Tag Archives: Rob Gibson

Hope Plays His Swan Song in Savannah in an Epic Exit

Review: Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After 16 seasons as the SMF artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the US as the new SMF chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the shadow of a 2018 classical lineup that included guest appearances by Murray Perahia, Audra McDonald, Marc-André Hamelin, the Zukerman Trio, Yekwon Sunwoo, and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet are on the bill for 2019, and in the first full-scale collaboration between the Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts will premiere in a Phil concert that will also include works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Perhaps the news that was forthcoming from Hope was telegraphed when Zurich did not commit to repeating its visit in 2019. Stating that the decision had been made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated,” the announcement that Hope’s 16th season at SMF would be his last officially dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 Festival began.

We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on SMF’s 2020 programming by surveying the scope of his participation this year. Easily the most active performer at the Festival, he is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope is also performing with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and teaming with Saebstian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In what will no doubt be a touching valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler.’” (April 13).

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In his first three performances of 2019, Hope was playing with a zest and dedication that indicated he is sorry to be leaving. Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the “Kreutzer Sonata” he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the same fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on Saturday night, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score – not to mention having his name up in lights on the Lucas’s movie theatre marquee – might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Frankly, Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by Robert Spano and the Symphony, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant, his double-bowing as sharp as steel.

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Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, graciously restoring calm in the outer movements and surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner and provocateur in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto-paced exchange that carried us to the end. Hope’s fireworks with Han had made it obvious that applause was forthcoming at the end of the epic opening movement, and a standing ovation was no less inevitable here.

Gravitating toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates were unintentionally underscoring the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium, the strings tend to get muddied and high frequencies are noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sound best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of “Overture to Egmont” sound more like Beethoven intended, though Spano beautifully judged the contrast between the final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

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Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 showcased Spano’s deftness even better, with sharper section work from his players and balances that played better with the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings stating the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds other than the triangle were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro marking. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted the fluid tempos and dynamics into pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the penultimate Scherzo, and the Allegretto animato e grazioso brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” of the season on Friday night, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening, notwithstanding the marquee, was without any fanfare marking his farewell season. Touchingly, that moment came late Sunday afternoon when Han mounted the Trinity United Methodist Church platform and warmly dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of playing with him. Han also proved quite adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing and in no hurry, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 when we reached the luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to have reminded us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17. For all its excitement and appeal, I couldn’t push away the thought, especially in the tempestuous outer movements, that a Beethoven or a Brahms would have made even more of the inspired materials that Suk was working with. The inner Adagio, with another soulful Finckel intro was a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák – not to mention the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms 3, which began with an eloquent and sad intro from Finckel and featured Neubauer’s best moments.

Both the Brahms 3 and the Dvorak 2 had been presented twice before in Savannah at previous festivals, but the Suk was an SMF premiere. With such a dazzling quartet of musicians advocating for it so passionately, the Suk proved worthy of such esteemed company.

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A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “& Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for No. 1 and the fourth for No. 2, but the String Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “& Friends” sequel offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the third time this gem has been presented during Hope’s tenure, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Rebecca Clarke’s Dumka, ranging from pizzicato delicacy to Gypsy fire, was presented by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, Neubauer, and violinist Simos Papanas. Nice to know that this piece, championed by Hope on a Naxos recording, was getting a second hearing at SMF, but Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano Four Hands and Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet were actually receiving their SMF premieres.

As the stage was being reset for the Sextet, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave us an impromptu introduction to Gade. Our host emphasized Gade’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then the director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope had addressed an audience at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival, seemingly spontaneous and unplanned.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him when he wrote his Sextet some 16 years after his mentor’s death, for there are echoes of the elder’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the Festival’s “& Friends” ensemble, played the leads on their instruments, prime reasons why this premiere was a resounding success.

Getting ready for the long drive home to Charlotte, I turned around in my front row seat and told Hope, “Well done, sir.” Shrugging, he replied, “They did all the work,” no doubt assuming that I was referring to his prefatory remarks.

Reading this, he’ll likely see otherwise.

Trumpet and Organ Summits Top Jazz Week at Savannah Music Festival

Review:  Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Jazz is always prominent when the Savannah Music Festival cranks up its eclectic springtime assortment of classical, country, Americana, rock, folk, and world music vibes. But diehard jazz fans will want to land at the festival during Jazz Week, culminating in the epic Swing Central Finale celebration and concert at Lucas Theatre of the Arts. Before the top three ensembles lead off the festivities, 12 high school bands play for a panel of jazz notables, once at the Lucas and once along the Savannah riverfront.

Workshops and clinics make Swing Central as much an educational experience as a competitive one. In the second half of the Finale, the awesome array of mentoring musicians gets to come out – after the winners’ placings are announced and the supersized checks presented – and strut their stuff. With the likes of Marcus Roberts, Ted Nash, Terrell Stafford, Stephen Riley, Ron Westray, Jason Marsalis, and Marcus Printup in their number, you can bet it’s a glorious march.

