The Bowdoin International Music Festival saved its fireworks for July 5, with a program at Crooker Theater in Brunswick that included outstanding soloists playing quintessentially American music, plus U.S. Sen. Angus King reading Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” which he first addressed as governor. He was good then, but his delivery has improved over the years.
The Bowdoin International Music Festival Orchestra, under Lewis Kaplan, was brilliant, virtually flawless and showed a deep understanding of both the Copland and the great Samuel Barber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14, with soloist David Coucheron.
The program began with Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 2, with Kaplan as soloist and Peter Basquin, piano. It is strange that it was so poorly received (for its dissonance) at its premiere in 1924, because it is one of the least craggy and inaccessible pieces that Ives ever wrote.
It is basically a series of three New England portraits, drawn with Ives’ characteristic humor and irony. The ragtime sections in the barn-dance movement sound surprisingly like George Gershwin, who came next on the program.
Pianist Eric Zuber demonstrated, if demonstration was needed, that Gershwin was one of the all-time masters of that instrument. The three preludes he chose would have done credit to Chopin or Scriabin and their exciting performance earned a cheering ovation.
The preludes were a hard act to follow, but Zuber managed it with his own piano transcription of “Rhapsody in Blue” that restores his favorite melodies to the standard solo version. Zuber observed from the stage that this would be the first — and perhaps only — time that anyone would hear this work. Judging from the audience response, it will have many encores.
Piling virtuosity upon virtuosity, Coucheron’s performance of the Barber violin concerto was equally astonishing. The short prestissimo tarantella of the third movement showed his technical ability, and that of the orchestra, with a record 114-bar solo that went by in a flash, but the melodic andante of the second movement was even more impressive.
The entire work, written just before World War II, is a dance on the edge of the abyss. The orchestral performance, with its rumblings of war and the beat of a distant drum, was the best I have heard in years of attending the festival. Every trap for an amateur orchestra, from chords involving all string sections, through elaborate woodwind combinations, to high French horn passages, was managed with such aplomb that one could concentrate on the music rather than the technique.
The setting of Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” which concluded the program, was equally fine. There were two places where the orchestra almost drowned out the spoken word, probably due to lack of rehearsal time, but it did not detract from the overall impression.
King, who came back for three curtain calls, seemed to enjoy the experience.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at email@example.com.