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July 4th at the Castleton Festival

Castleton FarmsAs part of the opening weekend celebration of the Castleton Festival, Lorin Maazel and Dietlinde Turban-Maazel welcomed the public to their home at Castleton Farms on the Fourth of July for an open house featuring art, opera, and fireworks. Just a week after his retirement as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, having conducted Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (live recording to be released soon), Maestro Maazel has upgraded the musical activities on his 550-acre Virginia estate from a twice-yearly residency to a full-fledged three-week summer festival. With 200 young musicians on hand, it is featuring four Britten operas and fifteen conducting masterclasses among other performances. The Festival Tent, an additional performance venue, has been constructed to supplement the 130-seat Theater House built in 1997. A current Festival conducting apprentice summed up the experience in two words: “It’s Maazel.”

The Castleton Festival is gently raising its public profile with last weekend’s glowing story on National Public Radio by Robert Siegel; however, as Executive Director Douglas Beck pointed out to me, the vision behind the festival is more about outreach toward the participants rather than the audience. Beck also mentioned the challenges of bringing together an entire cast for one-off performances at the Kennedy Terrace Theater, where they have a standing invitation, although an audience would be easier to attract in Washington. Perhaps it would be possible to bring 2010 Festival productions the sixty miles to Washington during the Festival when everyone is available. For those able to obtain some of the limited number of tickets to the festival's operas, the experience of Castleton Farms is incredibly rewarding both musically and as an escape into the countryside.

The art exhibit that opened on Saturday afternoon displayed works by Virginia artists, which beyond the expected landscapes included realist photos and descriptions of impoverished rural Virginians of all races. The works lined the walls of the long tunnel connecting the Manor House (where the Maazels live, shown at left) to their pool house. Tours of the Manor House and bowling alley were also available. A picnic lunch was catered by Market Salamander of Middleburg, at a site near the other eccentric residents of Castleton Farms: emus, zonkey, camel, and a lone swan.

The 5 pm performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw was, according to Beck and conducting apprentice Paul Kim, significantly smoother than the opening night performance the prior evening. At their best, the operatic productions at Castleton Farms match musical excellence with stage direction of the utmost vision. Turn of the Screw, a complex ghost story based on a novella by Henry James, was absolutely haunting. Given that only Britten operas have been offered over the past few years, one wonders how the Festival’s repertoire will evolve -- perhaps a new chamber opera might be commissioned?

The evening was capped with an illustrious fireworks display, followed by dancing with a live band in the Festival Tent. The casual atmosphere and welcoming environment of the Castleton Festival made it the perfect summer day trip for music lovers.

The Castleton Festival continues the next two weeks, with two more opera productions: Britten's Rape of Lucretia (July 10 to 12) and Albert Herring (July 17 to 19), among many other performances and events.

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