Celebrating the centenaries of both Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Swing Central 2017 was particularly splendid.

Until that culmination happened, the Charles H. Morris Center was the workhorse venue for jazz concerts. On successive nights, SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson pleasurably introduced a pair of organ and trumpet aces. Ike Stubblefield and Joey DeFrancesco presided over the rare sight of two vintage Hammond B-3 organs on the same stage. Next night, on the eve of the Swing Central Finale, Rodney Whitaker and MSU Professors of Jazz showcased the estimable Etienne Charles blowing his horn after Printup teamed up with a quintet of Youngbloods.

Festivalgoers could choose between pairs of sets beginning at 5:30 or 8:30. If you missed the back-to-back organists at night, you could partially atone with a set by the Ike Stubblefield Trio the following afternoon at 12:30, while Printup & Youngbloods did the afternoon honors the following day. With a little creativity – and a media pass – I was able to negotiate a 6pm classical piano recital on organ night, stop out for dinner, and arrive at the Morris Center just before intermission so I could scope out empty seats for my wife Sue and me when Joey DeFrancisco took over the stage.

DeFrancesco isn’t a shy or contemplative personality, and I first heard how he wails in live performance shortly after his first Columbia recording, at the tender age of 17, in 1989. So I thought I knew what to expect from him and The People who back him up. But Joey has piled an electronic keyboard on top of his B-3 console, and he brings a trumpet with him these days when he comes onstage.

A new electronic bent manifested itself immediately in DeFrancesco’s percolating intro to “So Near, So Far,” nodding to the middle acoustic and later electronic periods of Miles Davis at the same time. Yet that track remains fairly mellow on the new Project Freedom recording, while here Troy Roberts signaled on tenor sax that it was time to fasten our seatbelts as he finished playing the line. DeFrancesco turned up the heat to a temperature that surpassed the studio version, and Troy kept the flame high – while Joey and drummer Jason Brown became very busy underneath. For anybody who might be sleeping on Roberts: he is not your generic sideman, and both of his most recent recordings as a leader are well worth checking out. Dan Wilson was also a treat on guitar taking his choruses, never distorting his silky tone, and Roberts roughened his outro with a pedal I hadn’t noticed on the floor near his mic.

There was no reprise of the floor pedal as the quartet reverted to the trad grooves usually heard at the Morris. “Bluz ‘n’ 3” brought to mind the funky flavoring Cannonball Adderley brought to hard bop when Bobby Timmons played with him – except on the opening solo when Wilson’s crystalline work on guitar conjured up Kenny Burrell. Roberts took us into rough turbulence with his solo, though there was a calm eye to the storm at its center where he quoted Monk. DeFrancesco seemed to relish the challenge of following in the wake of this bravura, prudently dialing back the intensity as he began. As he reached what seemed to be full throttle, Joey snuck in a sustained bass chord to play over, so he could take his two-fisted attack to an even greater sizzle. Brown quieted things down at the start of his solo, ably shuttling from sticks to brushes in the ebb and flow of his solo.

Compared to this eruption, the next two selections were relatively light – but with plenty of fresh colors. “Better Than Yesterday,” another track from the new CD, also shed its studio mellowness, taking on a “Parisian Thoroughfare” élan in live performance with more rim work from Brown at the kit, more intense crosstalk between Joey and Troy, and more quirky rhythms all around. Then a DeFrancesco spot like none I’d seen live before: he sang “Around the World” in a surprisingly effective hipster style and, after the choruses by Wilson and Roberts, returned with a trumpet solo, the first half of which he played with a mute. Not content with these novelties, Joey D traded fours with Troy, firing scat lines on all his vocal salvos.

As caught in the studio, the intro and outro of the righteous “Lift Every Voice and Sing” caught in the studio were very much like what we heard live, with Wilson and Roberts splitting the opening chorus. Roberts and Brown added a little extra lift to the release into the solos and there was more real blowing in the middle. Toward the end, just before the last gospel explosion, Wilson drew a little more space to clear the way with an unaccompanied rumination. Enough funk was added to the live version of “Karma” for DeFrancesco to solicit audience hand claps behind his own solo and those by Wilson and Roberts.

We seemed to be building to a predictable finale, but DeFrancesco surprised us by calling Ike Stubblefield back onto the stage to join in on the second B-3. Two organ giants then paid tribute to a third as the ensemble dug into Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon.” Things became loose and joyous like a jam session when Stubblefield’s drummer, Herlin Riley, slid into Brown’s chair midway through the tune. Yet there was additional polish to the backup behind Ike as Joey picked up his trumpet for a second time and formed a horn section with Roberts, playing harmonized riffs.

