Arts & Events

REVIEW: Napa Valley’s Festival del Sole: Not Primarily about the Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday July 17, 2014 - 01:14:00 PM

Established ten years ago, Napa Valley’s Festival del Sole advertises itself as a celebration of music, food and wine. I suggest that the elements should be reversed. The emphasis should be on the wine. Rivers of wine flow throughout Festival del Sole’s ten days of events every July. This is only natural, for Napa Valley is now an industry based on wine. During the Festival, food is often served alongside the wine, but the wine clearly takes precedence. Music is added to help create an ambience of high art and good living. All this, of course, takes money, lots of money. What Festival del Sole is really about, if you scratch below the surface glitter, is money. To become a VIP Patron entitled to attend all events in the 2014 Festival del Sole will set you back a mere $8,500. For a slightly lower amount you can be an Allegro Patron and attend most of the events. Of course, no one could possibly attend all or even most of the Festival’s offerings, for aside from the damage done to one’s constitution by so much wine guzzling, many events are held concurrently with others.  

This year’s Festival del Sole featured an Opening Night concert, on Friday, July 11, by internationally famous violinist Joshua Bell at the Castello di Amorosa. For those who have never visited the Castello di Amorosa, let me explain that this is an authentically designed medieval Tuscan castle built largely by Italian artisans under the guidance of local wine mogul Dario Sattui, who wished to build a tribute to his Italian heritage. Rising like an apparition from medieval Tuscany, Castello di Amorosa is situated on a hill on the west side of Route 29 just south of Calistoga. It is a site not to be missed for anyone loving Napa Valley’s wineries. 

The Opening Night concert at Castello di Amoroasa was supposed to begin at 6:00 PM. However, a van delivering the musicians of the Sphinx Virtuosi, scheduled to accompany Joshua Bell, was involved in an accident on Route 29, injuring no one but disabling the vehicle. A re-placement van had to be dispatched to ferry the musicians to Castello di Amorosa. Meanwhile, those of us awaiting the beginning of the concert were pleasurably plied with wine and hors d’oeuvres. Even here, however, money distinctions were noticeable. VIP Patrons sipped their Reserve wines and munched elaborate hors d’oeuvres atop the battlements of the Castello di Amorosa, with views out over the vineyards; while Allegro Patrons sipped less costly but still excellent wines and munched on slightly less elaborate hors d’oeuvres in the Great Hall of the castle.  

Incidentally, while awaiting the arrival of the musicians, I had an opportunity to talk at some length with Dario Sattui., the founding genius behind Castello di Amorosa. After offering my deep appreciation for how authentic his Castello di Amorosa indisputedly is, we somehow got to sharing how formative for each of us were our decisions, in our early 20s, to live and work abroad. At age 21, I entered the Peace Corps and spent two wonderful years teaching high school in Malawi, in East Africa. Dario, having grown up in Marin County, left for Europe after college and spent two years in Finland and Sweden. We both reminisced on how important it was for each of us to look at life from outside our own country’s perspective. 

Eventually, the musicians arrived, and in the open air courtyard of the Castello di Amorosa the concert began. As a surprise tribute to Festival del Sole benefactors Athena and Timothy Blackburn, (whose gift to the Festival del Sole was listed in the rarified category of “$150,000 and above”), a male dancer, Temur Suluashvili, and a female dancer, Victoria Jaiani, from the Joffrey Company performed a beautiful pas de deux from the ballet Spartacus. Then Joshua Bell and the Sphinx Virtuousi came onstage to play Antonio Vivaldi’s baroque chestnut I Quattro Stagioni/The Four Seasons.  

So popular has this work become in the last two centuries that we often fail to realize that Vivaldi, whose career was spent largely in Venice, died in poverty in Vienna in 1741, and that his enormous output of musical compositions fell into neglect until 19th century scholarship revived interest in Vivaldi’s music. Likewise, few realize how important were the innovations Vivaldi wrought in the concerto form. Abandoning the slow introductory movements favored by his predecessors Arcangelo Corelli and Giuseppe Torelli, Vivaldi began his concertos with lively allegro movements, typically followed by a slower second movement and another faster one. Indeed, all four of Vivaldi’s concertos comprising The Four Seasons follow this format. There are other innovations introduced by Vivaldi, especially regarding key modulation, but I won’t go into them here, except to note that Vivaldi explicitly wrote out a programmatic schema for The Four Seasons, offering verses illustrating different aspects of life that one experienced in each of the four seasons, as exemplified in his music.  

