The Raritan River Music Festival is noteworthy for bringing small ensembles of extraordinary musical quality to picturesque settings in western New Jersey for concerts with a fresh approach. Taking place on Saturday evenings in May, the festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this season by selecting three audience favorites from its early years and by topping them off with a gala evening that ventures into new territory.
Duo guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman, husband and wife, founded the festival in 1990. Interviewed by telephone from their home in Phillipsburg, Newman says, “From the start we wanted the festival to develop a sense of community and of real rapport between performers and audience. Our venues are small; that makes them as close as we can come today to having the intimate experience of hearing music where people performed in courts or mansions.” The venues of Raritan River Festival concerts seat 150 to 300.
Returning to the festival are Music from China, who will perform at Prallsville Mills in Stockton on Saturday, May 2; Ethos Percussion Group appears on Saturday, May 9, at Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Bloomsbury; and the Grand Canyon Ensemble (harmonica, flute, and two guitars) perform at Stanton Reformed Church in Stanton on Saturday, May 23. Music from China and Ethos performed at the festival about 10 years ago. The first Grand Canyon Ensemble appearance at Raritan dates from the early years of the festival.
Members of the Grand Canyon Ensemble are Robert Bonfiglio, harmonica; Clare Hoffman, flute; and Newman and Oltman, guitars. The four met in their college years. Bonfiglio and Hoffman started a festival at the Grand Canyon about 25 years ago and invited Newman and Oltman to perform there. “They were presenting gorgeous chamber music in beautiful natural settings,” says Newman. “In large part it inspired us to start the Raritan River Music Festival.”
The novel program ending this season’s festival is the gala “Laments and Dances,” at Clinton Presbyterian Church in Clinton on Saturday, May 30. Readings by Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angela’s Ashes,” are interwoven with musical material.
I ask Newman what makes the McCourt program a gala evening. “It’s a gala because for the first time a Pulitzer Prize-winner for literature — and a celebrity — participates in a Raritan River Festival event,” he says. “Last year, Paul Moravec, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, participated. This year is special because McCourt is not a musician. Also, in `Laments and Dances,’ a full string orchestra participates in the festival for the first time. We’re expanding in size for our 20th anniversary.
‘We thought that ‘Angela’s Ashes’ was, in many ways, similar in concept to a piece that we had commissioned Arnold Black to write. It was a juxtaposition of jolly music with sad, heart-wrenching melodies, based on the music of O’Carolan, an itinerant blind Irish harper who lived in the 17th century. The piece is in five movements and lends itself to incorporation of McCourt’s writings. He reads his own words. The rhythmic intensity of his writing carries through to Arnie’s music.” The original version of the piece called for guitar duo and string quartet.
Black’s string quartet/guitar-duo version of “Laments and Dances” has been performed at the Grand Canyon Festival and at Lafayette College. The orchestral/guitar-duo version, adapted by Andrew McKenna Lee after Black’s death, has its world premiere at the May 30 Raritan River concert with the String Orchestra of New York City. The conductorless orchestra plays an orchestral version of Franz Schubert’s string quartet, “Death and the Maiden,” in the first half of the concert.
“Laura and I have been involved with ‘Laments and Dances’ since we first met McCourt about seven years ago,” Newman says. “We were all working on the cruise liner, Queen Elizabeth II. Frank and his wife, Ellen, came to our concert, and enjoyed the music very much. We got to know them.”
McCourt, for his part, remembers meeting Newman and Oltman at sea. Interviewed by telephone from his New York City home, the author says, “I was intrigued by Michael and Laura playing. It was such good stuff. I thought, `I would rather give up writing and take up music.’ But I love writing. I would rather be a writer than a great lover. Being a lover requires great stamina, strength, intelligence, and charm.” All of these qualities emerge in our conversation, as well as McCourt’s prose style, which is leisurely and rich.
I decided beforehand to focus my questions to McCourt on the poverty of his early life, and on music. We start with his bestselling “Angela’s Ashes,” a memoir about growing up in extreme poverty in Limerick, Ireland. McCourt wrote the book, his first, at age 66, near the end of a 30-year teaching career in New York City. I tell him that I learned about it while interviewing flutist James Galway.
When I asked Galway about his childhood, the flutist responded, “Have you read ‘Angela’s Ashes?’” In reply to my negative answer, Galway said, “My background was exactly like McCourt’s, only our family was Protestant instead of Catholic.”
