Eternally experimental spirit fosters a kaleidoscope of unusual compositions
BY SAM SPOKONY | Whenever Lutz Rath talks about his programming for the Washington Square Music Festival, which is about to enter its 55th season, he inevitably begins using words like “unusual,” “rarely performed” or, quite simply, “odd” — and it’s not because the myriad stresses of putting together a low-budget concert series have made him lose his mind…yet. On the contrary, that eternally experimental spirit has been the guiding force behind a festival — one with a unique blend of pre-20th century classical works, contemporary avant-garde pieces and jazz or world-based improvisation — that continues to be one of the city’s top summer highlights for those with a love of serious music, while also remaining accessible to casual listeners and anyone with an intellectually savvy sense of humor.
The ability to sustain a collective sense of historical interest and modern urgency is no small feat for New York’s second oldest free, outdoor classical music series (founded in 1953 by violinist Alexander Schneider and the Washington Square Association). For Rath, who has been the festival’s music director since the death of Henry Schuman in 2001, the approach to this year’s month-long program of four concerts has been characteristically far out — with a smattering of strange instruments, unexpected performance selections and even an homage piece that was designed to be played poorly.
The 2013 Washington Square Music Festival (which, as always, takes place near the center of the park and is free of charge) will begin on Tuesday, July 9 at 8pm, with “The Judgment of Paris” — a Baroque opera by British composer John Eccles, the libretto of which retells one of the many Roman myths involving Paris, a simple shepherd tasked with choosing which one of three powerful goddesses is most worthy of receiving the Golden Apple of Discord.
In addition to featuring five vocal soloists, the opera’s chamber orchestra will be conducted by renowned harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper (who, along with being a frequent contributor to this festival, is one of the world’s leading specialists in 18th century music). And after the opera — which Rath noted is a relatively short one — the evening will close with a performance of “Concerto in D Major,” for three trumpets, two oboes and strings, by German baroque composer George Telemann.
The next concert, on Tuesday, July 16 at 8pm, is aptly titled “A Musical Adventure,” as it features Margaret Leng Tan, a toy piano virtuoso. Yes, you read that correctly. Tan brings world-class skill and a huge, engaging sound to her tiny instrument, and will be performing an exciting variety of new and old avant-garde pieces. Her program includes two U.S. premieres: “Toy Symphony,” by Mexican composer Jorge Torres Sáenz and “Coney Island sous L’eau,” by British composer Michael Wookey — as well as works by John Cage, Phyllis Chen and Jed Distler.
Rath pointed out that he chose to include Tan in this year’s festival in part because of her penchant for performing on other unusual instruments in addition to the toy piano. “She always brings something else along for a performance,” said Rath, “and it’s always a bit of a secret, and a welcome surprise.” In addition, Tan’s featured program will be bookended by ensemble performances of works by two Romantic composers, Adolphe Blanc and Richard Strauss.
On Tuesday, July 23 at 8pm, Rath and his ensembles will happily celebrate 2013 as the 200th anniversary of the births of famed composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner (for trivia buffs, Verdi was born on October 10, 1813, and Wagner on May 22). The program will include Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor — but, in an unorthodox twist, Wagner will be represented by a piece by Paul Hindemith, which is a parody of the overture to Wagner’s famous opera, “The Flying Dutchman.” In fact, Hindemith’s piece — whose full title is “Overture of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ as played at sight by a bad spa orchestra at the well at 7 in the morning” — strictly requires its performers to make intentional rhythmic mistakes, poor interpretive choices and even to play out of tune. It all combines to form what Rath termed “a really humorous piece” — but the music director added that he’ll be sure to explain it to the audience before beginning the performance, “so they don’t think we’re crazy.” And along with the homages to Verdi and Wagner, the festival’s third evening will include works by German composers Louis Spohr and Josef Rheinberger.
In keeping with the Washington Square Music Festival’s eclectic mindset under Rath’s direction, the final evening of this year’s series — Tuesday, July 30 at 8pm — will feature an ensemble led by African-born composer/singer/guitarist Nepo Soteri. A survivor of the Rwandan Civil War, Soteri and his music draw strength from the traditional sounds of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia, while also blending contemporary funk, R&B and world jazz sensibilities. In addition, the main performance by Soteri and his band will be preceded that afternoon by an interactive rhythm workshop for children, led by members of the African ensemble.
As always, Rath pointed out that there really is no defined beginning, middle and end to his programming for the festival. “It’s more like a kaleidoscope of unusual compositions, because that’s just what I like to do,” he said, with a laugh. “The audiences will definitely be a little bit different each night, especially between the first three concerts and the last one. But that variety is a really valuable and unique part of the concert series.”
THE WASHINGTON SQUARE MUSIC FESTIVAL
Tuesday: July 9, 16, 23, 30
In Washington Square Park
Rainspace: St. Joseph’s Church
(371 Sixth Ave., btw. Waverly Place & Greenwich Ave.)
Info: 212-252-3621 or washingtonsquaremusicfestival.org