Think of a good Intermezzi program as a nice cocktail-hour libation or a light, but tasty appetizer: it’s just enough to wake up your artistic taste buds in time for that night’s heavier operatic or concert banquet. But Spoleto doesn’t take even lighter fare lightly. Most of the performers here — from instrumental players to singers — are the same ones doing the bigger acts, too, like the major operas or concerts. And that means that they’re likely to be very good, no matter what they’re doing.
And well we know how good many of them can be. Piano fans may sell their souls for a ticket to hear piano prince Andrew von Oeyen as he conducts Beethoven’s sprightly Piano Concerto No. 1 from the keyboard in the series opener on May 28. Goody for us that he’s keeping up his recent trend: he dazzled us silly last year, doing the same thing with bubbly concertos by Haydn and Mozart. I’d never heard those works done with such clarity and crispness before. So if he and his orchestra are as sharp and as spunky as they were then, we’re in for a real treat.
Rounding out that program will be A Little Threepenny Music, instrumental versions of some of the tunes everybody knows (like “Mack the Knife”) from German-American composer Kurt Weill’s early smash hit, The Threepenny Opera. A more conventional opera from him, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is one of the festival headliners. On the subject of Weill, the fourth Intermezzo program (June 6) will feature recent Lotte Lenya Competition winner Jonathan Michie, along with several other notables from the Mahagonny cast. They’ll take a break between opera gigs to present a pungent and entertaining selection of vocal music from this vastly underrated composer.
But let’s not forget who’s furnishing the bulk of the instrumental labor here. Every spring, the absolute cream of our top music school grads — tomorrow’s orchestral superstars — gather in Chucktown. For something over a month, they make up America’s most brilliant and busiest pickup orchestra, performing a slew of big concerts and multiple outings of three different operas. And don’t forget all of the rehearsals, too. Anywhere in the festival where instrumental talent is required, they are there. In this age of union-controlled professional orchestras, a band that works this hard, with no days off, for more than two weeks, is unheard of. So next time you see a bunch of young musicians with bags under their eyes lugging their double basses or horn cases down Calhoun Street en route to the Gaillard, stop and smile and let them know how much their work means to you.
Anyway, a gaggle of them will gather for the second program on May 30 for a couple of fave repertoire items and one surprising choice. Most classical nuts will know Rossini’s bubbly overture to his comic opera L’Italiana in Algieri, and the lush Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. But they may scratch their heads over Bottesini’s Grand Duo Concertante. The duo part is for violin plus double bass (Bottesini was a virtuoso bass fiddler) — and it’s a real rarity. Conducting will be Anthony Barrese, who’s done great work at Spoleto before.
The program on June 4 will consist of music for mid-sized ensembles: smaller than an orchestra, but bigger than a standard chamber group. It promises to be a real study in contrasts. Ernest Chausson’s dreamy Poeme is unabashedly romantic, but Heinrich Biber’s La Battaglia takes us way back to the early Baroque. It’s a big, eight-movement sonata for meaty string ensemble that (if it’s the piece I’m thinking of) offers stylized imitations of battle-sounds (music glorifying noble warfare was a trend back then). It should be fun, even if real war ain’t.
The final event, on June 8, will again be devoted to gems for smaller orchestra. Festival veteran Marc Williams will conduct a program that includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 82, “The Bear,” from his brilliant clutch of so-called “Paris” symphonies. Then we’ll get Stravinsky’s Baroque-tinged Pulcinella Suite, taken from his ballet score based on themes by the early Italian composer Pergolesi. Wrapping things up will be Claude Debussy’s smash hit, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun — but in its almost never-heard chamber version.
This venerable series abandons its usual digs at Grace Episcopal Church on Wentworth this year in favor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, right on Marion Square. Despite being a tad bigger (and thus able to seat a few more), the acoustics may well be a bit cozier. But one thing I expect won’t change is how hard it’ll be to get tickets, if you haven’t gotten yours already. Good luck, and happy listening. —Lindsay Koob
Intermezzi Series • Spoleto Festival USA • $25 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 28, 30, June 4, 6, 8 at 5 p.m. • St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 405 King St. • 579-3100