“That’s right,” says McCourt, who knows Galway. “He’s from the north, and we’re from the south. I’m glad to hear that ‘Angela’s Ashes’ had that kind of resonance for him. With our kind of poverty, at least you have hope. You have dreams of getting out of there. Everything you get is a gift. I don’t think of the poverty of the past. I think of my family and of writing another book.” McCourt has had four books published to date. “Angela’s Ashes,” written in 1996, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
“I do not think of myself as being poor anymore,” he says. “I have more money than I dreamed of. I can buy furniture and books. The next book will be about my experiences after becoming a bestselling author. I was an obscure teacher. I write a book, get on the bestseller list, and the book becomes a movie. I’m just a story teller. Maybe someday I’ll write a novel. I’m not a fiction writer. I tell my own story.”
If he’s a story teller, why not tell someone else’s story, I ask. “That would be biography,” McCourt says. “I know what’s going in my head. If I tell my own story I dip into my memories and feelings. I try to do it with style, humor, and imagination. That’s all I can do. If I was going to tell James Galway’s story, I’d have to learn a lot about music.”
The movie “Angela’s Ashes,” he notes, “is not the script I would have written. It’s a very elegant movie, too elegant for the subject matter. It needed to be dirtier and rowdier. It didn’t capture the craziness of poverty, the misery. Otherwise it was fine.”
Now 78, McCourt says, “I’m a latecomer. I spent 30 years teaching in New York City. I’m a Johnny-come-lately, the new kid on the block. I have to do as much as I can in the time I have left on the earth. Some people retire. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They look at walls, or at TV. They get depressed and die. I discover more and more how little I know. Every day I learn something. When I die I will still be ignorant.
“I’ve done a tremendous amount of travelling in the 14 years since ‘Angela’s Ashes’ was published, but will have to cut back because I have a book to write. People all over the world are generally kind, and so on, but it doesn’t help you write. I have to stay at home to write. I write in a notebook, then transfer what I’ve written into a computer. I edit as I type into the computer. I can’t write on a computer. I like to make notes in the margins, and make smart-ass comments. When you’re a writer and you’re honest with yourself, nobody can exceed you in self-criticism. You have to be hard on yourself.
“If I weren’t a writer, I would like to be a musician,” McCourt says. “I would choose piano. I got a piano from a friend. But it’s too late.”
Drawing on my experience as a piano teacher, I argue with him. Grownups are smart and learn fast, I point out. Furthermore, their mothers are not making them take piano lessons. I advise him how to make sophisticated-sounding music using only the black notes.
Up to now, McCourt’s instruments have been clarinet and harmonica. “When I was 11, I was learning clarinet in Limerick, but it didn’t last,” he says. “They had this band, Boherbuoy. It was a working man’s band. I didn’t have the clothes to give concerts. I was ashamed of my clothes, and I dropped out. I was good but I had to give the clarinet back because it belonged to the band.”
McCourt learned harmonica by himself. “If you were poor and you had a harmonica, you would cherish it and play it. I played mostly cowboy songs. They were very popular in Ireland. I got to be pretty good on harmonica, but I haven’t played much lately.”
Within the last decade McCourt and his brother, Malachy, created “A Couple of Blaguards,” a two-man comedy with incidental music about their lives and experiences. The show has toured America. Although Malachy has happily played himself in the show, Frank is reluctant. “The business of performing is not for me,” he says. “When you teach, you’re the captain of the ship. Reading lines already set is not nearly as satisfying as getting into a classroom and dealing with the kids. I like shooting from the hip. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It keeps you on your toes. There’s nothing like it in the world: facing 35 teenagers.”
Frank McCourt seems to have decided that reading from his writings at the Raritan River Music Festival has the challenge of teaching, rather than the fixed arrangement of delivering lines in a set theater piece. Here’s hoping the audience on May 30 cooperates in giving him the opportunity to shoot from the hip.
Music from China, Raritan River Music Festival, Prallsville Mills, Route 29, 1/4 mile north of Stockton. Saturday, May 2, 7:30 p.m. “Tea House” presented by a chamber ensemble that performs a dual repertoire of traditional and contemporary Chinese music. $35. 908-213-1100 or www.RaritanRiverMusic.org.
Ethos Percussion Group, Saturday, May 9, 7:30 p.m., Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, 17 Greenwich Church Road at Route 173, Bloomsbury.
Grand Canyon Ensemble, Saturday, May 23, 7:30 p.m., Stanton Reformed Church, Route 629 (one mile east of Route 31), Stanton.
Frank McCourt and the String Orchestra of New York City, Saturday, May 30, 7:30 p.m., Clinton Presbyterian Church, 91 Center Street (one block north of Main Street), Clinton.