First Person: Ten days in July at Festival Napa Valley (2022)

JOHN HENRY MARTIN

For over a decade now, for 10 days in the middle of every July, Festival Napa Valley has combined concerts by an array of virtuosic international musicians and performing artists with food and wine hosted by the valley’s most interesting wineries.

This year, I had the luxurious good fortune to attend seven concerts and four dinners, barely a quarter of the total number of events that take place during the entire festival each year.

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The festival was already in full swing on a Monday night when my contact got me a ticket to a donor-only concert at Mont La Salle monastery on Redwood Road on Mount Veeder, with dinner to follow at Hess Persson Estates next door.

The concert featured Tessa Lark on violin, who began effortlessly with Bach, continued with a dizzying, Roma-inspired piece by Ravel, and finished with Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which included an improvised interlude that ripped a hole in the spacetime continuum.

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Afterward at Hess Persson, I also got a private viewing of Hess’ formidable modern art museum, which includes a typewriter on fire and a delicate twig installation by Andy Goldsworthy.

At dinner, I feasted on an arugula salad with apricots and goat cheese and quail so delectable I ate it with my fingers. I only looked at the petits fours in the end, because I was too full to eat anymore.

The second night I saw Dave Brubeck’s orchestral suite “Ansel Adams: America.” This is a piece of music Brubeck and his son Chris wrote, inspired by Adams’ photographs. It was a sensory feast; I was completely engrossed by such arresting auditory and visual stimuli. I concluded that there is no better way to appreciate Adams’ photography than accompanied by Brubeck’s music.

Dinner afterward was at, officially, The Resort at 400 Silverado Trail in Calistoga, or what everyone just calls the Four Seasons Napa Valley. Were I the CEO of Four Seasons, I would have shut down the hotel, given how bad the service was. Our server was holding the bottles of wine by the neck and poured Chardonnay into my glass of Champagne. They also served wine from Santa Lucia Highlands for the first course -- a tone-deaf insult to the Napa Valley.

(Video) 2022 Festival Napa Valley Summer Season Highlights

The next night, the Charles Krug stage hosted “Tchaikovsky in America,” in which Lark played the composer's Violin Concerto in D major as if propelled by a steam locomotive. She was followed by Russian pianist Dmitry Masleev playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 so powerfully that his bottom bounced off the piano bench.

The dinner that followed was in the courtyard at Trinchero, which included the most delectable dessert of the entire week: a pavlova with lemon curd, summer berries, whipped cream and a blackberry coulis. It was served with Trinchero’s off-dry Vin Santo: summer in a glass.

On Thursday night, my last day at the festival, the program included a potpourri of dance: the classical ballet of Balanchine and Baryshnikov paired with modern numbers set to music by The Rolling Stones. Sasha de Sola’s “Dying Swan” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” evoked agonizing pain from the audience. She was so delicate, almost brittle, in her portrayal of the expiring icon of grace.

That night’s dinner was at Beringer, a first-time participant in the festival. It was a flawless evening catered by Tre Posti in the redwood grove next to the famous Rhine House.

The menu was pleasantly simple, beginning with a butter lettuce salad paired with Beringer's classic Private Reserve Chardonnay. Then followed a filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes, vegetables and Sauce Bordelaise, which could not have been more perfect with the two classic Cabernets that were poured. The dinner ended with a fruit crostata and Crème Anglaise, but that was beside the point since it was paired with Beringer’s “Nightingale,” a manually botrytized Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, the ingenious jewel in Beringer’s crown.

At 11 a.m. each day I attended “Festival Live!”, a series of informal free concerts in the amphitheater at Copia in Napa. They were a refreshing, casual way to appreciate classical music. At one of the concerts, Tabea Debus showed me that the recorder, what I previously thought was a simple instrument, could be used to make complicatedly beautiful music.

My contact at the festival apologized when she said the festival’s finale, the opera “L’elisir d’amore,” which was produced, from first casting to final dress rehearsal, all within the 10 days of the festival, was sold out.

I didn’t mind at all. Any one of these experiences is priceless and they happen nowhere else on Earth, except here in the Napa Valley.

The Napa Valley A&E Scene: August 2022

Here's the latest in Napa Valley arts and entertainment news.

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"Dear Zoe," a powerful coming-of-age story of love, loss and resilience produced by Sonoma's Brenda and Marc Lhormer, is set to be released in theaters and on video on demand Nov. 4.

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Aided and inspired by his grandchildren, James Conaway has written a fairy tale, derived from ancient tales and his own evocative ink art: the story of a blue-skinned one-eyed woman (a mishap from an alchemy experiment) and a talking mule, and the adventures they have together.

Art Notes: News from the Napa Valley community

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Books

Art Notes: Coming up at Wilfred's Lounge

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Take a trip to the Dream Bowl with Kellie Fuller and Mike Greensill, or to the South Pacific at Wilfrid's, take in an evening of bluegrass and Americana music at the White Barn, or explore "Lost Illusions" at Jarvis.

Entertainment

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World Affairs Napa Valley launches with Roots of Peace event on Sept. 8

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World Affairs Napa Valley launches in Yountville on Sept. 8 with keynote speaker Heidi Kühn, founder and CEO of Roots of Peace.

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