The 2007 Newport Music Festival: Connoisseur’s Collection


To be alone together-when thought of in the strictest sense, it is an oxymoron. You are either alone or you are together. Of course, we think that we know what we mean when we say this, but if thought about carefully, the expression remains somewhat obscure. It represents the impossibility of shared isolation. It attempts to articulate a singular plurality, a moment in which the multiple becomes the one.

This is, if you will, the paradox of intimacy. We think that we share some hidden aspect of ourselves with another. But every “private” aspect of our being is shot through with our social, public lives. Our private confessions are always already public in that we are never alone. Every utterance, every secret that we whisper, every wish we keep concealed is wholly informed by the world in which we live. There is no intimacy except the illusion of intimacy; the privacy of any given moment is a willed privacy, an attempt to steal some vestige of our identity away from our public personas. There is no “I” as such. “I” is always shorthand for the first-person plural.

Since the rise of the public concert of instrumental music in the 18th century (opera had gone public over a century earlier), music-lovers have explored the differences between “public” and “private” forms of musical expression. The symphony quickly became the exemplar of the public statement-it was loud, gestural, attention grabbing, full of spectacular displays (think of the Mannheim rocket, for instance), and replete with a palette of varied instrumental colors. The symphony was considered a public oration with all of the pomp and circumstance such orations demanded.

But the public rise of the symphony was underwritten by the successful emergence of the age of capital. The public concert was, in many ways, the audible resonance of the arrival of the middle-class and the ascendancy of mercantilism. After all, capitalism at the very least offers the illusion of equal access. Anyone may enter for the price of a ticket. The public concert marshaled forth a physical and audible embodiment of middle-class sensibility; it manifested in sound the notion that anyone may come who earns the right to do so through hard work.

However, equal access-even the illusion of equal access-can be overwhelmingly disappointing. It is no mere coincidence that the rise of capitalism coincides with the rise of the modern notion of the subject. Once the Cartesian split between the “Ego”, the “I” as a thinking thing and everything in the world as an extended thing was broached it was damnably difficult to refute-psychologically, if not philosophically. I am the one who sees these things; I am the one who thinks these thoughts; no one else sees in this way or thinks in this way. My only experience of other thinking things is mediated through my experience of them as extended things. Thus capitalism, which in its utopian strain can be summarized as “equal access through hard work”, is imbricated with the Ego-centrism of the Cartesian divide.

Hence the invention of chamber music, with its ethos of direct and unmediated expression, seeks to recapture a privacy of communication that never existed previously; it harks back to an impossible past. Of course, there had been music performed in chambers long before there were ever any public concerts. But this was music for the nobility; it was largely an accoutrement of their class distinction. It was an emblem of their status far more than it was an object of aesthetic contemplation. It certainly was not a conduit for private musical communication. It was, in its more limited way, a public display of wealth, prestige, and a dilettantish love for all things refined.

In the age of capital, the middle class sought distinction not as a mere accoutrement but rather as a furtherance of their sense of earned belonging. Aesthetic contemplation was another emblem of hard work; it was understanding accomplished through effort. Thus chamber music was no longer merely an emanation of virtue by birth; rather it became an opportunity to demonstrate intimate knowledge and aesthetic achievement. Chamber music became private expression in contradistinction to the public expression of the symphony. The reduced forces of chamber music buttressed the notion that here was an individual or small group of individuals manifesting a form a direct address to another “I”-centered being.

According to the Cartesian divide (at least in its extreme form), even my experience of a symphony is a private experience but it is a private experience of a mass declaration delivered to a mass audience. Chamber music offered the experience of what was understood from the outset as an intimate musical communication. It was like a dart tossed across the unbridgeable chasm of the Cartesian divide, a hopeful attempt at intersubjectivity in which capital plays its favorite trick of trying to efface itself at the very moment at which private experience itself becomes a commodity.

