On March 2, 2020, the music department at my school was loading charter buses destined for Benaroya Hall when Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency. With no precedent, the staff made the decision to unload the buses and cancel the event. I specifically remember sitting in the viola section, half the class grumbling about the cancellation, and the other half nervously commenting that perhaps the risk of this mysterious disease outweighed our several months of musical preparation. A week later, my school was closed in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
More than a year and a half later, I have yet to perform in a live event with an audience of more than three people. My musical life has been in front of a camera and under two stereo microphones, taking and retaking videos against a sterile beige background. As nerve-wracking as it may be to perform in front of an audience, there is something special about braving uncertainty and possible mistakes to deliver an honest presentation of your hardest work. It is for this reason that the return of Music on the Strait became a transcendent experience for me.
Music on the Strait is a classical music festival stationed in Port Angeles, Washington. It was founded in 2018 by violist Richard O’Neill and violinist James Garlick in partnership with the Port Angeles Symphony. They aim to give back to their hometown by sharing chamber music—both its traditions and its emerging voices-—through community programming and educational outreach. At the August 14 concert, the performers included Garlick and O’Neill, as well as legendary pianist Jeremy Denk and the Takács Quartet.
The first piece, Sarabande con variazioni by Johan Halvorsen, was performed by Garlick and O’Neill. It was definitely the highlight of the night, and what I can confidently say was a sublime experience. It became obvious the level of mastery each performer had, both over their own parts and how they could best play off each other. The violin and viola perfectly weaved in and out of melodies and harmonies, alternating between powerful melancholic cries and weepy serenades. The performers’ knowledge of the repertoire seemed to transcend simple performance, and felt like particularly skillful Shakespearean dialogue, dancing in and around each of the two orators. The seemingly impossible bodily expressions of the two performers were similarly entrancing; diving, lunging, bowing, and swaying, all the while maintaining masterful control of their instruments. In situations that seemed to defy the laws of physics, the two performers would lean over at nearly a right angle, still managing to bounce their bows and land terrifying finger shifts in ways I could only dream of. This first foray into live musicianship after over a year was suitably transformative.
The next performance was Jeremy Denk’s collection of solo piano works, focusing on Black composers. Each piece was preceded by a few words from Denk himself, explaining what each meant. Each piece had the shared emotion, sincerity, and intensity from Denk’s playing, while maintaining their own individuality.
They Will Not Lend Me a Child created a tragic and weepy tone from the grand piano, matched by Denk’s own body language as he performed Coleridge-Taylor’s adaptation of an East African folk song, channelling the sorrow of a motherless child. The Battle of Manassas combined Denk’s oratory skills with a mix of recognizable American folk tunes. The onomatopoeic march of deep, rolling chords evoked the chaotic yet tragic feeling intended to be conveyed by a former enslaved person writing about a Confederate victory. Heliotrope Bouquet provided a much needed moment of levity. A ragtime solo filled with spirit and playfulness, this piece made use of its slower tempo to infuse its melodies with a sense of nostalgia and somberness.
Denk fully embraced the visual side of piano performance with how he bobbed and weaved in his seat while performing Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Through his instrumental and body language, Denk portrayed the inhuman sounds of mill machines, eventually overwhelming the gentle ragtime workers’ song to represent the destructive relationship between labor and capital.
Finally, five musicians came out on stage to perform the Piano Quintet in E-flat major, a half-hour marathon that seemed to explore every nook and cranny of Schumann’s psyche. The first movement made the piece’s Romantic roots incredibly apparent, riding highs and lows that would make an opera singer jealous. The dialogue of the main melody seemed to reverberate around the room in adroit articulations. The velvety, arpeggiated scales, seemed to echo in the chests of each audience member. Each successive movement only served to reinforce the mystical tie connecting each of the performers in an intrinsic and unseeable manner, slowing to a “largamente” and speeding to a brisk “scherzo” before arriving on the absolute triumph of an “allegro” final movement. The night closed by bringing together five performers, each a master of their respective craft, in a manner I had not yet imagined possible.
The night closed with a roar of standing applause. Every member of the audience, me included, clapped until I felt the rush of blood in my palms, so long that the five performers had to come back out and bow three separate times.
Something special about this concert was the innate desire shared by the performers and the audience to perform and consume. These were denizens of the arts—some of them into their senior years—venturing out to celebrate a festival doubly impossible. They were simultaneously braving the pandemic (with full vaccine mandates) and laying witness to a roster of internationally renowned figures in their respective fields. As the five musicians filled the room with their passion through music, so did the audience through applause. In a time filled with uncertainty, Music on the Strait served to reassure me that live music always has a role to fill, and a global pandemic would come nowhere close to suppressing that need.
Music on the Strait played November 2021. For more information see here.
Lead photo credit: Photo of Richard O'Neil by Yoon Lee.
The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 6 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.
The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.