The summer festival scene is to classical music what the farm leagues are to baseball. It’s where up-and-coming instrumental musicians and opera singers at all levels—high school, college/conservatory, and early professional—come to get intense training and a good hard look from the pros who run the business. Famous festivals such as Glimmerglass in upstate New York or the Santa Fe Opera (which, despite the name, is organized along festival lines) have furnished the boards of the world’s premiere opera houses with stars for over two generations. If you want to understand how music gets made—whether as an aficionado or simply an observer of the American cultural scene—it’s vital to take a look behind the festival curtain.
In the case of one of the newest players on this scene, the “farm” in question is literal. The Castleton Festival is staged on a farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah, and the festival theater had originally been a converted chicken coop. (It’s come a long way since.) Just seven years old, Castleton may be unfamiliar even to the buffs among our audience—but I doubt it will remain so for long.
The festival was founded by Lorin Maazel, the former conductor of the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera, and the Cleveland Orchestra, and one of the 20th century’s true musical superstars. To quantify that statement: the 600 acres of horse country on which Castleton is held were bought, and the festival for years subsidized to the tune of millions of dollar, by Maazel—all from the profits of his career in classical music. (In one instance he sold his Guadagnini—a $1 million violin made by a rival of Stradivarius—to support the festival.) When Maazel died last year, influential friends and fans decided to make it a permanent memorial to the maestro. Celebrities and super-patrons from Lang Lang to Alec Baldwin to Daisy Soros assisted in fundraising efforts, while Wynton Marsalis agreed to spend the last two weeks of the festival in residence at Castleton with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and New York Governor Anthony Cuomo lead a list of political luminaries who threw their weight behind this year’s performances.
“Castleton” might be a new name, but the men and women, sponsors and artists both, behind it represent much of the top musical talent and social, political, and literal capital invested in the artistic world. Therefore, how Castleton performed at every festival’s task—preserving what is old and good, and discovering what is new and good—would be a significant measure of the health of the arts. I arrived at the farm gate on a hot July day with great expectations.
I was originally drawn to Castleton by the chance to see the world premier of an opera with an unusual subject— the Supreme Court of the United States, and its oddest of couples, the great friends and collegial rivals Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. As I explained in my review earlier this month, this comic, tuneful offering by 31-year-old composer/librettist Derrick Wang was a triumph. (Do, if I may say so, read the whole thing.)
Commissioning Scalia/Ginsburg was a natural fit for Castleton, keeping the festival closely engaged in America’s biggest cultural and political questions on the one hand, and at the same time providing an opportunity to a promising young composer just as the festival as a whole provides to promising young artists. And boy are those young artists promising—whoever is doing Castleton’s recruiting is good. (Much of the talent at the top levels was actually spotted by Maazel, who even late in life was known to have an eye for and a passion for nurturing it.) Mix the budding stars with some real pro’s pros, and you’ve got music.
The productions which followed Scalia/Ginsburg the weekend I was there amply proved this. The night after I saw the legal light opera, I attended festival’s grand opera offering, Gounod’s underappreciated Roméo et Juliette. It featured a very strong cast that mixed veterans and two young stars: Rebecca Nathanson, a sprightly soprano, as Juliet and Daniel Montenegro, a tenor with a light yet carrying voice, as Romeo. Both of them have achieved some success already on the West Coast, especially at the L.A. and San Francisco operas, and based on that night’s performance they’re both worth keeping an eye on. Most notable, though, was the conducting of Maazel’s handpicked successor, Rafael Payare. Please realize I am not usually an effusive reviewer when I say this may have been the most impressive single opera orchestra conducting performance that I’ve heard outside of those of James Levine. It was a stunning and unusual display of intense orchestral color and yet masterful control, with Payare allowing his orchestra full license to explore the music’s romantic richness while preventing the sound from bleeding over the boundaries of the rhythms. Payare, the conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, is already making a name for himself on the international guest-conducting circuit; expect greater things to come.
Sprinkled throughout the festival were showcase opportunities for the younger artists, the so-called C.A.T.S. (Castleton Artists Training Seminar—groan-worthy acronyms exist in the arts, too). These came in two forms, short opera scenes and a full production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Yes, a plain, old, non-sung play for the opera singers. Maazel’s widow, Deitlinde Turban Maazel, an acclaimed German actress, serves as the festival’s Artistic Director and ensures that those involved receive more dramatic instruction in a summer than many opera stars receive in a career (alas). Our Town is a sneak-up-and-whack-you-in-the-head tearjerker, and, despite obviously differing levels of dramatic experience, the young opera singers sold it—particularly Jonathan Dauermann in the role of the Stage Manager.
On the last day I was there, I saw Fabio Luisi conduct the festival orchestra in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahm’s Symphony No. 2. Luisi, the Metropolitan Opera’s principle conductor, was probably the most famous man at the festival. Yet the musicians I spoke to before the performance had universally praised his approachability and efficiency in rehearsals. He’s what we’d call in other settings “a players’ coach.” Luisi put the resulting good will and attentiveness to use on Sunday, making dramatic adjustments to the tempo, particularly in the fourth movement of the Brahms, in ways that were tremendously powerful, but which you normally can’t do with even a top professional orchestra—you’ll lose the players. Well, not Luisi. The results were unexpected and evocative.
Under Luisi’s conducting, Alessandro Taverna, a young Venetian pianist, performed the Rachmaninoff. Like Rafael Payare, Taverna was one of Maazel’s last recruits, and also like Payare, he demonstrated a virtuosic ability to combine two seemingly contradictory, in-demand skills: the ability to muddle as thoroughly as the base of a good mint julep the deeper chords that drive the piece’s Romantic power, and yet such precision on the high, graceful notes that each seemed to fall like a raindrop. The audience, no musical neophytes, gave him a standing ovation, three curtain calls, demanded an encore, and then—I have never seen this before—clapped him to his seat when he took his place in the audience after the intermission. I stood and clapped my hands numb with the rest.
If you’re a reader in the Washington area, add Castleton to your summer calendar next year—it’s just 68 miles from the Capital. (Tickets, at $35-200, also tend to be a lot cheaper than they would be to see the same artists in the city—and there’s not a bad seat in the house.) If you’re in New York and support the arts, keep it on your radar: events previewing and/or supporting Castleton are often held there, and moreover the Big Apple is the home or will be the eventual destination for many of the artists involved in the festival. Most of all, though, if you’re a fan of music anywhere, keep an eye out on the big stages—and an ear out toward the major labels—for the up-and-coming singers (and the composer Wang) I’ve mentioned to appear soon. This is how classical music gets made.