A longtime sideman who has gigged with storied rock and R&B bands, Stubblefield is equally comfortable in backup or take-charge modes. Like the earth before an earthquake, he is always there, with no compelling need for finger-busting displays, but always capable of them. In his afternoon gig at the Morris, Ike broke loose most memorably on Richard “Groove” Holmes’s “Groove’s Groove,” a tune very much in the vein of “The Sermon” with perhaps a little more hop in its step. First his guitarist, Detroit Brooks, worked the tune from a relaxed groove to such a lather that, for the one time in the entire set, he felt compelled to stand up while he played. Stubblefield also stirred the line upwards from a simmer, until he was wailing, clawing at the sky before an abrupt halt giving way to Riley.

Like Holmes and Jimmy Smith, Stubblefield has a winning way with pop tunes whose tempos might seem set in stone. Back in 2011, he put some extra jump in “Misty,” as Holmes was fond of doing, but this time he took on Little Willie John’s “Fever,” which has resisted loudness, speed, and even instrumentation since Peggy Lee waxed her chart-topping cover in 1959. After Ike grooved on it, Detroit showed there’s plenty to be done with this line at a peppy pace. Then Ike proved there’s joy at the very heart of it.

Excitement always peaks for the second set on Thursday night of Jazz Week, because the house is filled to overflowing with an influx of Swing Central high schoolers – most of them enthusiastic jazz fans – on the eve of their final competition. With two sextets crammed with instruments you actually find teens playing (no B-3’s here), the festival was definitely keeping their audience in mind. Featuring arrangements with heads that always blended two or three horns, Marcus Printup & Youngbloods served up music the young crowd could identify with.

“Peace in the Abstract” kicked off jubilantly, featuring entirely different personnel behind Printup from those behind him in his 2006 CD with that same title. Nor were there any holdovers from Printup’s 2015 Young Bloods recording on Steeplechase. The group label lingers, but the personnel move on, a la Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Printup roared into his opening solo as if this were the first time he was playing on this tune, and young trombonist Corey Wilcox brought equal fire to his follow-up. Alto saxophonist Mercedes Beckman dialed it back a little before rapidly ramping up, but pianist Michael King aimed unerringly for a change of pace, almost Monkish in his initial relaxation. Yet drummer Henry Conerway III implacably picked up the intensity underneath King’s action, and the pianist’s solo soon swelled to rhapsodic density. This in turn was a perfect launching pad for Conerway’s pyrotechnics.

“Soul Vamp” was another trip back to 2006, but Printup gave the catchy tune a choppier, more energetic arrangement and added some vocal call-and-response to the out chorus. I was beginning to wonder whether the leader would be promoting his newer work when the next two selections, Printup’s own “The Bishop” and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” were plucked from the Young Bloods disc. Of all the tunes on this set, “The Bishop” probably showed off the whole group best, with Beckman blowing her finest solo and King unveiling a tasty Basie quality, again acting as a mellowing agent. Yet King was most distinctive, pointedly not Brubeck, in his freaky solo on “Your Own Sweet Way.”

With the finale, “The New Boogaloo,” the tune became something of a family heirloom as Wilcox had one more chance to shine in taking the first solo after the three-horn head. Wilcox’s father, Wycliffe Gordon, was the trombone sideman on the 2002 CD that was named after this Printup composition. Hidden in plain view for the last two years among the Swing Central mentors, Wilcox announced he was a force to contend with at the 2016 latenight jam, dueling with his dad and other greats. He’s be at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a five-night stint – also latenight – on April 18-22 if you care to judge for yourself.

Printup and Beckham would follow the same basic path as the 2002 arrangement, soloing over a shuffle pattern laid down by Conerway until he provided a stop-time break for them to blow on. It was Wilcox – with King’s spikier accompaniment – who actually cooked up something new for “New Boogaloo.” After the horns, King took a modest but tasty solo, revving up his momentum with the first stop-time break and yielding gracefully on the second to bassist Eric Wheeler, who knew exactly what to do. Wheeler got into such a compelling groove that the audience spontaneously joined in clapping it out.

I loved the way that Rodney Whitaker and his drummer, Dana Hall, casually took the stage for the MSU Professors set, jamming quietly together as if they were doing a soundcheck. Before we knew it, Etienne Charles and tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera were in place, wailing out the melody of “In Walked Bud.” Twenty-four hours ahead of schedule, the Monk celebration had begun with an all-Thelonious songlist.

Unlike most of the Monk selections announced for the following evening, none of these were rarities, and all of Whitaker’s colleagues proved to be able professors of the repertoire. Randy Napoleon broke out on “Bud” with the first solo on guitar, pianist Bruce Barth demonstrated that the line could turn in a barrelhouse direction, and Hall returned with a series of explosions from the drum set before the horns took the out chorus.

Charles was no doubt the most powerful of the frontliners, but he didn’t really start firing off his arsenal until the ensuing “Monk’s Dream.” Rivera charged hard in his solo, but Charles’s had more arc and build, ending with an elegant handover to Napoleon. Solos by Whitaker and Hall established a similar mold, regularly marking each measure – until Hall broke that mold, mixing things up and splattering them like a textbook Max Roach fireworks display.

