The theme of this year’s Salt Bay Chamberfest, at Darrows Barn in Damariscotta, is “Music of the People,” and Friday night’s concert was devoted to jazz, a new classical-rap piece by Derek Bermel, and a work strongly influenced by jazz — Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du Soldat.”
The program began with three spectacular jazz classics in the rhythms of the tango, waltz and ragtime, played by Sean Jones on trumpet, Robin Eubanks, trombone, Ben Williams, bass, and Nate Smith, drums. Not your normal fare at a classical concert, the set received a lengthy standing ovation.
All of the players are virtuosos — the trombone “wolf notes” in “Caravan” were worth the price of admission — but drummer Smith is in a class by himself. His playing of complex polyrhythms was spellbinding and his use of pauses was equally intriguing.
It was Smith who collaborated with Bermel in “Half and Half” — a rap piece with unusual beats — which received its world premiere on Friday, with the composer as speaker, Smith on drums and Williams on bass. Although not mentioned in the program notes for this performance, Malcolm Gets as a worried suit was a perfect foil.
The work is in roughly three movements, a prelude that sets the stage, a rap on “underwater,” as in mortgages, and a finale on the ubiquitous iPhone. I don’t know anything at all about rap, but in Bermel’s hands it seems like an art form, maybe percussion with meaning? Arpeggios of words? Sometimes it also seemed to have pitch.
Rap actually harks back to the Anglo-Saxon, in which internal rhyme and alliteration were used to aid memory.
The “underwater” section — Bermel does a great swim — was particularly impressive in its creation of a dark, subterranean mood.
Bermel also appeared with Williams and Eubanks in the last work of the evening, Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat.” What appeared to be a new translation made the meaning of this morality play clearer than usual, while the instrumentalists emphasized the role that Stravinsky’s first exposure to jazz had played in its composition. Not coincidentally, the dances of the Princess — tango, waltz and ragtime — were those that began the program.
Jonathan Crow, violin, as the soldier’s soul, played like Paganini under the influence, and Malcom Gets, as the Devil, was mercurial and something less than all powerful.
All in all, a rare full-length treat for Stravinsky lovers.
The festival continues on Tuesday with Native American music and concludes on Friday with the use by composers of popular themes.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]