ITHACA, NY -- As we all know, the 2020–21 concert season has been more than challenging — and mostly nonexistent — for musical organizations worldwide. Here in Ithaca, our local and greatly admired Cayuga Chamber Orchestra decided to meet the major issues surrounding the performance of live concerts in public places head-on while abiding by governmental restrictions and the safety concerns of everyone involved. Live concerts would be presented if possible, and audiences also had the option of simultaneous online streaming. The season brochure, published in October 2020, announced a reduced number of concerts, of shorter duration and priced accordingly. The musicians themselves stated that they really wanted to perform live and, at the very least, to give this approach a try.
With two scheduled concerts remaining, here is the story of the orchestra’s 44th season and the ways in which this brave enterprise worked out. Last Sunday afternoon, April 25, the third programmed concert in the Chamber Music Series called “French Masters” took place in the First Presbyterian Church (since the very beginning of the season, concerts were moved to this venue, the most spacious available locally). As printed in the brochure, it featured two first-chair members of the orchestra joined by pianists Miri Yampolsky and Xak Bjerken, performing the Violin Sonata No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) and the Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). As I was attending live for the first time, I could be part of an uplifting and truly wonderful experience.
The orchestra’s leading violinist, Christina Bouey, performed both works and was joined in the Ravel by principal cellist Rosemary Elliott. Bouey joined the orchestra as concertmaster in 2015, stepping into the very large shoes of Linda Case, who retired after more than 30 years and who, incidentally, originated the Sunday afternoon Chamber Music Series. For her début, she wowed the audience with an exceptional performance of the Beethoven violin concerto. Elliott, on the faculty at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, is a core member of the CCO’s chamber music ensemble and serves on the Artistic Advisory Committee. She has also performed as a soloist.
Both well known locally, Yampolsky and Bjerken are founding co-directors of the international music festival Mayfest, held annually at and around Cornell since its inaugural year in 2007. Because of the pandemic, this popular event has been on hold for the last two seasons. Both pianists are on the faculty at Cornell: Yampolsky as a senior lecturer in music in charge of the chamber music program, and Bjerken has been professor of piano since 2012. Both have performed with the CCO in the past.
About three weeks ago I spoke with CCO’s music director Cornelia Laemmli Orth, who at that time was in her native Switzerland. She was especially eager to talk about the upcoming concert, the artists and the featured works. Not among the most familiar chamber music pieces, they complement and contrast each other in interesting ways. The Saint-Saëns sonata got off to a rather rocky start, Orth told me, as the soloist chosen by the composer — the then-famous Belgian violinist Martin Pierre Marsick (who, by the way, played a Stradivarius) — found it “bewildering.” Many violinists since have declared it unplayable. It premiered in 1885, with Saint-Saëns at the keyboard. A virtuoso pianist, known as the “French Beethoven,” he had a huge career, performing all the Mozart concertos in London in a series of concerts. Orth added that we were very fortunate to have two such outstanding musicians available to play this formidable work. This proved to be true. Bouey came out with quite a score, an accordion sheaf of pages on two music stands, assuring us that it looked longer than it was. She made it sound easy, and Yamplowsky, a pianist with extraordinary technique and strong musicality, matched her rendition with equal ease. In four movements, the sonata has a world of different sounds, warm yet agitated in the first movement, a gentle and peaceful adagio second movement, and a third movement that opens dance-like in three-quarter time. Although clearly challenging , it wasn’t until the fourth movement that one understood the designation “unplayable.” Marked allegro molto, it sounded like “The Flight of the Bumblebee” because the violin fairly buzzes at the start, and then the piano gets all those notes and the music sparkles. It was an amazing achievement.
The Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello by Ravel, performed by Bouey, Elliott and Bjerken, is “one of the best piano trios ever written,” according to Orth. Composed in 1914, Ravel hurried to finish it just in time to enlist for the Great War (he never made it to combat because, by one report, he was underweight by two kilos). The work demands virtuoso playing from all three instruments, and these musicians performed with great understanding and exceptionally beautiful sound. It was especially interesting to watch them, both as individuals and as an ensemble playing off each other. You can hear the way Ravel gives space to each instrument, bringing out its entire range and with no one blocking the sound of the other (just think of the amazing third-movement passacaglia). When I asked Bjerken about it, he wrote, “it is my favorite piano trio, bar none. It sounds like a whole orchestra, the way it’s written — so colorful and texturally layered.” Moreover, it was deeply moving at times — the end of the first movement is heart-rending and poignant; the passacaglia, after many passages with instruments in pairs, closes with the piano at the very bottom of the keyboard, the sound dark, all alone.
