- Courtesy of Jason A. Whitcomb
In the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor, Faye Dunaway plans a getaway to Sugarbush Resort in Warren, only to be abducted at her New York City door by CIA operative Robert Redford. I can sympathize with the effect, if not the cause: Every year, I have planned and failed to make a road trip to the Mad River Valley to experience its annual Vermont Festival of the Arts, now in its 17th season.
In my defense, the fest seems to pass in an eye blink every busy summer. In reality, it lasts more than a month — from July 31 through Labor Day — and features multiple, mostly free events and activities every day. So this summer, I planned carefully and actually made it, on August 14. My objective was to hear a new brass quintet called InoraBrass.
Arriving early, I drove past the Waitsfield United Church of Christ, where the concert was to take place, and on to Lareau Family Farm, site of the Big Red Barn Art Show. Described as "an anchor event of the Vermont Festival of the Arts," the show is held in a once-well-used barn (renovation plans are in the works). The guest book registered folks from Canada, Connecticut and Florida. Several viewers carried in glasses of wine from American Flatbread's bar next door.
Thirty-seven artists are showing their work this year, and any sales return directly to them. Painter Lynn Kafer's soaring Gothic cathedral interiors in a rough pointillism caught my eye. But the little red "sold" dots beside many paintings indicated a general preference for bucolic Vermont scenes, including the Waitsfield covered bridge and farm barns much like the exhibit venue.
That pastoralism isn't a bygone myth. My next drive — back to town, through that same covered bridge and up the winding road to the Round Barn — demonstrated why the Mad River Valley has been a byword for "getaway" since the 1960s. The picturesque circular barn's photography show — another festival staple — had closed for the day, but I got to drive the same road back to town as the late sun slanted through the clouds.
At the church, folks were beginning to stream in. All told, more than 100 people showed up to hear InoraBrass. Aside from the festive allure of brass music, the concert had several points in its favor. Half the audience knew the horn player, Joy Worland, as their esteemed librarian at Joslin Memorial down the street.
The audience's teenagers and their families likely knew the two trumpet players, Chris Rivers and Jason Whitcomb, from nearby Harwood Union High School, where Rivers is band director and Whitcomb gives lessons.
This was InoraBrass' first full concert. Worland, Whitcomb and trombonist Lori Salimando-Porter had met playing as the Fanfare Brass Trio, one of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra's educational outreach chamber groups. Along with tuba player Bill Keck, the musicians have performed student work for Music-COMP, the online composition-mentoring program that selects standout pieces for performance.
Program bios indicated that all five brass players were highly trained musicians and former principals of major orchestras in the U.S. and Mexico. But their playing made it immediately apparent that they have a lot of fun together. It was also evident the quintet had thoroughly prepared for a program that ranged from Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli and Victor Ewald — brass musicians' Beethoven — to Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Holst and living composer Eric Ewazen.
The group opened by performing the Gabrieli with one player positioned at each of the four corners of the church and at the altar. The effect was to enclose the audience in a sonorous wall of blown sound. Suffice it to say there was no snoozing at this concert.
The first movement of the Holst suite included a prominent solo by trombonist Salimando-Porter that nearly left this listener's mouth agape. I cannot recall hearing tone like this from a trombone before — it was almost otherworldly. Salimando-Porter, a retired military woman, served as principal trombonist with several military bands, including West Point's, and has performed on Broadway and with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, among others.
It's unusual for a brass quintet to have not one but two women. A member of the American Library Association's task force that selects feminist books for youth, Worland landed on the group's name by Googling three of her favorite words: "snow," "mountain" and "goddess." "Inora" came up, and she liked the sound of this Goddess of Mountain Snow, which originated in a fantasy game.
InoraBrass wowed with several more pieces, in particular "Frost Fire" by Ewazen. Whitcomb prefaced it by saying the composer had emailed the group to explain that he named the piece after a white wine produced in his native state of Ohio. Far from light, the two movements the group chose to play ranged from heraldic to playfully syncopated. If only they had included the missing movement instead of playing Bernstein's "Maria" from West Side Story, which struck this listener as singularly unsuited to brass.
At intermission, I asked two women sitting beside me if they had made it to any other festival events. Out came a barrage of listings: a performance by the Transcontinental Piano Duo, a lecture on architect Louis Kahn at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, the musical Violet at the Skinner Barn, and others.
They regretted missing artist Janet McKenzie's talk about her paintings that lined the walls around us — portraits of African American figures in religious garb that looked down on the 99.9-percent white audience like a distant reminder of diversity. One of the women marveled, "There just seems to be something to do every day."
The key is to avoid abduction from now through Labor Day.