The Virginia Arts Festival has grown into such a big event that it offers entertainment throughout the year. Last December, it brought the Vienna Boy Choir to St. Bede, a holiday prelude to April’s official start of the Festival which found the Virginia Symphony Orchestra at the Ferguson Center in “Bernstein at 100.”
Whereas the Peninsula used to get more in the way of Festival happenings, this year, other than the “Bernstein,” we have only two events: Bruce Hornsby’s Funhouse Fest in late June, and a chamber music Coffee Concert, the latter held May 8 in the Williamsburg Winery. We’re grateful for the nod to the classics with this program, as well as the Hornsby affair which is scheduled to offer, in addition to his featured all star line up of popular artists, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in a Virginia debut of his new contemporary-modernist orchestral work.
As for the program at hand, the Winery program featured the established talents of Andre-Michel Schub, former winner of everything anywhere fame and guest pianist Dominic Cheli, with members of the VSO, allowing a close-up look and hear of the musicians performing music of a more intimate nature in an intimate setting. Since 1997, Schub has served as director of the Festival’s chamber music events, as well as a Festival performer. He retires this Festival season, which made the chance to see and hear him again in this Coffee Concert an added and special treat.
This mostly Mozart program opened with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major for four hands, those belonging to Schub and Cheli, the latter a rising star in the international world of pianists. It’s filled with technical flash and flair, as well as delightful melodic lines. Essentially a work of sunny disposition, it was done with effervescence and lightness of touch, the Adagio movement providing a pause in enthusiasm for lovely, lyrical lines of delicacy. The four hand collaborative effort was one of finely matched coordination, emphasis and interpretation, a swell example of musical mastery and collaboration.
Mozart’s Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon, a work he felt was the best thing he’d ever written, found Schub back at the keyboard, along with his VSO cohorts. Far from the fussiness of the Baroque era, the Quintet is a solid example of Classical style in its balance, simplicity of line and elegance. It also offers virtuoso opportunity which, as heard here, was impressively and successfully embraced.
While the piano has a primary role, there remains in the whole a finely crafted sense of unity and cohesion that was superbly embraced by the ensemble. Sensitive to the score and each other, the sounds blended beautifully and allowed individual instrumental colors to shine, as well as the work’s delicate, effervescent, and lyrical nature to flourish.
The fare closed with Liszt‘s fantasy, “Reminiscenses de Don Juan,” based on themes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Typical of such works from Liszt, it’s dramatic, flashy and spectacular — piano pyrotechnics on display. Only the brave and talented dare undertake something so daunting. Cheli was, to be sure, equipped for the job.
From the opening ominous lines reflecting the Commendatore’s condemnation of the womanizing Giovanni, to the charming love duet and bubbling champagne aria, to Giovanni’s descent into hell, Cheli delivered, thematically, one helluva brilliant performance. He blended the sweet with the sensational in a mighty display of exacting keyboard skill that often found fingers flying with such flurry they became a blur of activity. It was a dazzling moment by a pianist whose name is destined for Schub-ian heights.
Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman’s “Murder at the Opera.”