It was an exciting and successful concert, and being there in person made all the difference in the world. The full number of seats allowed in the sanctuary (50) were taken, plus 65 log-ins (many with probably two or three also watching), making an estimated total of over 100 from home.
Looking back on the season so far, even though the pandemic bore down, only one major presentation listed in the program for the entire season — the family-friendly holiday entertainment, “Comfort & Joy” — had to be canceled. The Chamber Music Series Concert No. 1 on October 25 was performed as announced, with five musicians from the orchestra — Wendy Mehne, principal flute; John Lathwell, principal oboe and soloist; Kirsten Marshall, violin; Josh Lohner, viola — and Ithaca College’s Vadim Serebryany, piano. A few hardy souls ventured out to join them, about 25 people in all were in the church. The very presence of these truly courageous adventurers — both musicians and audience — encouraged Orth, who reported that she could feel the joy coming all the way to her home in Tennessee. On November 19, the first Family & Storytime Concert, recorded at the Autumn Leaves Bookstore’s upstairs café area, was shown online. Cellists Sera Smolen and Elizabeth Simkin, along with narrator Stephen Nunley from the Kitchen Theatre, presented “Gustavo the Shy Ghost.” It was a great success, with 150 people logging in, many of them with families, making the estimated count at least 200. The second Family & Storytime Concert, on March 18, starred principal flutist Mehne and guest narrator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, chair of Tompkins County Legislature and GIAC executive director. Featuring a folktale from India called “The Flute,” it was broadcast from the Odyssey Bookstore on West Green Street. Both stores, newly added to the CCO’s list of local sponsors, provided their spaces for free.
A sad event brought a change for the first scheduled program of the Orchestral Series, the death in January of the CCO’s major contributor, Percy Browning, whose philanthropy extended to many arts organizations in our community. A special tribute concert on March 20 was organized and programmed by the orchestra’s Artistic Advisory Committee (the conductor, the executive director and four orchestra members). A string quintet — violinists Bouey and Susan Waterbury, violist Victoria Miskolczy, cellist Elliott, and double bass Max Michael Jacob (four of them principals) — presented a varied selection of modern music by mostly women composers, works and artists Percy admired. The one local composer, the popular Dana Wilson from Ithaca College, when asked for a copy of his score, promptly donated it. Included in the program were brief tributes and reminiscences, seven in all, from friends, family and colleagues. About 42 people were in the audience and, with performers and volunteers added in, the live count came to 50, the number allowed in the church, “a full house,” according to CCO executive director (and violinist) Susan Spafford. She also counted about 80 to 85 log-ins, and estimates that more than 125 were watching from home. It was a unique experience, smaller selections of unfamiliar composers, music you wanted to hear again. It was a perfect tribute.
The programs for the final concerts in May and June, again in the Presbyterian church, and with the double option of attending live or online, have been announced. On Sunday afternoon, May 23, at 3 p.m., a larger number of musicians (about 20) will be performing, not all together but in smaller ensembles. On this program called “The Return of the Orchestral Series” are the Telemann Concerto for Oboe in E minor, with principal oboe Lathwell as soloist, the Nonet (scored for winds and strings) by Martinu, and Mendelssohn’s beloved Octet for Strings.
For “Orchestral Celebration,” on Sunday, June 12, Orth will return to Ithaca to conduct almost all of the orchestra — again divided into smaller groups. Because more musicians are participating and space is still limited, the same program will be performed twice, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.to accommodate a larger in-person audience. Music chosen comprises selected movements of the “Antiche Danze et Arie” by Respighi; two versions of the movement Summer from “The Four Seasons,” one (very famous) by Vivaldi, the other by Spanish composer and guitarist Piazzolla; Copland’s “Quiet City”; and, to end with a flare, the chamber orchestra arrangement of Stravinsky’s dazzling score for his ballet “The Firebird.” The traditional Silent Auction will happen, but completely online. To keep posted, and to sign up for tickets to the concerts, go to www.ccoithaca.org. It’s wise to book early for both live concerts as space remains limited.
Some final icing on the cake will be provided by the CCO Youth Orchestra, conducted by violinist Kirsten Marshall, on June 13. More information to come.
We really can be deeply grateful to our orchestra — with all their planning, arranging, adjusting — for bringing us as much live music as possible. We are proud of them and of their efforts too. Let us support them in any way we can.