacular; especially fun and satisfying was the sturm und drang variation, which fooled a knowledgeable audience into applauding a bit before it was time--much to the amusement of performers and audience alike.