GardenMusic Festival offers a lively and eclectic mix

By Lawrence Budmen

The Sixth Floor Trio (Teddy Abrams, Johnny Teyssier and Harrison Hollingsworth) performed Sunday at the GardenMusic Festival in Corla Gables.

The Sixth Floor Trio (Teddy Abrams, Johnny Teyssier and Harrison Hollingsworth) performed Sunday at the GardenMusic Festival in Coral Gables.

The GardenMusic Festival is a feast of youthful musical energy and talent. With performances taking place in a spacious tent on the grounds of Fairchild Tropical Garden, the programming mixes familiar works from the classical repertoire and contemporary scores with music from folk and pop genres.

Teddy Abrams is the guru behind the ten-day event. A former conducting fellow with the New World Symphony, Abrams is currently music director of the Louisville Orchestra. He is also a composer, pianist and arranger and Sunday night’s concert displayed him in all his varied musical guises.

Abrams has gathered a gifted ensemble of young musicians who displayed great flexibility and technical aplomb in this wide-ranging repertoire. “The Sacred, Profane and the Spiritual” was the concert’s theme and the program featured music that from all three realms and beyond.

Bassoonist and violinist Harrison Hollingsworth and clarinetist Johnny Teyssier are Abrams’ colleagues in the Sixth Floor Trio, a mainstay of the concert series. Teyssier opened the early evening program with the Prelude and first movement of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov. The initial calm, repetitive string figures suggest minimalism which Golijov has fused with the klezmer tradition.

Teyssier is a terrific clarinetist. He intoned the mournful, cantorial melodies with rich, mellow sonority and sprung the wild leaps and jazzy riffs in fleet and virtuosic strophes. Violinists Lily Francis and Johannes Dickbauer, violist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and cellist Nicholas Finch were the string contingent, playing with energy and brilliance.

Johannes Bach was the great-uncle of J.S. Bach’s father and a composer of Baroque liturgical music. Abrams’ transcription of his motet Unser Leben ist ein Schatten featured a string ensemble on the stage and three winds (Abrams and Teyssier on clarinet and Hollinsworth on bassoon) about halfway back amongst the audience in the pavilion. The hymn-like score emerged serene and reverent. Throughout the concert, the discreet amplification projected the instruments clearly without blaring distortion.

After the Golijov and Bach works, the opening tritone of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 2 provided a real musical jolt, a macabre ambience replacing the preceding stasis. Playing Liszt’s four-hand piano version, Julio Elizalde and Sebastian Chang displayed a light, incisive touch, channeling the score’s  devilish rhythms with brio but also playing with expressive tonal beauty and depth of feeling in the sensuous middle section. Elizalde tossed off Liszt’s triplets in sprightly fashion and the duo managed to probe the romantic impulses beneath Liszt’s surface flash.

The final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the “Witches’ Sabbath,” continued the devilish aura. Berlioz was such a master of gargantuan instrumental forces that it is difficult to imagine this orchestral barnburner in a chamber reduction. Abrams’ version was ingenious, however, the piano invoking the chimes and tuba of Berlioz’s Dies irae quotation. With Teyssier’s clarinet joined by two violins, viola, double bass, bassoon and percussion, the arrangement worked surprisingly well and the players displayed real agility and more than enough volume to suggest a semblance of Berlioz’s bombast. Abrams and Chang were the hard-working keyboard duo.

John Adams’ Shaker Loops provided a calming interlude. One of the iconic composer’s earliest works, Shaker Loops combines repetitive minimalism with a Copland-infused American folk tradition, weaving a beguiling sound tapestry. Abrams conducted the small string ensemble superbly, infusing welcome sonic bite and astringency in the playing but tapering off the soft conclusion to beautiful effect.

The concert’s second half featured folk music from around the globe. With the stage and audience in darkness, designer Augustina Woodgate outfitted the players with lights on their clothing for a striking tableaux.

Singing in a simple, direct manner, bass player Nathan Farrington doubled as vocalist for Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More. Sultry-voiced Brazilian singer Priscilla Santana offered two swinging Brazilian songs with the musicians as backup chorus and multiple bongo drums. With the lights turned back up, the versatile violinist Jeremy Kittel and cellist Nathaniel Smith plugged in their instruments for some modernist country reels by Abrams and Kittel’s Spirit of Daniel Pearl, a homespun tune with spare piano, bassoon and cello accompaniment. The Jimi Hendrix classic Hey Joe (with violinist Dickbauer displaying his jazz bona fides) and a sing along of the gospel hymn I’ll Fly Away concluded the evening in lively fashion.

The GardenMusic Festival continues 7 p.m. Saturday at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables featuring works by Stravinsky, Francaix, Mason Bates, Edgar Meyer, Sebastian Chang and Teddy Abrams.; 305-663-8091.

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Tue Jan 13, 2015
at 12:16 pm
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