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A full plate of music, at a price

The Napa Valley's new Festival del Sole offers an awkward cuisine of rapture and excess.

July 26, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

YOUNTVILLE, Calif. — America's newest and possibly most posh music festival, the Festival del Sole, ended in an unreal twilight Sunday, magnificent yet apocalyptically disturbing.

Early evening temperatures in the heart of the Napa Valley hovered, at the concert's start, at a startling 113 degrees. The auditorium, the Lincoln Theater, a recently renovated institutional 1,200-seat house on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California, was boldly refrigerated, hogging electricity. The acoustics were awful -- bone dry, ear-piercing, offering next to no bloom.

Replacing an ill Renee Fleming, Christine Brewer, one of the most impressive voices of our day, flew in from New York on a private jet, just in time to sing Strauss' "Four Last Songs," the composer's unbearably beautiful farewell to life. The Russian National Orchestra, on hand all week, had come much farther. The conductor, Stephane Deneve, a young Frenchman who is attracting much attention, appeared a cross between James Levine and Penn Jillette. The performance was moving, original, thrillingly seat-of-the-pants and without the false sentiment that too many sopranos and conductors like to copiously apply.

The audience, though wilted, was well heeled. The festival, which advertised itself as celebrating music, art, cuisine, wine and wellness, was strong on music. Each of the five orchestra concerts included two star soloists. Wine, in the Napa Valley, goes without saying, and there were several tastings throughout the week.

Every evening featured a lavish post-concert dinner. Star chefs presided over cooking classes. Gala lunches were further options. Art -- an exhibition of sentimental seascapes by a Portuguese artist, Ana Corbero -- was an afterthought. Wellness -- a book signing for "The California Wine Diet" and a couple of "potpourri parties" -- was a joke.

Prices were astronomical. A typical day of food, wine and song could easily run $500 or more per person and a lot more if it happened to include the lunch at French Laundry or the "Russian Imperial Dinner" at Bouchaine Vineyards (those meals were $500 alone).

Much that is wrong with the classical music business, perhaps even the roots of its decay, was on wretched-excess display. Along with music, food and all the rest, add connections.

The festival founder and general director is Barrett Wissman, head of IMG Artists, one of the large music management firms. The artistic director is his wife, Nina Kotova, the Russian cellist and former model with a semi-successful crossover career. The performers come, of course, from the IMG roster. Next month Wissman, Kotova and crew head to Cortona, Italy, where they also produce the Tuscan Sun Festival, on which Festival del Sole is modeled.

But Festival del Sole can't be quite so succinctly dismissed. Some of the greatest and most socially committed musicians of our day, such as soprano Dawn Upshaw, have careers guided by IMG.

Composer-conductors John Adams and Thomas Ades have just signed on. And if most of Festival del Sole, which seldom strayed from popular favorites, seemed intended for those who like a little painless culture added to the good life, a hint of refreshing subversion could also be detected.

On Monday, anyone with $50 left over after the $500 French Laundry lunch, and still able to stand, could head to the 500-seat Napa Valley Opera House to hear the exceptional young American pianist Christopher Taylor play an evening of Messiaen -- and be rewarded with more wine afterward (for an additional $50).

I was attracted to the final three orchestral concerts, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, by young artists who really do offer hope for the future. On Friday night Piotr Anderszewski played Karol Szymanowski's unjustly neglected Sinfonia Concertante with such dash that he just might be the one to get this score into the standard repertoire, where it belongs. The Polish-Israeli violinist Nikolaj Znaider followed with a breathtaking performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto, which he will repeat at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday.

Saturday night, Anderszewski dashed through Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto, which he conducted with eccentric vigor from the keyboard. After that, Sarah Chang led a surprisingly vibrant performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," giving voice to Vivaldi's blazing sun -- and Napa's.

Sunday, Kotova was soloist in the Dvorak Cello Concerto. She is a more than competent cellist. She is also a composer of conventionally Romantic but not simplistic cello concertos. Still, she projected little sense of personality, although the acoustics swallowed cello with the same gusto many attending the festival had for wine.

Afterward, Brewer cut through any acoustical obstacle the hall threw in her way, but even she sounded constricted compared with the glorious radiance of her Isolde in the Walt Disney Concert Hall for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Tristan Project."

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