Monday, August 12, 2013

Geneva Lewis F-F-Fantastic at the Sierra Summer F-F-Festival

Prodigy violinist Geneva Lewis is some years away from casting her first ballot in a proper election, but she wowed 'em big last weekend at the Sierra Summer Festival in Mammoth Lakes, California -- playing Tchaikovsky's masterful Violin Concerto masterfully, despite difficult conditions.

Geneva Lewis, prodigy violinist

Little did I know in January of this year, when in this very blog I reviewed "The Morini Strad" -- an excellent play in which Lewis' performance of parts of the Tchaikovsky concerto featured prominently – that six months later I would be backing her in the very concerto from the principal trumpet chair of the Sierra Summer Festival orchestra. And while the Festival audiences were not mammoth-sized, the locals are no yokels, and Lewis' playing, which is far beyond her years, elicited enthusiastic and deserved standing ovations following the first movement on both the Friday and Saturday night concerts.

Now, I have heard the Tchaikovsky played by two of the biggest of the big names among late-20th-century world-class violin soloists, and both might have learned, or at least recalled, a thing or two about how to perform the work had they heard the recent concerts given by the winsome and dextrous teenager. Frankly, I think fascination with such excellent playing by a youngster paled as, movement after movement, Lewis elicited from her violin what I can only describe as truth. Instead of hearing the violin soloist, one felt one was hearing the composer's very own ideas, coming forth afresh, as if never before heard.

And for the price of a few dollars, you too could have enjoyed the thrill of these performances in a cold, dark, and drafty temporary tent.

I'm not knocking the tent. It had, in fact, significant advantages over previous Mammoth SSF venues, in that – in contrast to the old warming hut, for instance – sight-lines were uninterrupted and the orchestra was not squished into a space far too small for it, and in contrast to the local church venue, no one needed endure the stifling and inescapable sauna-like heat generated by closely packed, heavy breathing classical music lovers.

But the progress the tent provided is not complete. Challenges remain. A few more closely packed, heavy breathing classical music lovers would have been good last weekend, for instance.

Unlike tents familiar to camping enthusiasts, this tent was quite large and could easily have seated hundreds of concertgoers, but there was a hefty gap between the ground and where the tent fabric began. Perhaps this was some kind of safety feature. If it was intended to dissuade the largest of the local bears from sneaking in, it was successful. No one likes a smelly, overly furry concert crasher.

The structure also had none of the insulative qualities for which smaller, family-sized tents are so well known, and the wilier Mammoth residents enjoyed the program from beneath parkas, knit caps, and personal blankets – accoutrements, I am very sorry to say, that were not acceptable adornments for the performers. Perhaps in the future a small bonfire might help remedy the bone-chilling cold that increased steadily as the night progressed. Surely, there must somewhere be an overly long contrabassoon that could be cut down a bit and oxidized judiciously for the greater good.

In addition, and in contrast with other semi-permanent 'tent' structures I have seen, this tent's fabric was not stretched taut against its metal structure. Consequently, the more-or-less constant Mammoth winds produced a flapping noise that all but drowned out most anything below a mezzo forte. Truly, except for the absence of a violent surging beneath those present, attending the 2013 SSF concerts was akin to hearing music on the deck of a tall ship in a north Atlantic winter gale, if one could do so at an oxygen-starved 8,000 feet elevation. At night. Fortunately, Miss Lewis played from memory, thereby defeating some of the downside to being poorly lit.

It is fair to say that, despite many disadvantages – some unusual, some less so – the 2013 SSF was a success, and future incarnations deserve to attract increased attention. One hopes that rumors of a permanent future Mammoth Lakes concert hall are firmly founded. After all, it's f-f-far more f-f-fun to have a concert when you're not f-f-freezing.