As principal soloist in The Four Seasons, Joshua Bell demonstrated his brilliant virtuosity and vibrant tone on violin, in his case, on a 1713 Stradivarius. However, with a larger group of musicians behind him than are usually found on performances of The Four Seasons, (although thankfully without the harpsichord or chamber organ one hears on some recordings), I found details glossed over in this performance. With 18 string players performing behind Joshua Bell, in La Primavera/Spring, I could not distinguish whether I heard a dog barking or the rumble of distant thunder. In L’Estate/Summer, while the call of the cuckoo was heard, the bird-songs of the turtledove and goldfinch passed by in a blur. Even the angry swarms of mosche e mosconi/gnats and flies were barely noticeable in the heavy string sonority. Likewise, I failed to register with the usual acuity the sound of raindrops plopping on the ground in the middle movement of L’Inverno/Winter. Maybe this lack of details should just be attributed to the amount of wine imbibed while waiting for the late onset of the concert. Nonetheless, they proved mildly disconcerting; and they emphasized to me yet again that, for whatever reasons, Festival del Sole is not primarily about the music, but about the wine. Following the concert, VIP Patrons trooped off to the Castello di Amorosa’s Barrell Room for a lavish dinner, while I made the drive back to Berkeley. 

On Saturday, July 12, I drove back up to Napa for the Festival del Sole’s event called A Taste of Napa, held partly indoors in a pavilion on First Street in Napa, and partly outdoors on a terrace reached by sliding doors. This event seems to be the one Festival offering geared to the masses. For the price of an entry ticket, (which seemed to cost Allegro Patrons $99, though try as I might I never could find out for sure what the basic price was), the masses could circulate among tables offering food and wine supplied by some 70 wineries, restaurants, breweries and caterers. Wineries outnumbered all other suppliers by something like ten to one. Where the masses are concerned, I have to wonder who they are. Even the pair of sunglasses someone left behind were no ordinary sunglasses. They were by Prada. Do Napa Valley’s masses wear Prada? 

Later on Saturday afternoon I made it to the Lincoln Theatre in Yountville to hear a concert featuring Pinchas Zukerman playing the Bruch Violin Concerto with the Sphinx Orchestra led by Mexican female conductor Alondra de la Parra. Never having been to the Lincoln Theatre before, I searched in vain in the Festival program for directions to the theatre. Oh well, I thought, Yountville is so small I can’t miss it. Driving up and down Yountville’s Main Street several times, I never found a sign pointing me to the Lincoln Theatre. So I stopped and asked a pedestrian. “Oh. It’s over on the west side of Route 29,” he answered. So I dutifully tried to cross Route 29, which, due to the heavy traffic, took me almost ten minutes. Then when I eventually found the Lincoln Theatre, I couldn’t find a parking spot. This cost me another ten minutes. By the time I entered the theatre, tenor James Valenti had sung all his opera arias, and Pinchas Zukerman had just begun playing the Bruch Violin Concerto. Approaching his 75th birthday, which will be celebrated on Wednesday, July 16, Zukerman has lost none of his exceptional technique and vibrant tone. He gave a glowing account of this major work of the violin concerto repertoire. After intermission, Alondra de la Parra led the Sphinx Orchestra in Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G-Major. There is a pastoral air about this symphony, which is replete with Dvorak’s beloved birdcalls. In the controversial third movement, Dvorak surprises us with a very Slavonic waltz disguised as a scherzo, which, by the movement’s end, has become a Czech folk dance. The fourth and final movement, introduced by horns, is a call to the dance; and here a recurring theme from the first movement is given robust treatment in a rousing conclusion. 

(Part 2 on Festival del Sole will follow later.)