ROCKPORT — The Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s choice to invest boldly in its own future continues to bear fruit.
In 2010, this stalwart regional festival put itself on the national map by opening a gem of a concert hall, intimate in scale and breathtaking in its design, with a wall of glass behind the stage overlooking the sea.
Now David Deveau, the artistic director who oversaw that period of dramatic growth, has handed over the reins to Barry Shiffman, whose first summer of programming seems to be quickening the festival’s pulse.
In many ways, Shiffman was an inspired choice for Rockport’s next chapter. A Canadian-born violinist and violist, he was a founding member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, a group whose viscerally charged music-making earned it a spot at the leading edge of a rising generation of chamber ensembles. But he is also a noted arts administrator with years of experience running the Banff Centre’s distinguished summer music program.
On paper, Shiffman’s first season of programs looks promising, with several new initiatives including a composer residency (this year given to Osvaldo Golijov), a Rockport Fellows program that will bring a core of rising young chamber musicians into the festival’s orbit, and a series of late-night “classical cabaret” programs. There is also a North American tint to the lineup, with leading Toronto-based musicians now sharing the calendar with musicians from Rockport summers past.
It all got officially underway on Friday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, in an evening that was mercifully short on speeches yet well-stocked with ripely expressive music that brought its own sense of occasion. Tchaikovsky’s juggernaut of a String Sextet, affectionately subtitled “Souvenir de Florence,” was the first order of business, performed as seagulls and swallows darted in and out of view behind the players, and as the colors shifted slowly in the sky.
For the occasion Shiffman assumed the first violin chair and was joined by an ensemble of accomplished colleagues in a performance full of rhythmic drive, lyric charm, and — best of all — a roof-raising sense of vigor attuned to the music’s own joie-de-vivre. Moreover, playing at this level of generosity breeds a mirror response in listeners. So when the scherzo movement misfired and required a retake, the audience seemed to care about as much as when a drink spills at a boisterous party, which is to say, not at all.
After intermission came “Ayre,” Golijov’s century-hopping, pan-Mediterranean song cycle that premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2004 with soprano Dawn Upshaw. Since then, while “Ayre” remains one of Golijov’s signature works, live performances have been relatively rare given its elaborate instrumental requirements as well as the acrobatics it demands of a vocalist who must sing in Hebrew, Ladino, Arabic, Sardinian, and Spanish while leaping across a dizzying range of stylistic and emotional registers.
On Friday night, the score received a lavishly compelling performance, one that reunited several players from the original Deutsche Grammophon recording while adding a new theatrical gloss by director Joel Ivany. At its center, the Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil fearlessly embodied the parade of characters represented in these songs, spinning out tales of ancient battles with an urgency and charisma that made them feel like yesterday’s news. All told, it was an invigorating night for Rockport, the launch of a season that seems poised to hit the paradoxical sweet spot of remaining true to the festival’s roots while carrying it somewhere entirely new.
ROCKPORT CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL
At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Friday nightJeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.