You couldn’t ignore Charles on the final three tunes, each of his stints halved in a different way. Quieting things down after a Rivera roar on “Evidence,” Charles meandered softly for a while before abruptly turning up the burners. On “Ask Me Now,” he took two pieces of the opening chorus, one muted after Rivera kicked things off and another wide open after Barth handled the bridge. Not only did Charles play quite tenderly in his solo, but Rivera also proved to have an affecting soft side to complement his hard-charging mode – underscored later when he delivered a mellow coda.

The two sides of Charles in the closing “Blue Monk” were both irresistibly ebullient as the trumpet ace started off with a mute plunger, expostulating the line in tandem with Rivera. Napoleon delivered his most burning work of the set and Rivera reverted to his leonine mode before Charles cooled the bluesy blowing down, fanning the low flame with his plunger. The plunger work became progressively louder and more playful until the time was ripe to Charles to discard the rubber and go all-exclamatory in Dizzy Gillespie style.

MSU’s rhythm section was a constant delight. Barth was the most chameleonic among them, channeling Dave McKenna in “Bud,” Thelonious in “Monk’s Dream,” and Horace Silver in “Evidence” before coolly quoting a mess of Monk in the bluesy closer. Aside from their stellar work on “Monk’s Dream,” Whitaker and Hall asserted themselves most memorably on their intros, whether it was Hall clunking on wood blocks leading us into “Evidence” or Whitaker misdirecting us at the top of “Blue Monk,” invoking the familiar bass-line of “A Love Supreme.”

Nothing was routine or hackneyed about the big band performances by Swing Central finalists Byron Center Jazz Orchestra (Byron Center, MI), Agoura High School (Agoura Hills, CA), and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (Jacksonville, FL) – not when the titles included “Easy Money,” “Buddha,” and the winning Douglas Anderson’s “At the House, In Da Pocket” by Jason Marsalis. So I didn’t grow impatient for the all-star team to take the stage after the winners’ checks were distributed. The playing was consistently precocious and the vibe at Lucas Theatre, with so many young musicians and their families in attendance, was special.

The Monk-Diz centennial celebration lifted the evening even higher. Music directors Marcus Roberts and Ted Nash, both of whom with longtime links to Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, split emceeing chores while their set list took a singular approach to each of the honorees. Long acknowledged as a bandleader, showman, and innovative instrumentalist, Gillespie hasn’t gotten nearly as much recognition as a composer. So it’s altogether fitting that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is taking a compendium of Diz’s greatest hits on the road and making the case at selected concerts.

On the other hand, albums by younger artists devoted completely to Monk’s works are not so hard to find. It makes sense, then, to reprise Monk pieces we hear too rarely or to unearth new gems – expanding our appreciation of his compositional range. While shuttling between familiar and unfamiliar tunes, we also zigzagged between big band charts and tight combo presentations, always with plenty of space for band members to blow.

Signaling that this would all be fun, the band started out with Diz’s “Oop Bop Sh’ Bam,” a pretty grand display of the composer’s exuberance and the musicians’ firepower. You couldn’t say it was the full orchestra because there were two rhythm sections, starting out with pianist Bill Peterson, bassist Whitaker, and drummer Bryan. When we shifted to small combo mode for Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” the Marcus Roberts Trio took over the rhythm, Rodney Jordon on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, while David L. Harris on trombone, Ricardo Pascal on tenor, and Terrell Stafford on trumpet stepped forward to form an impromptu horn section. With the flare and assurance of his solo, Stafford gave us our first indication that he would be the designated stand-in for Diz on this night.

Nash returned, alto in hand, with trumpeter Alphonso Horne and the Peterson rhythm to do “Con Alma.” From this third iconic Diz title, we switched to lesser-known Monk and big band format as the Roberts Trio took its first turn with the full ensemble on “Blues Five Spot.” While it isn’t Monk’s most familiar work, “Five Spot” is obviously a Roberts fave, since he has now played it three years in a row in Savannah. The piece certainly distills Monk’s essence and lent itself to nice round of blowing, with Roberts, Stafford, and trombonist Ron Westray standing out.

Roberts and his rhythm stayed aboard for the next two Monk morsels, “Coming on the Hudson” and the delicious “Little Rootie Tootie.” Two of my favorite Gillespie compositions followed as we reverted to combo format: “Manteca,” the fine co-composition with Chano Pozo, and “Woody ‘n’ You.” As Peterson returned to the keyboard, Marsalis switched to vibes on “Manteca,” making for an interesting new palette when altoist Joe Goldberg and trumpeter Jim Ketch came down to join them. Perhaps because the Cuban percussion and vocal shouts were missing from “Manteca,” I was more pleased when Wilcox, trumpeter Randall Haywood, and tenorist Stephen Riley lit into “Woody ‘n’ You.”

