The city of Dubrovnik, located at the southernmost tip of Croatia on the Adriatic coast, is aglow with the music of summer festivals. From July 10 to Aug. 25, the city hosted five weeks of music, theater and dance at its 62nd annual Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
The Festival Julian Rachlin & Friends, now in its 11th year, has presented chamber music concerts from late August and will continue through early September. It was founded by violinist Julian Rachlin, who chose the city as an ideal place to offer creative and vibrant projects with musicians of international repute.
Damaged in a war in the early 1990s, the Old City section of Dubrovnik has been completely and faithfully rebuilt to its fairytale persona of previous centuries. Many Renaissance-era buildings are used as venues for musical performances. For the Festival Rachlin & Friends, the 15th century Rector's Palace is the main venue for this year's 13 concerts, beginning with Zubin Mehta conducting the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition to performing standard classical repertoire, Rachlin commissions new works from composers. In the first three days of September, three new works by French-Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon were highlighted, each one painting an entirely different and unique view of the cosmos.
Eloquent chamber music
On Sept. 1 the program included two examples of Russian romantic repertoire: Anton Arensky's Quartet No. 2 for violin, viola and two cellos; Alexander Glazounov's “Elegy” for viola and piano; and Stravinsky's 20th-century “Divertimento” for violin and piano. The centerpiece of the program, though, was the world premiere of Dubugnon's “Violiana,” written for Rachlin and pianist Itamar Golan. The piece saw Rachlin switching back and forth from violin to viola with split-second timing for three movements of virtuoso playing. Exhibiting many moods and colors, most notably the lovely muted impressionism of the slower second movement, this piece is memorable for its electrified energy level throughout and was intensified by the kinetic performance by Rachlin and Golan. Dubugnon also dug satisfyingly deep into the velvety, burnished color of the viola, exploring its capacity for drama more than most do.
Sept. 2's program was dedicated to the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. One of Japan's respected violin teachers, Tsugio Tokunaga, was a featured musician, as was his 18-year-old prizewinning student, Fumiaki Miura. Anchored to the evening's theme was another commission from Dubugnon: “Variations on a Japanese Folk Tune” for two violins and piano. In it, the composer took “Red Dragonflies” by Aka Tombo and created a shimmering, beautiful seven-part theme with variations. It was performed by Tokunaga and Rachlin, with Sophie Rachlin (Julian's mother) on the piano. While the previous night's composition used a less tonal and more rhythmically focused language, this evening's work was intensely tonal and unabashedly emotional, made so especially because it was preceded by an original poem by Golan that used the imaginary symbol of a young girl's doll to memorialize the Fukushima disaster.
Sept. 3 was titled “Concert in White,” to which everyone was requested to wear white clothing; effectively, the audience became a fun fashion show without the runway. The program consisted of three highly emotional compositions whose personalities seemed to reflect the steamy hot weather. Dubugnon's “Three Pieces for Violin and Piano” (exquisitely played by Boris Brovstyn and Golan) is destined to become a hot item within violin repertoire. It is an astoundingly tender duet, as if the piano and violin were in a lovers' embrace. The three sections wandered from hallucinatory dreams to a moonlit reverie, then a blissful homage to the music of Maurice Ravel. A wispy glissando to the last, unearthly note was the final, evanescent breath of this wondrous masterpiece.
The next two pieces, Brahms' Piano Quartet in C minor (with the wonderful cellist Mischa Maisky joining Rachlin, Miura and Golan) and Arnold Schoenberg's string sextet “Transfigured Night” continued to heighten the emotional temperature of the evening. The latter's soul-searching portrait of a spirit in the process of transformation from deathly gloom to a radiant, heavenly resolution took everyone's breath away. Transfigured Night” was Schoenberg's first major work, written in 1899, and precedes the use of the 12-tone language that defined his later legacy. Its thorny, complex score was inspired by a poem of the same name and is one of the pinnacle compositions for string chamber musicians. The performance by violinists Brovstyn and Sean Avram Carpenter, violists Rachlin and David Aaron Carpenter and cellists Torleif Thedéen and Boris Andrianov was a rapturous experience of surging intensity.
Another breathtaking aspect to this concert was the last-minute substitution of several violinists (who learned their difficult parts in 48 hours) needed to replace the indisposed Janine Jansen. The heroes were Boris Brovstyn, Sean Avram Carpenter and the 18-year-old Miura. When I asked the teenager how he felt playing with such luminaries as Rachlin, Maisky and Golan, he said, “When I sat across from the amazing Maisky playing his big solos, I felt like a little mouse!” Thanks to Rachlin's organizational generosity, emerging artists like Miura have the privilege and valuable experience of sharing the stage with their mentors. Someday, Miura will be the older lion across from a young mouse.
From baroque to balalaika
The stunning Baroque church of St. Ignatius was the setting for a Sunday morning concert of works by Vivaldi and Bach. Later that day, Russian balalaika virtuoso Alexey Arkhipovsky entertained with his fusion of styles from folk to funk, fugue to flamenco, making the silvery sound of only three strings seem like a symphony. He is the modern-day Paganini of the balalaika, but with a Pat Metheny approach. The festival will continue with equal quantities of chamber music and lighter-weight fare through to Sept. 8.