Festival del Sole in Napa

Fifth Season—a return of top names and luminous moments

Jean-Yves ThibaudetThis July Napa Valley was again abuzz with visits by the famed and fortunate as the Festival del Sole filled Napa concert halls and vineyards with top musicians and top eats. The Festival kicked off on July 16 with piano wunderkind Conrad Tao and members of the Russian National Orchestra in a program that combined Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 with two Bolling jazz suites.

Then on Sunday July 18, famed violinist Joshua Bell joined pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Felix Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto in D minor, backed by the mighty RNO at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater.

This was an historic occasion, as that double concerto is not often performed live. A combination of the cost of importing two soloists and the youthful nature of the composition—Mendelssohn was only 15 when he wrote this for himself and his older sister Fanny to play—leave the concerto, and its lovely Adagio movement, mainly to discography.

The young Felix was a virtuoso, and the parts he wrote for violin and piano were meant to show off his mastery. Bell tossed off those fiery runs with aplomb, but added a smoldering sweetness in the slower passages. And in the Adagio his double stops held the magic of dessert wine (a Napa valley Gewurtz, no doubt). Thibaudet complemented with lift and arched phrases, sorely needed under Alondra de la Parra’s rather mechanical conducting.

I have heard de la Parra several times, and her performance has been uneven. She is obviously brilliant, and may have a solid career. But she opened this concert with the Overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at a blistering pace that may have surprised her musicians—and they floundered. That pace may have warmed the crowd but it left Mozart in the dust.

They settled in on the second half in Beethoven’s Eroica, though the rapport was not helped by two false starts. But she made up for it by carefully building to the heroic passages from fine textures, balancing tentative with opulent, and sharp attacks with sensuous aftermaths. The RNO winds were stellar, led by flutist Maxim Rubtsov and Oboist Olga Tomilova.

And triumph at the Castle…

On Tuesday, July 20, the Festival turned intimate with a chamber concert in the lovely courtyard of Castello di Amorosa, built four years ago in the north end of Napa valley near Calistoga. There, we heard two piano quintets and a cello sonata as stones reddened by a westering sun turned to shadows in a summer’s gloaming.

Nina KotovaThibaudet returned to accompany cellist Nina Kotova and the Rossetti String Quartet. After retuning for the moist open air they launched into Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 5, with deep-bowed waves of notes that broke and built and broke again. They retained a crispness for all their romanticism. The Rossetti Quartet, named for the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet of moody subject and brilliant coloring, showed those qualities again in César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F Minor. Opulent string quartet alternated with piano reveries, until Thibaudet shed serenity for powerful chords and runs, and together they rode wildly into the Lento. That movement showed a cello’s power and Franck’s deep humility, as the other strings swayed in soft zephyrs of sound.

Those two Quintets bracketed a long-awaited moment, cellist Nina Kotova, whom I last heard in a lovely Mendelssohn trio in 2007. Here she performed Debussy’s Cello Sonata, a late work whose unusual scales and extended techniques ushered in a modern age. Moving from slides to falsetto cries, and repetitions that skirted a Pierrot’s madness, Kotova and Thibaudet mesmerized the epicures of Napa. In the Andante sostenuto her deep pizzicato turned cello to jazz bass. Virtuosic runs and drunken descents reflected Debussy’s bridge from whole tone harmonies into the jazz scales of 1915.

The 10-day festival ended Sunday with a final concert in Yountville with the RNO and Robert Geary’s contemporary vocal group, Volti, followed by a gala celebration hosted by long-time donors Tatiana and Gerret Copeland at the Carneros Inn.

Next year I really ought to review the food as well.

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Jean-Yves Thibaudet, photo credit Decca Kasskara; photo bottom of cellist Nina Kotova by Leonardo Vecchiarelli.