Festival del Sole in Napa

Garnishing musical genius with culinary flavor.

Napa Valley’s annual super-fest, the Festival del Sole, returned for its seventh season last week at wineries and halls throughout the valley. And, like the wines of the region, this music festival is reaching for sophistication in its maturity.

Modeled on a sister-festival in the Italian countryside, Festival del Sole showcases not only great musical talent but also Valley charm, with local wineries hosting musical events along with luncheons and dinners—and wine—throughout the week. Sunday night’s finale at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater was all one might expect, with two super stars of the classical world taking turns on-stage before a final dinner and wrap party.

Helene Grimaud-Mat HennekTwo modernist triumphs and a contemporary mash-up made for a solid program and illuminated changing directions in music. Backed by the Russian National Orchestra, pianist Hélène Grimaud starred in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, written in 1931 and influenced by early American jazz. Then Joshua Bell followed with Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14, and that lyrical 1939 work served as his protest to the atonal theories of Schoenberg.

Both soloists, each with a huge and well-deserved reputation, have recorded those concertos, and what we heard was definitive, great artists interpreting a key epoch.

The concert warmed up with Blue Fire, a big-boned “symphonic rhapsody” composed and conducted by Daniel Brewbaker. Tuba harrumphs gave the opening the agility of a fat man doing squats, with colorful scoring that prepared us for Ravel’s jazz-infused exoticism. Bright marimba notes sharpened the strings, and a strong pulse leavened the noodling winds.

But somehow the whole neither gelled nor resolved, detracting from its promise, and the RNO, which is jaw-dropping in its Russian repertoire, seemed ambivalent about this contemporary work.

As a support and foil for the superstars, however, they more than made up for it. Under the subtle and inspiring conducting of Riccardo Frizza they helped Grimaud bring the packed Yountville theatre to its feet. Her assurance, rippling dexterity and jazz insouciance revealed Ravel’s experimental premise and extraordinary palette, with her piano entering on manic cat feet and then turning bluesy chanteuse. 

Ravel’s language is polyglot, with moments of French madcap circus, then reverent Debussy colorations of harp and flute, all overrun with staccato piano runs that spanned the keyboard in jazz scales. It was an inventive French response to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—which came out four years before Ravel’s concerto—and belied an absorbing genius.

Grimaud certainly made it her own creative statement as well. After recently surviving stomach cancer, the petite Grimaud’s elfin features were even more honed, and that may have translated to the lean beauty of her playing.

After intermission, Joshua Bell came out to a thunderous welcome. He is a regular of the Festival, and certainly deserved their welcome, but more often steps out on stages across the world. 

Joshua Bell-Timothy WhiteHis vision of the Violin Concerto was true to Barber’s sensuous lyricism and tragic interludes. A proponent of tonality in a landscape that was increasingly experimental, Barber found that he could speak in a direct emotional language without sacrificing his poetic edge. For Barber, rich harmonies and elusive phrasings meshed in a profound whole that suggested more than it pronounced.

And then the wild Presto! Barber used a “perpetuum mobile,” four breathless minutes of rapid-fire sixths to add a virtuosic violin finale to his construction—an ending that cost him his original benefactor! But those who can encompass both soaring lyricism and technical wizardry have since championed it, and Bell flawlessly delivered both.

There is an element to this festival that celebrates a larger appreciation, and I found myself inspired by that. After the concert, while enjoying Yountville’s glorious Ad Hoc restaurant with my wife, I found it easy to contemplate that night’s creative melon/cucumber salad as a parallel to Ravel. Melons, cucumbers, olives and Moroccan keftas shared a yogurt-dill dressing, a drizzle of jazzy accord over elements that were deeply diverse. And colorful!

I think I’m beginning to get this.

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Hélène Grimaud, by Mat Hennek; bottom photo of Joshua Bell, by Timothy White.