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Melvin Chen outlines the 2022 Festival theme

On the one hand the theme of the 2022 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival—It’s About Time—is as obvious as it initially sounds. After a two-year hiatus from in-person concerts, the Festival is enthusiastically and excitedly returning to concerts that will welcome live audiences, in addition to continued live steaming. It is, indeed, about time. 

But Festival Director Melvin Chen picked that overarching theme for other reasons as well. “It’s also an opportunity to look at different aspects of time,” he says. “How do perceptions of music change over time? It is about Norfolk then and now. It’s looking at the different ways modern composers have looked back in time and been influenced.”

The themed concerts kick off on July 8 with It’s About Time: Belated Beethoven Birthday. The Festival intended to celebrate the composer’s 250th birth anniversary in the summer of 2020. Enter COVID-19. Rather than ignore this seminal composer’s musical influence, Chen decided the time to celebrate his birthday was now and that the Beethoven concert would help set the theme for the summer. 

The concert features music from the early part of Beethoven’s career: the Sonata in D Major for Piano Four Hands, Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, and the String Quintet in c minor, Opus 104. These works, Chen explains, show the influences of earlier composers such as Mozart on Beethoven. The quintet is an earlier work inspired by Mozart’s piano and wind quintet, while the string quintet has a high opus number, but is actually an arrangement of the early Op. 1, No. 3 piano trio.

The concert on July 15 is titled Unquestionably American and, Chen admits, is a little off the time theme. “I chose it because it has many different kinds of American composers,” he says. 

Take Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, for instance. “Everyone thinks of it as unquestioningly American music,” he says, “but it was written by a Jewish composer from Brooklyn. Ernest Bloch, meanwhile, was a Swiss immigrant who ultimately became head of the Cleveland Institute of Music after becoming an American citizen. Adolphus Hailstork, whose piece Four Hymns Without Wordsis on the program, is a contemporary African American composer.”

“I’m trying to highlight different kinds of people who are unquestionably American but who are also very different,” Chen says. “I wanted to show America’s melting pot.”

In It’s About Time: Women Through the Ages, the concert set for July 22, Chen wanted to highlight women composers’ contributions to music through the centuries. Clara Schumann’s story of living a life in the shadows of her musical husband is fairly well known. Chen explored this idea a bit in the 2018 season where Hidden Influences was the theme. In an interview about that season, he noted how Schumann was discouraged from composing her own work because she was a woman and, in part as a result, became well known performing and championing the work of her husband, Robert. This concert will feature her Piano Trio in g minor.

Also on the program is Elegy  by Joan Tower—“probably the most distinguished female composer living today”—and D’un Matin du Printemps by Lili Boulanger. In 1913, Boulanger was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome before dying at age 19. Composer and violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama is the final featured composer of the concert with her piece Primal Message.

The July 29th concert is a musical time capsule with its title Norfolk Then and Now. As the oldest music festival in America, Norfolk has been since its inception a place where the world’s highest profile composers and performers regularly appeared in the Music Shed.

The composers in this concert are associated with those earlier times—Vaughan Williams and Coleridge-Taylor, who both appeared at the Festival and had works performed there—as well as Krists Auznieks (NCMF '18), a Latvian composer, whose piece Brass, was a Norfolk premiere in 2018 when he was a composition Fellow. 

“I wanted to pair these pieces with a more recent composer who also wrote a piece for Norfolk,” Chen says, noting the program highlights Norfolk’s mission. “Ever since the beginning, it’s been a place dedicated to bringing new work into the repertoire. That was definitely something that happened a lot in the original Festival and continues today.”

Also on the docket this season is the second commission of the Musical Bridges project. Musical Bridges, which kicked off last summer with a piece by Daniel Bernard Roumain, aims to expand the chamber music repertoire and introduce audiences to new music and new ideas, a long Norfolk tradition. This year’s commissioned work will premiere on July 6. The free concert will feature a piece by Angel Lam (NCMF '09) and will be a mix of Chinese and Western instruments. The featured performer is Wu Man, a world-renowned pipa player and a founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. 

Chen created the time theme for this season’s concert just as Russia invaded Ukraine. The August 5 program entitled It’s About Time: Music for Peace seems especially on point, Chen says. Messian wrote his Quartet for the End of Time while in a prisoner-of-war camp during WWII, while Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte is meant to be a commentary on not only Napoleon, but also Hitler, inspired by a poem by Lord Byron. Silvestrov is a contemporary Ukrainian composer who wrote Epitaphium (L. B.) as an epitaph for his mother. “I thought this epitaph was a fitting way of bringing attention to what’s happening there,” Chen says. 

The final Friday themed concert is called It’s About Time: Directions. The Strauss and Ligeti pieces on the program were written about ten years apart. Strauss’s Sextet opens his opera Capriccio, which is set in 1753. In other words, Chen says, “It’s Strauss looking back and composing something that harkens back to 1753. It’s his version of looking back and composing music that was supposed to sound like it’s from that time.” In contrast, the Ligeti Six Bagatelles is more modernist. “It’s looking forward,” Chen says. The Beethoven Septet in e-flat for Strings and Winds is the piece literally of its time. “I see that as a piece that’s in the moment when it was written,” Chen explains. “So Strauss is looking backward, Ligeti is looking forward, and Beethoven is of the moment.”

The annual gala on August 13th is the final variation of the season’s time theme. Called What’s New is Old, the program will include two Bach concerti as well as a Stravinsky concerto for two pianos. “I chose the Stravinsky because the forms of the Stravinsky concerto movements are all related to Baroque moments,” Chen says, noting it has a prelude and fugue, for instance. “It’s a look at how a more modern composer is using Baroque ideas and forms in their own music.”

VIEW Norfolk's summer season.