Musical Destinations: Napa Valley, California
Laurence Vittes enjoys a wide array of music al fresco while enjoying fine food and, of course, the local wine at the region’s flagship festival
The evening concerts at last year’s Napa Valley Music Festival started at 6.30pm, a magical time when moist air coming up from San Pablo Bay was cooling off the day. The audience arrived early to mingle and choose their seats. The concerts took place on the grounds of the Charles Krug estate, the oldest winery in the valley, known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, where gracious hosts offered wine tastings and a look at the newest electric cars. A glamorous series of exclusive post-concert dinners for performers, patrons and donors took place at wineries spread out across the length of the 30-mile-long valley, which added romantic long drives to the soundtrack of memories the festival supplied.
The festival’s last weekend began with an intoxicating delight: the Manetti Shrem Opera’s affectionately fun production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Director Jean-Romain Vesperini had created a Monty Python-esque bucolic fantasy that was 19th-century Mediterranean in its setting, serious flirting and innocent sexuality. An ingenious series of special effects featured flying machines and a chicken processing facility recalling Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Gemma New on the podium kept the action going with a keen sense of timing and pace, and Andriana Chuchman, Mikayla Sager and Mario Chang led a wonderful cast committed to fully inhabiting their roles with infectious theatrical flair, and singing as if they had come straight from a major opera house.
The romance on Saturday night was more visceral, when soprano Larisa Martínez and her husband, violinist Joshua Bell, took the stage. They had devised a continually evolving programme that was relentlessly beautiful in Mendelssohn, Chopin and Villa-Lobos, and charged with chemistry in the ‘Jours de mon enfance’ aria with solo violin from Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs, and when Martínez prowled the stage in a sophisticated Bernstein West Side Story medley.
Violist Jordan Bak and pianist Tomomi Sato had produced their own chemistry in Bax’s gloriously romantic Viola Sonata that morning at the festival’s Young Artist concert series outside the Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. Bak showed a sense of noblesse oblige when briefly interrupted by the city’s Wine Trolley, modelled after San Francisco’s cable cars, carrying visitors to the vineyards.
The Sunday evening finale began with Blue Fire, a 15-minute symphonic poem by Daniel Brewbaker, who was closely associated with the festival before his death in 2017. Moving through a series of colourful narrative adventures before relaxing into a landscape of woodwind riffs amid glowering hints of a march, the music seems to describe ‘the invisible complexities and limitations that life imposes upon us,’ described in the composer’s notes. The Festival Orchestra rose to the occasion under Michelle Di Russo’s finely sculpted conducting, exulting in a wide outdoors Western energy. Their performance of Copland’s Rodeo and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade showed the same youthful energy.
The festival was easy to attend, as tickets for garden chairs on the expansive lawn were $35. A season pass was substantially more and guaranteed seats closest to the stage, also on the lawn in garden chairs, along with invitations to special lunches, dinners and other events. At one exclusive brunch, pianist Lara Downes played Gershwin to demonstrate Steinway’s Spirio | r high-resolution player piano. An Arts for All gala during the festival headlined by Trisha Yearwood raised $3.75m.
The spirit of Rachmaninov will infuse the 2023 Festival Napa Valley. His great niece, Tatiana Copeland, has been a central moving force behind the festival’s creation and growth since 2006. The celebrations of the composer’s 150th birthday will include the young Alexander Malofeev playing the Second Piano Concerto, and an all-Rachmaninov recital, Ronit Widmann-Levy singing the Vocalise and Kyle Dickson conducting the Symphonic Dances.
Other highlights will include the singer Matteo Bocelli in concert, Lera Auerbach’s inspirational Symphony No. 6, ‘Vessels of Light’ with cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Annie Laurie and a screening of his Goodbye, Mr Chips opera on film, lots of jazz with the Frost School of Music All-Stars and guests, and a gala featuring dancers displaced by the war in Ukraine. Manetti Shrem Opera and director Vesperini will return with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Carrie Underwood will headline this year’s Gala.
Further info: festivalnapavalley.org
Photo: husband and wife Joshua Bell and Larisa Martínez perform in 2022 © Drew Altizer