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The Kingston Chamber Music Festival held the first half of its 33rd annual series with a pair of sold out shows last weekend at the University of Rhode Island.

For local fans of classical music, last weekend marked a major milestone as the Kingston Chamber Music Festival returned as an in-person concert for the first time since the onset of COVID-19.

Saturday’s “Opening Night” performance was followed by a “Celebrating Women” concert Sunday evening; the Festival continued with a multimedia concert of “The Nightingale’s Sonata” this Wednesday, and will feature an “All Time Favorites” concert next Saturday and a “Spirit of Hungary” concert next Sunday.

On the second night of the Festival last Sunday, around 150 orchestra aficionados filed into the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, dutifully masked, to find their seats. The energy and joy of the audience was palpable as the crowd chatted excitedly from their socially distanced seat assignments, poring over the programs and admiring the stage’s music stands, handcrafted by local artist Gary Peterson, which are works of art in and of themselves.

As the concert hall’s lights flashed and then dimmed, Betsy Marcotte, president of the board of the festival, took the stage to overwhelming applause. Marcotte thanked that night’s sponsor, the Mary Lemoine Potter Fund, as well as the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the festival’s numerous other generous donors for bringing the performance to life.

Marcotte then ceded the stage to composer Tina Davidson to introduce her piece “LEAP,” which premiered that night.

In her introduction as well as after the concert, Davidson elaborated on her inspiration for the piece, which she composed during the pandemic.

“The truth is, I’m a composer who – not in a vain way – really uses myself as sort of a template,” Davidson said. “What’s going on for me is really important. It just seemed very natural that my music would reflect what I’m doing, what I was witnessing, what I was feeling.”

Davidson said that, at one point after starting the piece, she discovered that the music wasn’t working for her and had to re-assess. She ultimately found inspiration mulling over the word “leap,” considering its multiple meanings: a leap of love, a leap of faith, a leap into darkness.

“I don’t usually write a multi-movement piece, I usually write a single-movement piece, but this seemed like there were sort of stages of it,” Davidson said. “The first stage was uncertainty, sort of, I’m on my feet, but feeling this drag down. And the second one was, ‘I’m okay. This is going to be okay.’ And being more delighted in my energy. I guess I re-found my energy.”

“LEAP” is lively and intense from the onset, gradually giving auditory life to the anxiety and despair coupled with tentative hope that many have experienced during the pandemic. Davidson’s piece was performed on Sunday by violinist Zachary DePue, violist Christine Grossman, cellist Clancy Newman, and the Festival’s own Artistic Director Natalie Zhu on the piano.

Newman spoke to the joy of performing “LEAP” for the very first time.

“It was just a real pleasure to play Tina Davidson’s piece,” Newman said. “It’s beautiful and unusual. It sort of has a sparkle to it.”

Zhu added that playing work by women composers, including Davidson, impacted her personally.

“These female composers’ music on Sunday inspired me to be more innovative, and to have more courage to leap into the unknown, like Tina’s piano quartet ‘LEAP,’” Zhu wrote in an email. “Playing her music and talking to her was truly an inspiration, as she is not simply writing a piece, but telling stories about life.”

After “LEAP,” Zhu was replaced by violinist Noah Geller for the performance of “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet,” composed by Florence B. Price. After a brief intermission, during which most concert-goers stepped outside to shed their masks for a moment, all of the performers returned to the stage for “Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67” by Amy Beach.

As the final note of Beach’s “Ronda alla zingarese. Presto” reverberated through the concert hall, audience members rose to their feet to show their appreciation with long and thunderous applause.

Despite the serious challenge of maintaining a career as a performer during the pandemic, Newman said he almost feels as though he has picked right back up from where he left off in March of 2020. He described a kind of mutual recognition with the Kingston crowd.

“Over the years I’ve stayed with many different people in their houses all over the area, so I really got to know a lot of the residents here,” Newman said. “One of the things I found that’s really quite extraordinary is how many people here really enjoy classical music and sort of independently have coalesced around this area.”

Davidson described the return to in-person performance as invigorating and inspiring.

“I certainly am grateful,” Davidson said. “And also kind of thrilled, in a really cool new way. Not like I’m a teenager again, but it’s not the same old same old. I feel a lot of gratitude. [The performers] practiced so hard, they played it so well, not to mention that it took me a long time to write and there are a lot of notes in it. The whole pandemic has taught me how precious things are.”

Pam Hunter, the executive director of the Kingston Chamber Music Festival, said that it has been deeply meaningful to her to be able to hold the festival in person once more this year, even in a limited capacity. She also hopes to leverage the hybrid nature of  the event to bring chamber music to even more listeners.

“We’re so happy to have an in-person festival, even though it’s kind of disappointing we can only have 150 people in each concert,” Hunter said. “But we are streaming the festival September 6 through mid-October, so hopefully we’ll be able to reach another 20,000 people through that.”

This coming weekend, music lovers can look forward to even more celebratory chamber music. Hunter explained that the Saturday “All Time Favorites” concert is always a crowd pleaser.  

“They’re playing a very very popular string quartet by Borodin,” Newman said. “It’s one of the most popular quartets, I’d say, in the repertoire. A wonderful pianist, Stewart Goodyear, is coming. He’s famous for his performances of Beethoven sonatas, piano sonatas, and he’s going to play one of the most popular, the ‘Appassionata.’ They’ll end the concert with a piece by Mozart.”  

Hunter said that she hopes Sunday’s concert, “Spirit of Hungary,” will be a great conclusion to the festival.

Both Saturday and Sunday’s concerts are already sold out. Chamber music fans who were not able to snap up tickets to the live performances will have to wait patiently until the fall, when the livestream of the event will be fully accessible at the Kingston Chamber Music Festival’s website, https://www.kingstonchambermusic.org, free of charge.

Emma L. Smith is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at elsmith@wesleyan.edu.

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