News Column

Chamber made: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival 2013

July 12, 2013

YellowBrix

July 12--The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival offers the opening concert of its 41st season on Sunday evening, July 14, the first of 40 performances that will keep audiences occupied through Aug. 19. Much of the musicians' effort will be given over to well-loved small-ensemble masterworks by the great ones -- Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and their colleagues up on Mount Olympus -- but the concerts also include some high-quality chamber pieces by figures we encounter less frequently in the course of concertgoing. Two such works -- in both cases for assemblages that spotlight wind instruments -- probably should get inscribed on your calendar before the summer gets too busy: on Aug. 4, the Dixtuor by George Enescu, a rarely encountered but impressive accomplishment from 1906 that by turns recalls Bach, Brahms, and Romanian folk music; and on Aug. 18, the Sextet for Winds and Piano, unveiled in 1889 by Ludwig Thuille, a piece of Brahmsian cast by a fellow who was at the time best friends with Richard Strauss, who arranged for the piece's premiere.

The season is not without its mysteries, to be sure. The festival seems to have made a deliberate effort to avoid acknowledging major anniversaries, so that means we will neither be hearing any music by centenarian Benjamin Britten nor encountering the highly appealing String Quartet of bicentenarian Giuseppe Verdi. Even more inexplicable is the lack of any music at all by Haydn, who pretty much qualifies as the wellspring of the entire domain of chamber music and composed reams of the stuff, masterpiece after masterpiece. I'm not sure how one would arrive at a chamber music season of 40 concerts without at least some Haydn sneaking in as a matter of course. Obviously, it can be done, but it must have taken some effort.

Most of the performers are familiar to Santa Fe audiences, a result of the festival's practice of building long-term relationships with what can sometimes seem a repertory company of musicians who come and go as the weeks unroll. Some of the players can be counted on to elevate whatever pieces they touch, sometimes to the point of making indelible musical memories. Violinist William Preucil and Daniel Hope, violist Cynthia Phelps, cellists Ronald Thomas and Peter Wiley, clarinetist Todd Levy, hornist Julie Landsman, pianists Anne-Marie McDermott and Inon Barnatan -- the list continues from there, but each of these musicians can be depended upon to deliver excellent work even when playing in groups that coalesce only fleetingly. To be sure, the field's very finest achievements are rarely encountered outside of self-standing groups, the string quartets and piano trios and so on whose members have delved into their repertoire as an ensemble over many years. This summer the festival is bringing in five fixed- personnel string quartets. The Shanghai Quartet has delivered firmly etched performances here in the past, and its interpretations of Dvo?rak's op. 105 Quartet (on Aug. 6) and Beethoven's Quartetto Serioso (on Aug. 8; to be performed the night before in Albuquerque) should play to their strengths. Of the other ensembles, the FLUX Quartet, a persuasive exponent of contemporary music since its founding 17 years ago, may prove particularly invigorating in its July 26 recital, which includes Conlon Nancarrow's String Quartet No. 3 (from 1987) and new works by emerging voices Elizabeth Ogonek, Reena Esmail, and David Hertzberg, in addition to the String Quartet No. 4 by the festival's artistic director, Marc Neikrug, many of whose pieces have been played here over the years.

Among the festival's most popular presentations are its noontime concerts at St. Francis Auditorium, a number of which are piano recitals. One of these takes place Thursday, July 18: a recital featuring Soyeon Kate Lee, who has put together a thoughtful program of music by Jana?cek, the American modernist Ruth Crawford Seeger, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. Among upcoming noontime pianists will be Jeremy Denk, a frequent recitalist hereabouts. On July 23 he'll play Bach's Goldberg Variations, a work we always love to encounter but nonetheless a surprising choice since he played it in the neighborhood so recently, in Los Alamos this past January. A particularly appealing program will arrive on July 30 from pianist Shai Wosner, who at last year's festival delivered finely wrought, emotionally precise interpretations of central classics; this time around, he'll play two works by Schubert, including the transcendent Sonata in B-flat Major, plus a set of pieces by contemporary German composer J rg Widmann that are styled as "Schubert Reminiscences." Beethoven will be the focus of festival regular Victor Santiago Asuncion on Aug. 7; he'll offer both the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" sonatas.

This year the festival brings in noted pianist Garrick Ohlsson as artist in residence. On his noontime recital on Aug. 15 he'll perform music by Chopin (whose complete works he has recorded), Prokofiev, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and contemporary composer Michael Hersch. He'll also appear in Chausson's Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet (Aug. 11) and the above-mentioned Thuille sextet (Aug. 18). That may strike some listeners as a rather light workload for an artist-in-residence, but of course quality is more important than quantity.

Speaking of quantity, one concert of particular promise stretches to the limits of what would generally be considered chamber music. The Aug. 4 concert with the Enescu Dixtuor also includes a version of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) that Arnold Schoenberg prepared in 1920 for a private musical society he oversaw. This setting for singer (here baritone Matthew Worth) and 10 instruments just barely qualifies as chamber music, which is classically understood to have one performer per part, with no conductor. Here -- and in every other performance of it I have ever heard -- it is performed with a conductor taking charge, in this case Lawrence Foster. On the same program is Schoenberg's groundbreaking Pierrot lunaire, for speaker-singer and five players. It is often given without a conductor, but Foster will nonetheless lead this reading, which features veteran vocalist Lucy Shelton.

A series of four concerts near the end of the season goes under the rubric "Years of Wonder," each installment comprising music by Carlo Gesualdo, Mozart, and Schumann. The rationale for the programming seems to have evolved a bit over the past year, but a recent press release from the festival explains that the concerts look at "four particular years in their lives that resulted in some of their most revered works." Essentially, this means the series is made up of a Mozart piano trio from 1786 and three others from 1788; two of Schumann's three string quartets (the other one figuring on a noon concert on Aug. 13), plus his Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet, all from 1842; and, with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Book Five of Gesualdo's Madrigals, a collection published in 1611 but compiled from works written over a number of years, some of them probably as early as 1596. The "Years of Wonder" incentive seems wobbly in terms of concept, and it will fall to the performers to make a persuasive argument for why these particular pieces belong on programs together. Expectations should run high for the Mozart piano trios in particular; they will be performed by pianist McDermott and cellist Wiley along with violinist Ida Kavafian, a threesome that has worked together so much over the years that it could qualify as a self-standing ensemble if it only had a name.

For a tighter example of thematic programming, however, listeners may want to check out an unusually alluring presentation on July 27: "Reflection and Revolution: Music From the Time of Goya, 1746-1828." Billed as a multimedia event, this is the brainchild of Richard Savino, a prominent, much-recorded guitarist who is particularly appreciated in the realm of early-music performance. He'll be joined by soprano Christine Brandes and four string players for this exploration of the life and times of the famous Spanish painter, who grew up during an era of pampered nobility and flourished through the years of the Napoleonic revolutions, with selections by Boccherini and Sor providing the musical underpinning. See you there.

Concerts of the 2013 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival take place from Sunday, July 14, through Aug. 19. Venues include the St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave.) and the Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco St.). Several concerts are also held at Simms Auditorium in Albuquerque (6400 Wyoming Blvd. N.E.). For information about tickets, call the festival box office at 982-1890 or contact Tickets Santa Fe at the Lensic (988-1234, www.ticketssantafe.org). For a full schedule, visit www.sfcmf.org.

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(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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