Newport, Rhode Island is known for its Summer Folk and Jazz Festivals. In the 60’s, I used to cross the Mount Hope Bridge over Narragansett Bay and join lots of other “hippies” who set up on a hill outside the festival fence to listen (for free) to the famous folk singers of the day like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. Some even camped out on that hill for a week. One year, the powers that be tried to stop the annual “love in” but it ended with everyone storming the fence and climbing over to the other side to join the paying fans.
In 1965, Bob Dylan decided to put down his acoustic guitar and go electric, which didn’t go over big at all. Hissing and booing and other threatening beastly sounds ensued. It was not a peaceful night on the hill. Leading members of the folk movement were critical of Dylan for performing with an electric band. They preferred his more politically active lyrics and acoustic folk style. The Newport Festivals of today are much calmer and still attracting world-class performers. The Jazz and Folk Festivals are held at Fort Adams, bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean. Just try to storm that place to get in for free!
Now, Newport, Rhode Island also is famous in that during the Gilded Age (1870-1900), rich, American tycoons built their “summer cottages” (extravagant mansions) along the ocean front to escape the heat of the city for a few weeks each year. Some of the more famous mansions are open to the public today under the auspices of the Preservation Society of Newport County including “The Breakers”, “Rosecliff”, “The Elms”, “Marble House” and “Chateau Sur Mer”. Tours are run year-round and during the month of July, a music festival (this is its 48th season) is held inside those “cottage” rooms once used to entertain the rich and famous of the past.
I was there on Tuesday morning for a performance at “The Elms”. This incredible mansion was copied from “Chateau d’Asniers” in France. The famous architect, Horace Trumbauer was hired to build this summer home for the coal baron Edward Julius Berwind and it was completed in 1901.
The day was sunny with a gentle, cooling breeze coming in from the ocean. It was the perfect setting for So-Mang Jeagal, from Seoul, to perform six piano pieces Op. 118 (1892) of Johannes Brahms. Other musicians, including famed French violinist Diego Tosi, played featured works of German composers in a program entitled “Guten Morgen” and it was, indeed, a very good morning. It was interesting to note that this was advertised with the words “See the Festival go electric!” as Tosi plays an electric violin. I think Dylan would approve of this modern change along with the American debut of the revolutionary innovative Boganyi Grand Piano also known as the “Bat Piano” which, eventually, will go on sale to the public to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars.
But Newport isn’t the only place in Rhode Island where, to quote William Congreve, “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast” (often misquoted as “beast”) . The little village of Kingston is holding its 28th annual Chamber Music Festival at the University of RI (my Alma Mater) attracting fantastic musicians from all over the world. On Friday, we heard Grammy award-winning guitarist Jason Vieux perform Spanish songs by Manuel de Falla. Saturday afternoon I attended an open rehearsal of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’ guitar quintet and on Saturday night, Bulgarian-born pianist Viktor Valkov performed an extraordinary program of pieces from Couperin, Froberger, Wagner and ended with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata.
I returned from Sunday’s performance captivated by the sound of the festival’s artistic director, pianist Natalie Zhu’s Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D Minor along with Bella Hristova on violin and cellist, Wilhelmina Smith. I had listened to them practice on Saturday and thought the piece could not be more perfect but Sunday evening, they were absolutely magnificent. It was an exuberating, touching performance which brought tears to my eyes.
My dad had a dance band. I remember, on Saturday evenings, the smell of paste shoe polish and the sound of his saxophone tuning up downstairs getting ready to go out on a gig. That’s why I couldn’t miss the saxophone quartet, Project Fusion, playing Bach’s “Italian Concerto.” You’ve never heard Bach until you’ve heard it played by four zealous young saxophonists!
And that reminds me, Charley and I attended a wonderful multi-media performance on the life of Johann Sebastien Bach by Steven Hancoff at the Courthouse Center for the Arts (just down the street from us) on Wednesday night. “From Tragedy to Transcendence, Bach, Casals, And the Six Suites for Cello Solo” was full of history and music and illustrations from artwork inspired by Bach’s music and life.
There is so much happening here in southern Rhode Island and if you are ever in my neighborhood in July and you love music, this is a wonderful place to calm a restless soul and take a brief respite from our weary world. And during the day, you can drive a few miles to spend time in the sunshine on one of our many beautiful beaches. We live in “The Ocean State” and are quite proud of our sandy coastline.
Whether you choose to call it “Beast” or “Breast”- the music, soft sands and sunshine will soothe you here in Little Rest. Have a peaceful week.