By ALLAN KOZINN
September 5, 2011
Governors Island is a bit off the beaten path, as concert sites go. But the idea of staging a summer music festival there, devoted mostly to contemporary works, is inspired. The island has already been transformed into a hybrid sculpture park and playground, and the flat open field at Colonels’ Row, bounded by elegant 19th-century houses, is as comfortable a setting for concerts as any park in Manhattan. What’s more, given the brevity of the offerings at the Rite of Summer Music Festival — the free concerts last an hour, without intermission — listeners have every reason to explore the island’s other artistic lures.
The festival closed its first season on Sunday afternoon with performances by its founders and artistic directors, the pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg, who each played a solo set and joined forces with a violinist.
Ms. Goldberg’s partner was the violinist Nurit Pacht, who opened the program with a sunny account of Falla’s “Suite Populaire Espagnole” (1914), which draws heavily on the melodic and rhythmic moves of flamenco and presents them within a formal frame. The suite’s movements are mostly arrangements of songs, and Ms. Pacht and Ms. Goldberg played them with a flexibility that captured the expressive turns and natural lilt of Spanish folk music as well as the liveliness of flamenco dance.
On her own Ms. Goldberg played Nikolai Kapustin’s Bagatelle (Op. 59, No. 9; 1991), a syncopated, hard-driven essay in cross-pollinated musical language. Its substance is jazz, but the inflections of Mr. Kapustin’s Russian musical accent — including a hint of Scriabin-esque harmonic mysteriousness — shine through.
Ms. Goldberg also offered works in a more directly Russian style. She played movements from Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Musical Toys” (1969), each short, playful and picturesque and steeped in the language of Prokofiev: melodic but also astringent and at times so rhythmically pointed as to seem mechanistic, if not quite robotic. Even so, Ms. Gubaidulina tiptoed into the field Mr. Kapustin regularly harvests in “A Bear Playing a Double Bass,” a supple, bluesy movement. Between the Kapustin and Gubaidulina works, Ms. Goldberg played Toru Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch II,” an island of lightly atonal, Impressionist serenity.
Mr. McMillen began his set with a pair of incendiary études — “Medieval Induction” and “Defensive Chill” (both 2006) — by Marc Mellits, rollicking, rhythmically pointed essays with roots in rock jamming and abundant energy.
To close the program Miranda Cuckson joined Mr. McMillen for John Adams’s three-movement “Road Movies” (1995). It was the perfect finale, touching (however obliquely) on nearly all the musical issues explored in the program.
Falla’s flamenco has an analogue in the country-tinged theme that opens the piece. (Spanish folk influences are exchanged for American ones.) Some of the mechanistic drive of Ms. Gubaidulina’s pieces is heard in the vigorous finale. The jazz and pop influences that propel the Kapustin and Mellits scores can be heard in both of Mr. Adams’s fast outer movements, though he assimilated those influences more fully into his own style. And the central slow movement has some of the gentle introspection of the Takemitsu.
Ms. Cuckson’s tone was beautifully focused, and she and Mr. McMillen played the music with striking precision and unity of purpose.
A version of this review appeared in print on September 6, 2011, on page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Summer Journey to an Isle of Many Musical Languages.