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  • Writer's pictureShinuh Lee


Updated: Jan 15, 2020

If the Curtis Institute of Music isn't careful, it may disturb Philadelphia's self-satisfied parochialism even more than it has. Summerfest, Curtis' summer camp, has proved how powerfully the city benefits from importing talent beyond the usual sources while folding it into the school's own. 

Of course, Curtis can have it both ways. Though some of the faculty performing Thursday night at the last in a new series of three Summerfest recitals were from orchestras elsewhere, most were, in a sense, of here - Curtis graduates.

You may not have caught Steven Copes as a student in the 1990s. Now, he is concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and, returning to Curtis, he was a knockout. Weston Sprott, a more recent Curtis grad, is a member of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and he brought an unlikely vocal souvenir back to Field Concert Hall - his own transcription of Ravel's songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.

Transcription for what? With Charles Abramovic's sensitive orchestra-invoking powers on piano, Sprott's vibrato, phrasing, and ringing mellow tone were beautifully deployed - on trombone. With some difficulty, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, third hornist of the Minnesota Orchestra, took on Beethoven's Sonata for Hornand Piano, and the revelation here was the elegantly detailed phrasing of Patrick Kreeger, a grad of Curtis' organ program, whose piano work suggested he has a lot to offer beyond the console at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.

This summer series - which, by the way, roundly killed the myth that there was no summer audience for classical in the city - has also been a crash course in the music of Curtis dean David Ludwig. Here, his work deepened the impression that stylistically he is hard to pin down. You might have put him in the melancholy-meditative-minimalist camp after hearing his score to Michael Almereyda's urban-decay-chic-film take on Cymbeline. Last week at Curtis, Pale Blue Dot was a journey through cold space (dissonance) and humanity (traditional harmony). On Thursday, Swan Song evoked Ravel in the opening, explicitly quoted Schubert near the end, and raised the spirit of a particularly memorable heaving-sigh gesture in the Berg Violin Concerto (itself a swan song that quotes another composer). More than clever, Ludwig's work raises its own tender message of spirituality. Copes was its ardent advocate, with pianist Amy J. Yang expert in its manifold demands.

Katherine Needleman, principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and of a bright and slightly brittle tone, led three other Curtis alumni in the Mozart Quartet in F Major, K. 370.

The most distant export came from the pen of Shinuh Lee, a professor of composition at the College of Music of Seoul National University, whose Lament - O, the daughter of Zion! was full of tight, intelligent writing. Kreeger, again on piano, and flutist Mimi Stillman worked through its episodic treatment of angst and redemption. Sections like shattering glass were followed by shimmering hope, but ending in the depths as it did left you feeling that redemption or no, Lee wasn't letting anyone off the hook too easily.


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