They found two more opportunities to put four rhythm players onstage at the same time, featuring both of the bassists on Monk’s “Light Blue” and fielding Marsalis on vibes once more for “Ugly Beauty,” a pretty ballad that served nicely to clear the way for a rousing finish. That one-two-three punch began with “Two Bass Hit,” Gillespie’s collaboration with John Lewis, with Printup and his plunger mute making a punchy cameo.

Monk’s “We See,” and “A Night in Tunisia,” Diz’s most familiar piece, closed things out. “Tunisia” was particularly potent on this night. One by one, the solos poured forth from the band members, a effervescent anthology of bebop. Surprisingly, we were able to scale one more pinnacle. After all the glorious blowing, after the whole band had repeated the anthemic theme, Stafford launched into a lonely cadenza, working it until he ended on a long, jubilant high note that could make a grown man weep.

It was emblematic of all that jazz can say and do.

Hope Prevails With Quatuor Ébène at Savannah

Ébène and Daniel Hope at Savanah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrated for their recordings of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the Quatuor Ébène have shown themselves to be equally comfortable in repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, the Mendelssohn siblings, Jobim, Piazzola, Sting, and Erroll Garner. The string quartet is currently touring the US with new infusions of Beethoven, culminating with an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall on March 31 and a Beethoven-Debussy mix at the Kimmel Center six nights later.

Yet Savannah Music Festival artistic director Rob Gibson and violin colossus Daniel Hope, the festival’s associate artistic director for classical programming, could legitimately claim a coup for the Ébène’s return to Savannah, where they had played an all-French program in 2011. Wowed by their performance of the Ravel, Hope had prevailed upon the quartet to join him and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips in Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D Major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

Prior to intermission, the program foreshadowed what New Yorkers will hear on Friday at Carnegie: the String Quartet in B-flat, Opus 18, No. 6, followed by the String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Opus 95, “Serioso.” Based on the performances we heard down in Savannah, New York concertgoers need only fear that what follows after intermission might be anticlimactic.

Having listened to the great recorded Beethoven traversals of the past by the Takács, Tokyo, Guarneri, Juilliard, Italiano, Alban Berg, and Budapest quartets, I still found the live performances by the Quatuor Ébène at Trinity United Methodist Church astonishing. Part of the wonder, no doubt, was the church’s acoustics, even friendlier to strings than to either vocal or keyboard performances – though I’ve never heard its gilded organ pipes in action.

More decisive were the ensemble’s creamy approach to the harmonized sections of the score, the conversational interplay of the musicians, and the sheer excellence of first violinist Pierre Colombet. Of the recent surveys I’ve listened to, only the Belcea Quartet comes close in their recording of the B-flat Quartet No. 6 to matching the relish that Ébène took in the harmonious ritardandos of the opening Allegro con brio movement, which usually sound like lulls between the fireworks. That same attention to detail was also evident within those fireworks as the quartet zestfully leapt upon the opening exposition, varying tempos and dynamics with restless precision.

What surprised me most, from musicians making their first forays into Beethoven’s quartets, was the liveliness of their interplay. Adrien Boisseau sounded buoyant when he peeped in on viola, and the dialogue between Colombet and cellist Raphaël Merlin was even richer, the first responses by the cello playful and the last answer delivered with abrupt, prankish ferocity. Colombet’s artistry was more exquisite in the ensuing Adagio, as he floated lyrically above the soft accompanying trio before gracefully landing with a couple of delicate pizzicato chords.

In the bubbly Scherzo, Colombet and second violinist Gabriel La Magadure drove the music, darting around unpredictably while the lower strings were restrained. Any worries that the Ébènes might not be up to the demands of heavier Beethoven were largely dispelled in the “Malinconia” section of the final movement. Slow, and darkly harmonized, Merlin’s cello was especially morose as the instrumental lines diverged, until Colombet ignited a quicker, folksier tempo.

While no one questions the position of Quartet No. 6 as the last of Beethoven’s early Opus 18 period, offering tantalizing hints of the more turbulent middle period ahead, the No. 11 “Serioso” seems to lie slightly on the cusp. Nearly all quartets group the F Minor Opus 95 with their Rasumovsky and “Harp” recordings from the middle period, but a few let it lead off their compilations of the Late Quartets.

With the onset of the opening Allegro con brio, the Quatuor Ébène emphatically let us know, in a stunning wave of collective turbulence, that their most intense ferocity and flame throwing still lay ahead. Not immediately, of course, for middle Beethoven is ever mercurial, and we’re never sure if he’s wickedly mischievous with his surprises or divinely deranged. The opening storm soon gives way to reflective unrest, enabling a second onrushing wave to be more ferocious – cycling back and forth to a quiescent close.

Quiet returned throughout mournful Allegretto, beginning with Merlin’s lachrymose intro on cello, transitioning to a fugal section launched by Boisseau’s viola, and growing exquisitely slow and eerie with Colombet softly ascending the treble. Now came the time for peak ferocity, a final fury somehow kept in reserve, as we moved without pausing into the signature Allegro assai vivace ma serioso movement.

