The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries vied for attention during the third in a weekend of a half dozen quick concerts on the Tippet Rise ranch outside Fishtail, Montana. While the rest of the season is comprised of fewer and longer programs, the weekend of 23 August was filled with hour-long concerts, leaving time to explore the magnificent grounds.

Benjamin Beilman and Jennifer Frautschi © Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center
Benjamin Beilman and Jennifer Frautschi
© Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

The midday Saturday concert was held in the Olivier Music Barn. Hardly a barn in any conventional sense, the building is home to most of the season's concerts, with a select few staged amid the massive sculptures on the breathtaking acres of the ranch. Designed by the same team who engineered London's Wigmore Hall and rooms in Oslo and Sydney, with dimensions modeled after the Esterházy music room in Hungary where Haydn premiered many of his works. The sound in the room is as warm and carefully attuned as its modest, appealing interior.

Certainly the juxtaposing of old and contemporary is nothing new in concert programming, but even still the coupling of Telemann and Steve Reich on this afternoon seemed unlikely, all the more so with Telemann at his most playful and Reich at his starkest. And, of course, it's possible that no through line was intended, but with the third piece on the program (presented without interval) being Mendelssohn's First String Quintet, Telemann and Reich seemed the most likely match. After all, they both aim for a purity of form and, in this instance, each piece was a work for a pair of like instruments (if we can call hands 'instruments', anyway).

The opening fanfare of Telemann's 1729 Suite for Two Violins “Gulliver's Travels” was quick and light, but by the time Benjamin Beilman and Jennifer Frautshci made their way to the Jig of the Brobdingnagians (the third of the five sections), their playing was rich and on point. The final Loure of the well-mannered Houyhnhnms / Furie of the Untamed Yahoos was filled with exciting counterpoint, the pair executing the brisk fury quite wonderfully. (That evening, Beilman and Frautshci played selections from Bartók's 44 Duos for Two Violins with finesse.)

Anthony Manzo and Nathan Schram © Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center
Anthony Manzo and Nathan Schram
© Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

The Baroque novelty gave a lightness to Reich's 1972 Clapping Music which was not altogether unwelcome. It's an entertaining exercise but as far as percussion duets with almost no range go, Michael Gordon's XY (for one player but with alarmingly distinct left/right parts) carries more rewards, as does Reich's own Music for Pieces of Wood (which, admittedly, doesn't offer the same economy of scale).

But the shifting counts of Clapping provide an important reduction of the Reichian method, and Anthony Manzo and Nathan Schram (otherwise, respectively, bassist and violist) gave it the focus it demands, riding the rigid rhythm for all it was worth. One thing Clapping has over other pieces is the hilarity of the applause that inevitably follows. Perhaps audience members should agree to show their appreciation by whistling so as not to upstage the performers.

The second half of the program was occupied by Mendelssohn's String Quintet no. 1 in A flat major, written when the composer was 17 and revised and published six years later. Whether it's the rehearsal time allowed or the shared meals and camaraderie among the mountains (or most likely both, none of the groups over the weekend were standing ensembles) the quintet moved with unity and fluidity, flexible but in formation, even seeming to inhale and exhale together.

Jennifer Frautschi, Benjamin Beilman, Nathan Schram, Ayane Kozasa, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir © Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center
Jennifer Frautschi, Benjamin Beilman, Nathan Schram, Ayane Kozasa, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir
© Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise Art Center

Seated at center, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir marked the point where strings converge, the soft but strong voice of her cello (named Lorenzo and of unknown origin) cutting through in every register. The long, opening Allegro con moto danced with heavy heart.

The second movement was given to violinist Frautshci, although she didn't quite manage to rise above her fellow strings. The ensemble (as with all performances at Tippet Rise) was unamplified; the problem was more of sonority than amplitude, though, and in truth wasn't altogether a problem. Frautshci played beautifully, as if singing an aria into the wind, where the wind was every bit as lush as the song.

The variations on a five-voice fugue of the Scherzo put Frautshci on a more equal footing, although Thorsteinsdóttir couldn't resist the tempo and led the quintet into an absolute gallop toward the Allegro vivace of the concluding movement. It's the busiest section of the piece and the challenge suited the players well. Here, at last, the five voices were on an equal footing, bopping and smiling their way through the rolls and returns, Frautshci at last rising above the fray and Beilman distinguishing himself with a few short, crucial lines. It was, it seemed how an ensemble is – or should be – born: under the sun, on top of the world and with three centuries under its belt.


Kurt's press trip to Tippet Rise was funded by Tippet Rise Art Center

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