Outstanding Performances Close Out Savannah Music Festival 2015

Music journalist Doug DeLoach wraps us 17 days of music

Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

It’s not every day you attend a piano quartet recital during which a strolling gypsy violist serenades the audience. But that’s the sort of thing that can happen when musicians like Daniel Hope (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), David Finckel (cello), and Wu Han (piano) get together for a program like “Passionate Piano Quartets,” the final installment of the Savannah Music Festival’s chamber ensemble series.

Presented at the Savannah Theater, the program included Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor, Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47, and the magnificent and challenging Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms.

Soon after the G Minor quartet premiered in 1861, its fourth and final movement (Rondo alla Zingarese: presto) was nicknamed the “Gypsy Rondo” for its rapid rhythmic structure, bright tonal coloration and obvious inspirational source, not to mention extreme technical difficulty. Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, a close friend of Brahms’, celebrated the movement as an accurate adaptation of Hungarian gypsy music.

On Saturday afternoon, as soon as the quartet brought the G Minor to its dramatic conclusion, the audience was on its feet applauding. The four musicians rose, took their bows, and walked off stage left. Compelled by the crowd’s persistent enthusiasm, Han, Hope and Finckel returned to their places for an encore. An awkward moment or two passed, and Neubauer remained absent. The musicians shrugged, sitting with their instruments at the ready, giving no signal that anything was too terribly amiss.

Finally, the three musicians broke into a spirited gypsy ballad at which time the violist could be heard, but not seen. A few moments later Neubauer entered from a side door on the floor. Strolling past the front row and down one of the aisles, he stopped every so often to lean over and, um, fiddle with people in their seats. After several bars, the violist ascended the steps to the stage, rejoining his colleagues for the encore’s rousing finale.

It wasn’t exactly Hendrix at Monterey, but, yes, the crowd went wild – at least, as wild as the crowd at a chamber music concert will probably ever go.

Life got in the way of my plans to drop in on Rosanne Cash: The River & The Thread at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, but reliable sources reported she was in bright spirits and superb form, and put on a seriously great show.

And then there was one. After 17 days and dozens of concerts representing jazz, blues, opera, folk, classical and other less easily classifiable genres, one more performance by one more band, DahkaBrahka, the Ukrainian world music quartet, was staged outside in the perfectly pleasant, cool evening air at the Ships of the Sea pavilion. A lot of promising hype preceded the appearance of DakhaBrakha, and I’m delighted to report that the hype was no exaggeration.

The brainchild of Vladyslav Troitskyi, director of the Kyiv Center of Contemporary Art (DAKH) in Kyiv, Ukraine, DakhaBrakha emerged in 2004 from the country’s avant-garde theater scene. A vestige of the theater days remains in the quartet’s unusual garb, most notably in the high-rise lamb’s wool hats and lace wedding dresses worn by the three female members.

In an older version of the Ukrainian language DakhaBrakha means “give/take.” Whatever that phrase might mean to the musicians – Marko Halanevych, Iryna Kovalenko, Olena Tsibulska and Nina Garenetska – to the listener it means a gift of polymorphous music drawn from a culture, which developed over centuries within the context of one of the planet’s crossroads regions between Asia and Europe.

DakhaBrakha’s music blends elements from ancient and contemporary sources ranging from Balkan-style melismatic singing and an extensive reliance on minor keys and dissonant harmonies to funky rhythms and grooves derived from American R&B and the staccato beats and rhyming patterns of urban hip hop and rap. Traces of ambient drone, chill and jazz are readily detectable. Then Halanevych begins singing in an astonishingly fluid falsetto voice, or the band mimics the sound of a forest glen populated by dozens of bird species, and you are left to ponder the fathomless nature of the musical imagination.

In Savannah DakhaBrakha appeared to give everything it had and the audience gladly took it all in. They were dancing in the aisles, swaying in their seats, hooting and whistling and calling out huzzahs. They roared in a show of support when a Ukrainian flag was waved above the fray, and rose in passionate appreciation at the concert’s conclusion. I cannot imagine a better coda for the 2015 Savannah Music Festival.

To no small degree, DakhaBrakha – a band truly worthy of the world music moniker world – represents the fundamental aesthetic vision of the festival’s Executive and Artistic Director, Rob Gibson. For all the disparate and sundry categories of music that appear annually on the SMF calendar, the overall message is always one of inclusive conjugation and peaceful unification.

“Man, this is what it’s all about,” Gibson said last night, both of us flushing adrenaline from the performance we’d just witnessed. “This is why I do this and will keep on doing this until I can’t.”

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