Diabolically, the pause missing at the start of this movement gets transferred to the middle – more than once after comparative lulls. Even when I knew another sforzando was coming after the second pause, it came with a jolt. Lacking the same fury as the Serioso movement, the concluding Larghett0-Allegretto might have been sorely anticlimactic if it weren’t so melodious and joyful, the contagious tune handed to each of the musicians as part of the jocund farewell.

It isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of Beethoven’s music at the Savannah Music Festival this year. The special Ébène event came between two “Beethoven and Beyond” concerts fronted by violinists Hope and Benny Kim with pianists Crawford-Phillips and Sebastian Knauer, backed by a quartet festival regulars. Each of those concerts had a Beethoven piece paired with works by his musical contemporaries or descendants – before and after intermission. My deadline for this review strikes in the middle of another mammoth Beethoven event, Stewart Goodyear’s three-concert “Sonatathon,” presenting all 32 piano sonatas in a single morning, afternoon, and evening.

A kind of closure with Beethoven will happen this Saturday when the Dover Quartet follows the latest of Mozart’s “Prussian” quartets with two late Beethovens, No. 13 in B-flat and the Grosse Fuge. Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han add a charming coda next week when they perform the 12 Variations on Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero” in the middle of a program that includes pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninov.

Amid a 17-day festival that also embraces jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, and world music, the aforementioned are barely half of the classical offerings. Tops among other headliners include pianists Jan Lisiecki and Knauer, violist Lawrence Power, and the Atlanta Symphony under the direction of Robert Spano, presenting an all-Rachmaninov program with Stephen Hough playing the Piano Concerto No. 1.

All of these will struggle to eclipse the éclat of Hope, Crawford-Phillips, and the Quatuor Ébène in Chausson’s Concert in D. After three harsh opening chords from Crawford-Phillips, the quartet’s entry was happily ominous, still restless when the piano part suddenly became rhapsodic. Hope soared above this conflict, and while the quartet – individually and collectively – continued to make telling contributions, it was Hope and Crawford-Phillips, playing off each other, who built to a climax of resounding joy, ecstatic joy, yearning joy, fulfilled joy, and purely sweet joy. That was merely the epic Décidé, Animé movement, with three more to come.

In the splendor that followed, the Quatuor Ébène ran the gamut from orchestral might to mute passivity. These extremes were crystalized in the final Très animé. After some galvanic fireworks from the keyboard, the sliding ensemble work with looping crescendos and decrescendos made me think that Chausson could have easily added a extra o to his title, for here his Concert seemed to have the fullness of a piano concerto. Moments later, the quartet wasn’t playing at all during an extended episode that was a fiery Hope/Crawford-Phillips violin sonata. None of the Quatuor members bothered to hide their frank awe of the violinist standing before them.

Joining in after this violin sonata eruption, the quartet played with a richness that made me wish to hear them taking on Dvořák’s quartets. Then a pizzicato shower as Hope and Crawford-Phillips crested to peak intensity again. No, there was one more detonation from the keyboard – and yet another before the final satisfying chords.

Thrilling was almost an adequate description of the first Chausson Concert that I heard at Spoleto Festival in 2002 and two others that followed, most notably with Chee-Yun and Anne-Marie McDermott in 2009. With Quatuor Ébène behind them, Hope and Crawford-Phillips set the bar even higher.

Last night at “Beethoven and Beyond, Part II,” Hope and Crawford-Phillips came perilously close to topping themselves – with Keith Robinson playing cello – in Shostakovich’s harrowing Piano Concerto No. 2. Prior to the concert, Gibson revealed that the festival’s 2018 slate had been set. He divulged only two tantalizing bookings: Pinchas Zukerman is on the guest list, and (after taking over the reins of leadership from Sir Roger Norrington) Daniel Hope is bringing the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Savannah.

Everything I’ve heard at Savannah Music Festival this year has been encouraging, especially the music. That’s why I’m filing this review early and making sure I don’t miss a note of Goodyear’s “Sonatathon.”

Savannah Vamps Toward Opera, In Bite-Size Pieces

Mozart in Prague: Edward parks, from left, Micaela Oeste, and Chad Johnson perform the Act I trio from 'Le Nozze di figaro.'(Frank Stewart photo)

By Perry Tannenbaum

SAVANNAH — Until recently, operatic singing was rarely a component at the Savannah Music Festival. Vocalists from other sectors – including jazz, folk, Americana, and world music – were heard far more frequently at the festival. SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson had connections to these musical realms through his stellar associates: pianist-composer Marcus Roberts for jazz, violinist Daniel Hope for chamber music, and mandolinist-composer Mike Marshall for much of the remainder of the festival’s wide-ranging offerings.

