A Festival With Classical Roots and Fanciful Surroundings

06.24.12
Gil Shaham
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

Caramoor International Music Festival 2012 in Katonah

KATONAH, N.Y. — The Caramoor International Music Festival has a stranger back story than most summer music destinations, and its quirkiness remains a strong draw. It takes place on a 90-acre estate of Italianate gardens, picnic grounds, winding paths, outdoor theaters and an architecturally disparate country villa. The villa, cobbled together by Lucie and Walter Rosen, includes rooms from European palaces that they shipped over from Europe in the 1930s and filled with artifacts they had collected, among them a 14th-century Florentine tapestry and a bed that belonged to Pope Urban VIII.

In 1946 the Rosens opened their estate as a performing arts center and began a concert series that evolved into the festival in the 1950s. For decades Caramoor offered classical music exclusively, but since 2003, when Michael Barrett took over as chief executive and general director, the program has expanded to include generous offerings of jazz, pop, Latin music and gospel among its orchestral, chamber, indie, classical and opera evenings. (Mr. Barrett is leaving after this year’s festival.)

But the classical repertory remains this festival’s heartbeat. When the current edition opened on Saturday evening at Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, the program was devoted to Mendelssohn, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s onstage and Roberto Abbado conducting. On this balmy evening, after a few days of uncomfortably hot weather, Mendelssohn’s gossamer textures and breezy melodies seemed the perfect fare for an outdoor summer concert.

That may have been partly because Mendelssohn had summer in mind, at least contextually, when he wrote his Overture and incidental score for Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the subject of the second half of the program. For that matter, the composer’s bittersweet Violin Concerto, in which Gil Shaham joined Mr. Abbado and company during the first half, was partly a summer project, composed between July and September 1844.

Mr. Shaham began tentatively, with a small, thin tone that seemed unusual for him and for this work, but he may simply have been taking the measure of the theater, which is essentially a large, open-sided tent. Before the exposition was complete, his sound had warmed and broadened. As the opening movement unfolded, he alternated his characteristically silken tone with a more hard-edged sound to capture the drama that propels this score. Those qualities, in changing proportions, animated his soulful account of the Andante and his commanding but playful reading of the spirited finale.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is really two works yoked together: the exquisitely nimble Overture that Mendelssohn composed in 1826, when he was 17, and a series of incidental pieces — including the popular Scherzo and the Wedding March — written for an 1843 production. But by drawing on both the spirit and the substance of the Overture (which is quoted liberally in the choral finale), Mendelssohn made the expansion seamless.

To provide a measure of dramatic coherence, Caramoor enlisted the actress Bebe Neuwirth to narrate. Using sections of the play, though touching only selectively on the action, Ms. Neuwirth, who recently played both Hippolyta and Titania in the Classic Stage Company’s production of the play, adopted different voices for each character and moved deftly among them.

Mr. Abbado led a tightly focused performance, with lithe string and woodwind playing in the Overture and finale, as well as a beautifully balanced account of the brass choir writing in the Nocturne. Jessica Lennick, a soprano, and Megan Marino, a mezzo-soprano, sang the brief solo passages appealingly, and the women of the Bel Canto at Caramoor Young Artist and Apprentice Program were the small but polished chorus.