Monadnock fest voyages to Paris

Laura Gilbert, artistic director and flutist for the Monadnock Music Festival. Laura Gilbert, artistic director and flutist for the Monadnock Music Festival.
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2010

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PETERBOROUGH, N.H.—The Peterborough Town House’s clean vault might seem an architectural rebuke to Parisian decadence, but the Monadnock Music Festival bridged the gap on Sunday with a program of French-born refinement. The theme, “Paris of the Senses,’’ emphasized composers’ almost tactile use of instrumental color. It could also have referred to a sense of history, focusing on two periods — the 1890s and the 1920s — when Paris’s culture and historical circumstances particularly intertwined.

A pair of 1924 essays, both channeling 19th-century indulgence into more frugal designs, evoked the hangover of the Great War. Manuel de Falla’s “Psyché,’’ premiered in Granada, still recalls the Spanish composer’s prewar Parisian sojourn, but the Impressionist lushness — hazy stacks of notes, piquant dissonances left to linger in the air — is cooled into placid austerity. Over a string trio (violinist Gerald Itzkoff, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and violist Jonathan Bagg), Laura Gilbert’s flute and Stacey Shames’s harp emphasized limpid calm; mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash’s pared-down richness washed into the strings, subordinate to the brighter ornamentation.

André Caplet’s harp-and-string quartet “Conte Fantastique,’’ a pocket tone poem on Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,’’ strains at multiple boundaries: episodic form, chamber dimensions, instrumentation’s stereotypical elegance. (Stereotype avoided: Harp soloist Bridget Kibbey rose to the occasion with confident flair, while her consorts — Itzkoff, Popper-Keizer, violinist David Fulmer, and violist Tawnya Popoff — reveled in Caplet’s splashy palette.) “Conte Fantastique,’’ like “Psyché,’’ condenses its splendor.

In the second half, the influence was Romanticism; the history, perhaps, the reversal of fortunes after France’s 1870 military defeat by Prussia. Ernest Chausson’s 1898 “Chanson Perpétuelle’’ abbreviates Wagnerian opera: a monodrama for mezzo-soprano (Shammash again, her grand tone ideally limning the music’s arc), accompanied by string quartet and piano. Silky strings (Fulmer and violinist Ole Böhn; violist Eric Nowlin; cellist Christopher Gross) and crystalline piano (Randall Hodgkinson) advanced Chausson’s cause: Wagner shorn of its triumphant excess, the Parisian salon staking its claim as Romanticism’s natural domain.

Chausson’s 1889 Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet similarly synopsizes Romantic virtuosity. Hodgkinson and violinist Gabriela Diaz were tasked with dazzling demands, but the soloist-vs.-ensemble hierarchy is blurred, straddling archetypal conflict and the more civilized give-and-take of conversation. The mixture is formidably dense and tricky — some sketchy ensemble in the finale could have used a conductor’s dictatorial hand — but Chausson’s compact lavishness insists: reclaiming grandeur, no matter the limitations.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

MONADNOCK MUSIC FESTIVAL Jonathan Bagg and Laura Gilbert, artistic directors

At: Peterborough Town House, Sunday