“She plays like a man” — at the time the highest of praise — is how Fanny Mendelssohn’s music teacher described her student's precocious talent in an 1831 letter to the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yet for at least one man — her younger brother, Felix — Fanny’s gift was seen as a mixed blessing.
While Felix was happy for his sister’s shared passion and offered to get her compositions published under his own name, he was less delighted when Queen Victoria invited him to Buckingham Palace and expressed favor for one of his pieces that was, in fact, penned by his sibling.
Two of Fanny’s piano works, known as “songs,” and one of Felix’s parallel solo piano compositions, “Songs Without Words,” will be performed at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church in a Mendelssohn concert Sunday and Monday to kick off the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival's 35th anniversary season, which runs through Aug. 19.
“He took Fanny’s idea and ran with it,” says festival founder Marya Martin on the symbiotic relationship between the two artists who feature this year in the series’ opening composer portrait. Emmy Award-winning actor Alan Alda, a longtime fan of the festival, reprises his role for the fifth time as narrator, reading illuminating passages from the musicians’ copious letter exchange.
The program ends with Felix’s Octet in E-Flat Major, written when the German prodigy was just 16 and composed after a succession of string symphonies and chamber works created for a Sunday concert series staged at the siblings’ childhood home.
The pieces selected for the Bridgehampton festival’s 19 concerts — including, for the first time, free pop-up performances — are played by a swath of talented musicians ranging in age from 22 to 70 and in national origin from Armenia to Taiwan.
Their diversity lends itself to the festival’s 2018 theme, “Destination America.” Among the works to be performed are Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec's “A New Country,” one of two commissions celebrating the festival’s milestone year. The other is by Kenji Bunch. "A New Country" uses five poems as the basis for its movements, including three by Long Islander Walt Whitman, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus and “My Dream” by immigrant Anna Vacek. “I wanted to use these texts to show how the energy of New York is infused by recent arrivals,” Moravec says.
This year's theme strikes a chord with Martin, a flutist who was born in New Zealand. “It is a celebration of everything this country has to offer those who come from various places," she says, "and those who gave of their background to make America a more interesting place.”
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Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival opening concert
WHEN | WHERE 6:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, 2429 Montauk Hwy.
INFO $10-$75; call 631-537-6368 or visit bcmf.org for the complete schedule of events for the festival, which runs through Aug. 19.