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Music Review

A sea change for Rockport festival’s opening

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 14, 2010

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ROCKPORT — It was a heady opening weekend for the longtime supporters of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Since 1981 the Rockport concerts have taken place in a very modest community gallery space, but this summer the festival has moved across the street to a sleek new state-of-the-art concert hall — the Shalin Liu Performance Center — a $20 million venue built expressly for chamber music.

The change is dramatic — and so are its consequences. Audience members who had not come here in years have been returning to see the new space, the festival has begun receiving national press attention, and those well-acquainted with the festival’s former home seemed to be pinching themselves. One concertgoer suggested the festival charter a regular van or a bus from Boston, as Tanglewood has done. Good will seemed to be running high enough that no one appeared to mind the small kinks in the various systems (lighting, elevators, ticketing) still being worked out.

To help mark the occasion, pianist Garrick Ohlsson was on hand Friday night with an all-Chopin recital. After the previous evening’s excursions for chamber orchestra it was a welcome opportunity to hear how the new space held the ministrations of a single pianist, especially one as formidable as Ohlsson, who has maintained an affinity for the music of Chopin since the beginning of his career. Here he delivered it with ample technique and uncommon eloquence.

The first half — with the Impromptu in F-sharp (Op. 36), the Ballade in A-flat (Op. 47), the Barcarolle (Op. 60), Two Nocturnes (Op. 27), and the C-sharp minor Scherzo (Op. 39) — contained plenty of music through which other pianists might have dazzled with speed, volume, and shiny surfaces.

Ohlsson by contrast impressed with the poise and concentration of his playing as well as the clarity of his interpretive imagination. He commands a technique of great force, yet here it was often tasked with bringing out the music’s textural subtleties and rich inner lines. The Nocturnes in particular benefited from his harmonic sensitivity and the singing quality of his tone. But in almost all of these works the pianist matched power with a notable restraint, adding up not to a stalemate but to a kind of hard won serenity.

After intermission, Ohlsson presented Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op. 28), turning each miniature into a self-contained musical statement with its own character and expressive valence. Encores followed swiftly and plentifully.

Saturday night the Borromeo Quartet was back at Rockport, its presence announced before the group appeared by its set of four matching laptops. (The group uses them, with foot pedals, to play off of the full score.) The evening opened with a lively, fluid reading of an early Beethoven Quartet (Op. 18, No. 2) and the group followed with a committed performance of Mark Kilstofte’s “Quartette,’’ a piece written in 1988. The contours of Kilstofte’s string writing and the quivering lamentation of the work’s slow movement suggest a sound world descended from the Bartok String Quartets, without that music’s density of ideas and harrowing intensity of expression.

On the second half, pianist Gilles Vonsattel joined the Borromeo for an ardent account of the great Brahms F minor Piano Quintet, a rugged landmark of the chamber music literature. It was not a note-perfect reading but this ensemble delivered when it counted, most of all in the thrilling Scherzo, bringing a rewarding sense of expansiveness to that movement’s unforgettable main theme.

Heard from the balcony, the Borromeo Quartet sounded clear and full. Ohlsson on the previous night, heard closer to the stage, sometimes overpowered the space when playing at the top of his dynamic range.

The wooden screens behind the piano were pushed aside for the start of Ohlsson’s recital, treating the audience to watery views on the first clear evening of the festival season. As the pianist navigated the Barcarolle — Chopin’s famous contribution to a form descended from the songs of Venetian gondoliers — his tempos could be measured against those of an actual boat, bobbing in the harbor.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

ROCKPORT CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL
At: Shalin Liu Performance Center, Friday night and Saturday night
(Festival runs through July 18.)