ROCKPORT — The Rockport Chamber Music Festival began its 41st iteration on Saturday evening with artistic director Barry Shiffman assembling an ensemble of 15 string players — most veterans of acclaimed string quartets — for a program of Elgar, Marjan Mozetich, and Schubert. The concert was billed as an “opening night celebration” — appropriate for the occasion, you might think. Oddly, though, nothing on the program sounded very celebratory. It was, by turns, nostalgic, introspective, and fiercely dramatic, but nothing had the kind of easy festivity that was once part and parcel of such gala events.
Maybe that’s appropriate to where we find ourselves, though. Neither the world at large nor the music world is back to anything like a carefree, pre-pandemic state. Proof, were it needed, could be found in the line to have vaccination credentials checked that extended out the doors of the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Masks were not required but many, if not most, chose to wear them. Perhaps a program marked just by the warm sound of an exemplary group of string players, and by a few touches of wistfulness throughout, is the new normal for an opening night celebration.
That was certainly the impression given by the opener, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, one of the composer’s earliest mature works yet one bearing a late, autumnal glow. Its nostalgic yearning for a world past was beautifully conveyed by the ensemble, which played with both radiance and transparency.
Mozetich, a Canadian composer, came out of the Darmstadt school of hyper-complex serialism, which he left behind for a more approachable, tonally based language. His three-movement “Postcards from the Sky” (1996) showed a marriage of repeated rhythmic cells underpinning luxuriant melodies tinged by late Romanticism. It made for a series of pleasant surfaces, though none of the music was particularly memorable. Off and on during the performance, however, one felt the music’s rhythms fall in step with the gently undulating waves of the Cape Ann waters visible through the large windows behind the Shalin Liu’s remarkable stage. It may have been an unintended concurrence, though it was no less compelling for that.
The largest work of the evening was Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet in Mahler’s familiar arrangement for string orchestra (tweaked, for this performance, by the ensemble’s excellent bassist, Kebra Seyoun-Charles). I confess to never having warmed to this version of the piece: The quartet, Schubert’s greatest chamber work, has a rawness and ferocity that almost exceeds what four string players can produce. Enlarging the forces raises the volume but also makes the music more diffuse and less dimensional, robbing it of its directness and power.
That said, Saturday’s performance was superb, showcasing a cohesion and unity due not only to violinist Daniel Ching’s leadership but to the decades of collective chamber music experience among the performers. The slow movement’s variations were expertly plotted and executed, and the finale built to a gripping conclusion. It wasn’t really a triumphant way to close the program — Schubert, after flirting with D major, ends the quartet in the darkness of D minor. But it was, in its own way, heartening and reassuring. The world is still broken but art continues: Perhaps that is all we can ask of our opening night celebrations, at least for now.
The festival resumes next weekend and continues through July 10.