During my first four seasons at this 17-day festival, which continues this year through April 9, only two classical singers graced the bill, Nicolle Cabell (2010) and Christine Brewer (2011). There was a wisp of opera at Brewer’s recital but none at all at Cabell’s. American musicals got even shorter shrift, represented only by Andrea Marcovicci and her tribute to Savannah icon Johnny Mercer in 2009.

MilnesThe pendulum began to swing – dramatically – toward opera in 2011, when renowned baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, came into the picture. Operating their Milnes VOICExperience program, a series of workshops for promising artists, they were approached by one of their New York students, Rebecca Flaherty, who believed that this program would be perfect for her hometown of Savannah.

“We came to cultivate in 2011 to see whether there was a possibility of doing a program,” says Zouves, “and Rob Gibson was one of the first people that Rebecca called.” So the seeds for an eventual team-up between the operatic couple and SMF were planted early.

It became clear to Gibson that Milnes could fill the SMF’s opera void when VOICExperience took root with three programs in 2012, including one with the Savannah Philharmonic, giving rise to the Savannah VOICE Festival in August 2013, a two-week explosion of teaching and performing.

With the advent of the VOICE Festival, Savannah became the nerve center of the Milnes-Zouves enterprises, expanding even further when VOICE landed a prominent spot at last year’s Savannah Music Festival. Two-thirds of Puccini’s Il Trittico was staged at the Lucas Theatre, with Verónica Villarroel and Mark Delavan in the title roles of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, respectively. Gibson counts the production as one of the festival’s proudest moments during his 14-year tenure.

But neither of the performances at the Lucas sold out,and Angelica/Schicchi was fated to be a losing proposition even if they had. So there’s agreement on both sides of this SMF-SVF collaboration that cultivating an appreciation – and a following – for opera in Savannah remains a work in progress.

“Southerners are slow to grasp on to something,” says Milnes. “Fair enough. You’ve got to invest time. I think we’re perhaps showing them that there’s a difference between hamburger and filet mignon. If you don’t know the difference, and you love hamburger – you’ve never had a filet mignon – you don’t know that you’re missing something.”

In a sense, both of the programs devised for the 2016 festival were “filets” of opera, prime cuts of operatic repertoire served up invitingly. The first, “Arias & Encores” on March 31, was a freewheeling mix of operatic selections and Broadway fare. Two nights later came “Mozart in Prague,” distillations of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

The first ensemble of “Arias and Encores” genially telegraphed what we were in for. Lyrics of Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” were re-purposed for the occasion as “Opera Tonight” and peppered with familiar soundbites from Pagliacci, Carmen, and Lakmé. The ensuing potpourri included such staples as the “Sempre libera” from La traviata or the “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, offset by novelties including “Canción del Arlequin” from Amadeo Vives’ La Generola or “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß” from Lehár’s Giuditta.

Jessica Ann Best sang a number from 'Evita' in the 'Arias and Encores' program. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

Milnes hosted the concert while Zouves provided the stage direction at Christ Church Episcopal, moving the seven singers on and off the chancel, deploying them artfully down the center and side aisles of the sanctuary, extending the stage and lubricating the flow. In his pedagogy and programming, Milnes believes that American singers should be prepared to explore the best of Broadway’s musical theater. So opera novices and cognoscenti had the chance to savor songs from Evita, Les Misérables, Kismet, and South Pacific.

When my wife and I arrived for “Arias and Encores,” it was already packed to near capacity, consigning us to one of Episcopal’s side sections – and acoustic grief. Only two of the performers were impervious to the eroding effects of the overhanging balcony, which turned a couple of other voices into distant echoes.

The two mightiest, soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra and baritone Edward Parks, were fortuitously paired as John and Magda Sorel in “Now, O Lips, Say Goodbye” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul – for me, the meatiest discovery on this program. Standing well behind this husband and wife, mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best as John’s mother was virtually inaudible in this trio.

But Best harmonized exquisitely with Shoremount-Obra in “Mira, o Norma” from the Bellini opera and had some luminous moments in the Broadway bonbons, starting with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”  Best also teamed up with baritone Marco Nisticò on a three-tune sequence from South Pacific, starting with “Cock-Eyed Optimist.” Nisticò gamely tackled his half of “Twin Soliloquies,” and there was less than once-in-a-lifetime passion in his “Some Enchanted Evening.” Additional instrumentation beyond Dan Gettinger’s ardent piano might have helped.

Although he didn’t sound like he belonged on the same stage with Shoremount-Obra when he briefly peeped in on her bravura account of “Sempre libera,” tenor Chad Johnson was quite personable as Tonio in “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, straining only slightly at the end. The most intense emotion came from soprano Elizabeth de Trejo in “Alerte! Alerte!” from Gounod’s Faust. But the space ravaged her voice more noticeably than anyone else’s, leaving the top of her range powerfully secure but making unpredictable inroads as she went down. It was the sustained coloratura at the end of the “Poco fa” that redeemed the bumpy ride to get there.