The DVD collection The 2007 Newport Music Festival: Connoisseur’s Collection, recently released by Acorn Media, nicely reinforces the long-established ethos of chamber music as refined private experience performed in a realm of (limited) public access-limited not simply owing to the lavishness of the physical surroundings but also owing to the abstract and cultivated nature of the music itself. There are ten DVDs in this set consisting of over 20 hours worth of music and commentaries on the music and the festival by Dr. Mark P. Malkovich, III, the General Director of the Newport Music Festival since 1975. The repertoire consists mostly of Romantic piano and chamber works with a smattering of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn (even a little Bach).

Although Malkovich claims in one of his commentaries that the Festival seeks to perform minor works by major composers and major works by minor composers, there are plenty of famous warhorses here-including the Mendelssohn Octet (one of this composer’s finest works and a continual source of amazement for this listener), Waldscenen by Schumann, some incredibly famous Mozart arias, and a selection of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. However, the Festival is clearly dedicated to bringing lesser-known composers to light as well. This is most evident on the disc entitled “Connoisseur Concert”. Here the musicians bring together works of Johan Nepomuk Hummel with pieces by the Doppler brothers (renowned flautist-composers) and Henri Weiniawski. This is indeed music for the connoisseur in that these are not familiar tunes, these are not names with recognizable pasts.

Simply knowing of the Doppler brothers marks one as having explored the shady interstices of music history; such knowledge marks one as having worked at musical understanding (or at least awareness) and is an emblem of distinction. Thus, this DVD embodies the very social praxis that underwrites the discursive history of chamber music as intimate expression received by a knowing ear.

In his commentary, Malkovich encourages listeners to engage the music of these relatively unknown figures and he seems genuinely enthusiastic about spreading this seldom heard music-although I personally must question the sincerity of anyone who claims Hummel as a favorite composer. Indeed, in my opinion, the opening piece, Hummel’s Grand Rondeau for Flute and Piano is in such poor taste that it nearly derails the concert before it has had a chance to begin. The flute blast at the opening, the limp melodies, the dull harmonic progressions all contribute to the underwhelming effect of this decrepit piece of fluff.

The remainder of the concert is far more successful and concludes with the delightful Bravura Waltz for Two Flutes by the Doppler Brothers. The interplay between the flutes here is insouciantly engaging and this performance falls just shy of bringing out the composition’s full charm.

However, the greatest piece on this particular DVD, at least for this particular listener, is the bonus performance of Henry Charles Litolff’s fascinating Grand Trio No. 1 in D Minor. The plaintive lamentation of the opening cello line draws the piano into conversation. The violin develops the cello’s plaint, eliciting a virtuosic display from the piano that leads not to Romantic bombast but to a theme of such confident power, such assured grace that it strikes the listener that this theme has entered in media res and the remainder of the movement seeks to justify its grandeur by continually recontextualizing this theme but it returns again and again, undiminished and uncompromised. The DVD set might be worth the price if only to hear this gem of a composition performed with such sincerity and attention to detail.

There are, of course, many other standout performances. I can hardly imagine anyone surpassing the brilliant reading of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor for Cello and Piano delivered by Henri Demarquette and pianist Jean-Philippe Collard. The subtlety of their interaction, the attention to the suppleness of Chopin’s melodic line, and the willingness to gently exaggerate the occasionally stark harmonic vocabulary bring out elements of this piece that I had previously ignored. What more could you ask of a performance? The sound quality of the performances is mostly quite good.

Occasionally, the solo piano pieces lack the fullness of timbre required to bring out the rich tone of the instrument. Malkovich’s commentary is brief and conveys the warmth he feels for the tradition of this festival-at the time of this recording in its 39th year. Most impressive, however, are the sumptuous settings for these concerts. Held in vast chambers with exquisite interiors, the concerts are a reminder of the cultural and economic structures that subtend such ostentatious musical displays.

This is not music for everyone anymore than such settings are available to anyone. The subtlety of much of the music does not belie the lavishness of the physical settings, but rather it is part and parcel of such display. The lush interiors remind us that this is music that requires investment of economic and intellectual capital. The grandeur and glory of this music ought to remind us of the benefits, but also the costs, of the capitalist enterprise.

RATING 8 / 10