ROCKPORT — Now entering its fourth summer in the gleaming Shalin Liu Performance Center, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival still seems to be enjoying the expanded possibilities that have come along with its new home.
You could feel it in the sheer scale of musical forces deployed for Friday night’s opening concert. At the festival’s previous home at the Rockport Art Association, a welcoming but cramped space not designed for music, the makeshift stage could accommodate little more than a single piano and four string players.
This year, the festival opened its doors with an evening of double keyboard concertos by Bach, in this case presented by means of two grand pianos and a string orchestra. The scale was unrecognizable from the old days. And so is the roster of concerts more generally. Later in June, Rockport will present its first semi-staged operas — the Boston Early Music Festival’s double bill of works by Charpentier, previously performed at Jordan Hall — as well as a medieval music-drama from New York’s Gotham Early Music Scene. Rockport has evolved, quite clearly, into a very different festival.
And yet opening night, and much else, retains its community character. The festival intentionally kept its new venue small, seating just over 300, and on Friday the hall seemed packed with locally based festival supporters and volunteers, who were thanked with speeches and awards. In keeping with past years, the musical offerings were substantive but brief, dispatched in time for patrons to attend a gala dinner.
For the occasion, pianist and artistic director David Deveau invited the estimable soloist Peter Serkin, who in turn suggested collaborating on a program of Bach double concertos. The Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry was on hand to support them, and to fill out the program with a meticulously curated selection of Bach chorales and fugues.
The evening’s opening work, the Concerto in C Minor (BWV 1060), is more frequently heard in its incarnation for oboe and violin. The ear, and perhaps the players too, took some time to adjust to the stage geometry, with the pianos positioned in opposing orientation at the far left and right of the stage, flanking the string players. Subtleties of ensemble and soloist interplay were at times hard to discern in the wash of sound. The final two movements fared better, as did the closing Concerto in C Major (BWV 1061), notable for the articulate playing that the two soloists brought to the central Adagio movement, by turns ruminative and conversational.
Between the concertos, A Far Cry offered a set of brief chorales lifted from the “St. Matthew Passion,” intermixed with fugues borrowed mostly from the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” The level of thought evident behind the particular choices brought a pleasing coherence to this middle portion of the program, even if the ensemble’s tonally rich playing had a shade less expressive vigor than usual.
Looking ahead, beyond the upcoming chamber operas, the Rockport season offers a broad slate of programs, notable once again for its visiting piano recitalists. Russell Sherman and his wife, Wha-Kyung Byun, will perform a two-piano reduction of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4; Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic, a local favorite, returns; and Gilles Vonsattel brings an intriguing assemblage of staples and rarities under the title “Revolution!” Among the chamber ensembles of note will be the omnivorous Calder Quartet, and the newly formed Eviyan, which serves up its own richly cross-pollinated repertoire at the intersection of multiple folk, art music, and experimental traditions. The festival runs through July 14.