Micaela Oeste: seductive in songs of Vives and Lehar. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

Most enigmatic of the vocalists was soprano Micaëla Oeste, subtly seductive in the Vives and Lehár trinkets. Or was that merely the beauty and that red dress? After her unimpressive role in the “And This Is My Beloved” quartet from Kismet, I found myself asking that same questions I occasionally ask myself on the subject of Renée Fleming.

My concerns that Oeste was little more than a pretty songbird would be dispelled in the “Mozart in Prague” program at Trinity United Methodist Church by the enchantment of her Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Since Milnes was the first American to play the title role of Don Giovanni at the same Prague theater where Mozart premiered it in 1787, the baritone’s fondness for the place clearly parallels the composer’s.

Milnes didn’t fritter away this unique advantage by taking his role as Narrator too literally. His words in this multimedia event were far less about the story lines of Figaro and Giovanni than about Mozart and Prague. A modicum of space in the projections shown behind the players was devoted to the supertitles, but what was otherwise visible on screen didn’t merely simulate the rooms and outdoor scenes where the operas unfold. Time after time, they  showed us Prague, taking up Milnes’ cues. When a close-up filled the screen, showing the plaque marking the spot where Mozart stood when he conducted the first performance of Giovanni, it obviously became personal for the 81-year-old baritone.

At Trinity, the relative strengths of the voices were still faintly evident, but the sound was smoother and more pleasant than it had been at Episcopal. There was also more polish to this production, which included projections, lighting changes, and co-stage director Andrew Bisantz conducting from the harpsichord, accompanying some of the recitative but more often cuing pianist Caren Levine.

Most importantly, there was more operatic immersion in the stage direction from Zouves and Bisantz, beginning with Nisticò as Figaro pacing off the measurements of the marriage bed he and Susanna will share perilously close to the lecherous Count Almaviva. We could luxuriate more extensively in Parks’ power and manliness in the farcical Act 1 trio in which  Almaviva discovers Cherubino hiding in a chair – and later in the evening when he returned as the wily and devilish Giovanni.

Johnson was more secure on this night as Don Basilio in Figaro and even better as the good-hearted Don Ottavio in Giovanni. De Trejo was also far better suited for Donna Elvira than she had been two nights earlier for Rossini’s Susanna, and she was nicely nettlesome as the elderly Marcellina opposite Oeste in the duettino with Mozart’s Susanna.

Marco Nistico's Figaro and Oeste as Susanna. (Frank Stewart)

Huddled in the chair as Cherubino, Best’s outing was comically pleasing but noticeably abbreviated, relegated to an impetuously delivered “Non so più cosa son.” The more familiar “Voi che sapete” remained on the proverbial cutting-room floor alongside Figaro’s delicious “Se vuol ballare.”

Nisticò’s performances as Figaro and Leporello were still the most revelatory of the evening, eclipsing all the mediocrity I’d heard from him before. He was absolutely commanding in his mocking military send-off to Cherubino, the familiar “Non più andrai farfallone amoroso” aria. Leporello suited his temperament even better. Borrowing the loose-leaf book from Milnes’ lectern, Nisticò went through Giovanni’s lengthy journal of conquests for Elvira, “Madamma, il catalogo è questo,” and his subsequent impersonation of Giovanni in the “Ah, taci, ingiusto core” was the comic highlight of the evening.

Oeste chimed in all too briefly as Zerlina in the Giovanni distillation, a charming and sensual “Là ci darem la mano” with Parks, but she had already been superb as Susanna. Bringing us the only snippet from the epic garden scene that closes Figaro so satisfyingly, Oeste was most characterful and impressive, teasing her unjustly jealous Figaro with the “Deh, vieni, non tardar”and demonstrating a fine strand of gravitas woven into her mischief – with some captivating pianissimos.

Milnes’ warmth toward Prague parallels his growing affection for Savannah. He feels the community’s love and has the rewarding sense of filling a void – and he sees the synergy between his other VOICExperience enterprises and his contributions to SMF. Unlike the efforts we’re reviewing here, with paid professionals, opera productions at the Savannah VOICE Festival are more of a showcase for Milnes’ and Zouves’ students.

“Our desire is that every singer we work with, we bump them up a notch or more, and they have a career,” says Milnes. “We want to keep doing professional dates with the singers who emerge and improve.” Clearly, the new operatic component at the Festival can serve as a platform for those aspirations.

And the Savannah Music Festival itself serves as a calling card for the upcoming Savannah VOICE Festival on August 7-21. Milnes promises to launch that festival with a two-hour-and-15-minute reduction of Roméo et Juliette that eliminates the choruses and preserves the sinew of Gounod’s opera, August 7 and 9. Operatic highlights also include a reprise of Michael Ching’s new Alice Ryley, a Savannah Ghost Story on August 16.

Gibson succinctly summarizes what Milnes and Zouves have brought to the arts here: “Really, they’re godsends for Savannah and for the festival.”

Photos by Frank Stewart, Dario Acosto, and Elizabeth Leitzell