I’m nearing the end of my week at the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival, and it’s been a fantastic week on all counts. First of all, if you don’t know about the Methow Valley (prounouced MET-how), it is a scenic and bucolic river valley that spans a roughly southeast to northwest diagonal on the eastern side of the North Cascades National Park. If you’ve never been, you should definitely think about planning a visit sometime. In the summer, it’s a dry and warm place, with lots of places for road cycling, mountain biking, rafting, boating, hiking, and fishing. In the winter, it’s a mecca for Nordic skiing, with the largest network of Nordic ski trails in North America. There are two small towns in the middle portion of the valley – Winthrop, with its western-themed main street, and Twisp, its more utilitarian cousin.
When you’re asked to play a festival, most often you don’t have any idea what you’re in for. You can look at the bios of the other performers, and the repertoire, and photos of the venue(s), but that only gives you the barest notion of what the experience is going to be like. So when I showed up last Saturday evening and proceeded to the barn which housed the concert and rehearsal spaces, I was little prepared for what a wonderful operation the MVCMF would be.
First of all, the setting. The concerts are given in a large barn at the Signal Hill Ranch, which is halfway between Winthrop and Twisp on Hwy 20. Set on just over 400 acres of land owned by festival board member Howard Johnson, the barn has been outfitted with lighting and acoustical improvements that make it a wonderful and comfortable place to play chamber music. It is also high up on the slopes of the west side of the valley, providing panoramic views of much of the middle part of the valley. Horses and mules graze in pastures nearby, while hawks, eagles, and other raptors wheel overhead for much of the day.
In addition, the quality of the festival musicians is incredible. Festival director Keven Krentz (himself a wonderful cellist) assembles players of all ages and from all musical walks of life (and from around the country – and the world) that somehow all seem to share the same basic working habits, easygoing attitudes, and an extraordinarily high level of playing. So when I heard the sound of the venue, saw its location with my own eyes, and heard the incredible concert – I was experiencing a bit of trepidation about being able to integrate into this wonderful assemblage of artists! But, I needn’t have worried myself too much. My fellow musicians were so welcoming, laid back, and downright professional, that it was like meeting up with long lost playing partners again.
The pace of the festival is fairly brisk. My concerts are on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday of this week. There are essentially two days of rehearsal for each concert – two rehearsals the day before, and a dress rehearsal the day of the concert. So having the music well in hand is essential, as is being a quick study! For example, for last night’s concert, my group played the Beethoven String Quintet, Op. 29. On Wednesday morning, we read through the piece initially, then went back and picked out the places that needed some clarification. That afternoon we played two of the movements for a wine-tasting concert preview event at the Lost River Winery in Winthrop, and on Thursday morning we had an open rehearsal which was essentially a run-through in front of a small audience in the barn. That’s it! But wouldn’t you know, the performance went better than any of us had the right to expect. It was rhythmically very tight, and there were so many wonderful musical moments – many which were spontaneously generated in the heat of the moment.
Similarly, the Tuesday evening concert, on which we played a wonderful arrangement (supposedly dating from 1808) for string sextet of Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola and orchestra. When we first read through the piece we thought, even with three rehearsals plus a dress, it might not fly – it’s such a tough piece to put together with all of its chopped up solo lines passing through all of the instruments – but it went very well indeed when concert time arrived. Go figure.
The last two days are my ‘workhorse’ days. I’m the last violist left standing – my fellow alto clef compatriots, Mara Gearman, Wenting Kang, and Amber Archibald had all completed their performances and had left for other festivals and gig obligations, so my group is doing the Debussy String Quartet and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet on the final concert. I don’t mind, though, they are two masterpieces of their respective genres, and a joy to play.
Ultimately, what I have gained from this week in this far-flung valley in northern Washington State is a renewed love for both music and my instrument. It has been inspiring to hear Mara and Wenting play their solo pieces by Shostakovich and Schumann with such artistry, and to feed off of the enthusiasm of my fellow ensemble members and their new ideas, ways of approaching music, and their generosity of spirit. It really has been a musical oasis for me. I wish it didn’t have to end!