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Ionarts-at-Large: "Julian Rachlin & Friends" in Dubrovnik 3

There is little by way of culture in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik once the local Summer Festival is over and done with in August. Not that Dubrovnik needs culture to be a gorgeous tourist attraction. The fortress town, shaped by ever improved-upon wall erected in the 14th century, has proved an impenetrable beauty (Serbian shelling in the 90s not withstanding)—except of course for those tourists that marvel at the perfectly preserved old town and its scenic location on the Adriatic Sea.

It’s hard to say how many of Dubrovnik’s 40.000-some population feels culturally deprived without first class Franck or Tchaikovsky ready at hand, but for the visitors that still pour in during the first two weeks of September (less busy and arguably even nicer than during peak tourist season), the joint is classed up significantly by the Julian Rachlin & Friends Festival that celebrated its tenth year this fall.

What makes the Festival special—apart from location, location, location—is quickly told: the casual, even familial atmosphere among musicians and audience, the extraordinarily high level of musicianship, and the programming that reaches across the concert hall aisle to include actors to participate in programs. Roger Moore is a regular, and as of late John Malkovich is, too—all owing to Rachlin’s love for music and his connections.

This year’s interdisciplinary program was a clever evening called “The Music Critic”, thought up and written by Aleksey Igudesman, the violinist-half of the Little Nightmare Music-famous duo Igudesman and Joo. In it the assembled musicians perform works that some contemporary critic had just torn apart in a review read by Malkovich. Thus—lovingly, of course—music critics are made to look like the droll fools they apparently are. Is that so!? Well, too bad John Malkovich is such a talentless hack. But seriously folks…

If there is one disappointment about the Festival, it’s that the weather—usually and largely superb—can’t be controlled entirely. The Rector’s Palace courtyard, the most impressive venue and with a surprisingly superb acoustic (what lovely Fauré and Brahms—in good part thanks to Boris Brovtsyn—on my first day there!) can’t be used when rain looms, and the current alternative—the Dubrovnik Assumption Cathedral—sounds even worse than the Washington National Gallery’s Atrium. That didn’t keep Lily Maisky from turning in very lovely Chopin Nocturnes (enhanced by bird calls inside and torrential rains outside the cathedral), but it did make any attempt at chamber music positively pointless—whether Rachlin & Friends were at work in Brahms or Maisky pere et fille in Shostakovich.

Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was a first revelation. Rachlin’s conducting style might look eerily reminiscent of my nephews' with two knitting needles in front of the mirror, but the results he gets speak for themselves and they speak for the impressive professionalism and passion of the Academy’s players. The real pianissimo passages were tremendous in the concerto, and the following “Haffner” Symphony—in it’s old-fashioned explosive way—was just as fine. Definitely undeserving, I would have thought, of the rudeness of one after another local yokel getting up and walking out. Perhaps they thought they were hearing Haydn’s Symphony No.45? It was an ambitious program for playing-and-conducting Rachlin. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto loomed in the second half, which is difficult enough for any well rested, well rehearsed violinist to pull off. Was Rachlin perhaps substituting for his good friend Janine Jansen who had to cancel her participation this year? It doesn’t take much cynicism to fear the worst—instead it got only more impressive. The performance wasn’t just ‘not disappointing’, it was positively among the handful of best I have heard in concert.

Wind or weather, real or predicted, kept the closing concert of the Festival inside the Revlin Fortress as opposed to having it on the fortress rooftop. From there one would have a stunning view over Dubrovnik’s harbor, but also more than just a case of tussled hair, were the wind to blow. (It did blow.) Fortunately the acoustic is awfully good, wherever one sits in the three chambered top floor of the Revelin, even if one has to contend with the temperature creeping up and pillars infringing the sightlines for half the audience on the right and left of the center vault.

Misha Maisky and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields opened with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. Maisky, who can be counted on for style-statements of his own, appeared in a ruffled yellow-black shirt, looking like a shackled canary—quite in contrast to his voluminous, free-wheeling performance that got the crowd ready for the premiere of Giya Kancheli’s Violin-Viola concerto “Ciaruscuro for soloist”. Written for the Dubrovnik Festival and tailored to Julian Rachlin’s love for both violin and viola, this is a tremendous work that combines as serious an approach to ‘classical music’ as any curmudgeon could ask for and combines it with pop (or rather: rock) qualities of catchiness to which the bass guitar—nicely blending in with the other instruments—contributes its part. Terje Rypdal is never far afield. Skilful simplicity, repetition, and sparse textures, restrained melancholy made this an instantly appealing work with instant audience feedback suggesting that it was wildly popular with the non-classical crowd as well as with ‘Beethoven-ears’. (By which I mean traditional concert-goer types, not deaf people.) From perilous heights to soft flageolets, Rachlin proved complete mastery over his instrument adding yet another highlight to the week in Dubrovnik. Even the full bodied, zesty, fleet and energetic Eroica Symphony that concluded the 10th Festival played along: Without forcing the work to say something new, the performers managed anyway, from a very slow Funeral March, that teetering at the grave’s edge for a second before proving capable of a terrific build-up to the light Scherzo to a maximum-contrast Finale this was simply terrific. For all the credit due to the orchestra, the conductor that Rachlin had pulled him out of his hat last-minute for that evening could not be overpraised on this occasion: Ryan McAdams was simply astounding; look out for his name to appear much more often in the future.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely review - I was there, and the festival was gorgeous. It should be noted that Julian Rachlin did not conduct the final concert: the young conductor Ryan McAdams led the Academy in the Tchaikovsky, Kancheli, and that great "Eroica" performance.

jfl said...

Due credit where credit is due; I should not have neglected him in the first place, as I was surprised to the point of being perplexed by the performances he elicited.