News Column

The Santa Fe New Mexican Listen Up column

August 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 23--For a concert-goer, the past few weeks seemed like whitewater rafting. The river of music flowed ceaselessly, picking up momentum as it went along, its eddies and rapids succeeding one another so relentlessly that they allowed little time for recharging in between. Some anticipated moments provided memorable thrills when they arrived, some proved to be duds, and most fell somewhere in between. We can't discuss them all in these columns, but a number of them call out for special comment.

The Santa Fe Concert Association's "Festival of Song" series provided a recital forum for two tenors who are appearing at Santa Fe Opera this summer: Paul Appleby on Aug. 11, Michael Fabiano on Aug. 14. Both hourlong events took place at the Scottish Rite Center and were accompanied adroitly by Joseph Illick, but apart from that, they stood about 180 degrees from each other. Appleby has a voice of modest dimensions, and that proved a detriment to fulfilling his duties as Fritz in La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein; throughout the season, many listeners told me that they had trouble hearing him, which was my own experience on opening night. In the more intimate expanse of the Scottish Rite Center, and assisted by a piano rather than an orchestra, he projected just fine. He put together an interesting song recital that consisted entirely of serenades, but he selected his material thoughtfully to avoid what easily might have become a succession of sameness. He was strongest in his opening set (lieder by Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss) and his closing piece (Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings). His voice is very easy to love. A few minutes into the German set, his timbre briefly approximated the dense, veiled sweetness of Fritz Wunderlich, and there can be no higher compliment that than. He might want to refine his phonetics on certain occurrences of the German "ch," which here was rendered with a whooshing "sh" sound no matter where it fell, but his technical apparatus sets him up to truly excel as a lieder singer. He sang sensitively in English, too. Britten's cycle is an odd piece, a through-composed cycle of six poems by various authors plus a prologue and epilogue that spotlight the solo horn. Britten composed the piece in 1943 for the renowned but short-lived hornist Dennis Brain, and he specified that in the prologue and epilogue that hornist was to play only on the instrument's natural partials; the resultant microtones yield a rustic flavor. In this performance, hornist Gabriella Finck went a step further, actually playing those sections on a natural horn -- basically a coiled tube with a mouthpiece on the end -- and then switching to a concert French horn for elegant renditions of the other portions. (Violinists Richard Rood and L.P. How, violist Alexandra Leem, cellist Joseph Johnson, and double bassist Miles Davis all contributed admirably, under Illick's direction.)

Appleby's central set comprised songs in French by Duparc, in Italian by Carlo Pedrotti (famous for having taught the legendary tenors Tamagno and Bonci) and Mascagni, and in Russian by Tchaikovsky. His approach seemed somewhat at odds with the Italian language, which he shortchanged by not holding onto its vowels (particularly its open vowels) with vibrancy through to the release of a note. But as a singer of German lieder he could develop into an exceptional artist. As things stand, he tends to project a one-size-fits-all pleasantness. Since his singing technique is nicely in place, he can now delve into how to convey the specific drama of the songs he programs.

Michael Fabiano is a singer of an entirely different stripe. Portraying Alfredo in La traviata at Santa Fe Opera he could probably be heard halfway to Los Alamos. In the Scottish Rite Center, his volume could be almost painful; and since he had selected repertoire that led him repeatedly into the realm of the high A flat, A, and B flat, the onslaught grew fatiguing to the ear while the recital was still young. His comfort zone is Italian repertoire, which responds favorably to the vigorous dynamism of his singing. But what was the point of his recital? He seemed to approach it as if it were an audition, showing off over and over the thing he does most impressively: hitting a climax that is high, bright, and loud. If that was his intent, he succeeded. He has an excellent voice of its type, even if his interpretations displayed not much breadth of character and were too often accompanied by grimacing of the sort we associate with silent-movie acting. The art of the song recital is something distinct from that; it invites subtlety in programming and in interpretation. Fabiano did include seven actual art-songs among his 13 selections (counting encores), but all of these were rendered with operatic swagger that made them come across like actual arias. This resembled the ostensible song recitals one heard when the Santa Fe Concert Association began its "Festival of Song" concerts in 2011 -- young singers dusting off their audition arias -- and Illick assured us when that season had ended that in future years care would be taken to make sure the soloists would live up to the series' name. We get lots of opera in this town, but little in the way of song recitals. Listeners who appreciate the latter will surely join me in urging the Concert Association to keep its focus when programming this series and remind the soloists that such a recital offers an opportunity to display the breadth of their art rather than its narrowness.

Madrigals and more

The Santa Fe Desert Chorale occupied the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on Aug. 10 for an all-French concert directed by Joshua Habermann. The first half was given a cappella, and its best moments involved Debussy's Trois chansons de Charles d'Orleans, realized with impressive finesse. The oddest item was surely Rameau's " nuit," which I gather has become a choral pop-hit since it was featured in the 2004 film Les choristes, about a French boychoir. It's a good example of cognitive dissonance on a stylistic level. The music is pillaged and much adapted from a passage in Rameau's 1733 opera Hippolyte et Aricie, in which a two-part chorus of priestesses (treble voices only) alternates with a High Priestess to celebrate the goddess Diana. For the modern choral hit, the piece has been reharmonized (by somebody name Joseph Noyon) in soupy, late-Romantic style and retrofitted with a new text (by a certain edouard Sciortino) about the serenity of nighttime. In the resulting piece, one hears French Baroque contours and can imagine how splendid they would be if rendered in the style of their time; but what one actually hears is realized in an incongruous way. Imagine looking at a portrait of Louis XV wearing a bowler hat -- something like that. Anyway, the chorus gave it a loving performance.

The second half of the concert was given over to Maurice Durufle's Requiem. The composer prepared three different versions of it, the one used here being his setting accompanied by organ (Jonathan Dimmock) and cello (Dana Winograd). The Desert Chorale almost always sings unaccompanied, and it seemed as if they found a sort of liberation in having an instrumental underpinning to play off of. They soared in a marvelous crescendo in the Kyrie and let loose unabashedly in the Libera me. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was the spendid soloist in the Pie Jesu movement, which she delivered with solemnity and authority. There is also supposed to be a baritone soloist in two of the movements, but that part was assigned to the choral baritone section in this interpretation for reasons I cannot explain. It was, in all, a fine performance of a substantial and important piece. Since Graham had been heard so fleetingly (her solo lasts only three and a half minutes), Habermann prepared a choral accompaniment to the Reynaldo Hahn melodie " Chloris," one of Graham's accustomed encores, and it brought the concert to a lovely close.

The Desert Chorale appeared on four programs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center during the final week of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, in each case singing a different handful from Book Five of Gesualdo's madrigals, a collection of five-part secular vocal compositions published in 1611 and notable for its composer's propensity for chromaticism. I heard three of these concerts, in which 12 voices from the choir were conducted not by Habermann but rather by Mathew Tresler, one of the group's tenors, with theorbo-player Richard Savino providing discreet underpinning (which would help keep the pitch from going awry). The chorus' ensemble skills came across as sub-par in the rather dry acoustic of the Lensic, and the less said about the undifferentiated interpretations the better. But here is what baffled me. Madrigals are essentially works of vocal chamber music, and in their heyday they were performed with one singer on a part. Including Gesualdo madrigals on programs of a chamber music festival seemed bizarre to begin with, but if they were to be there, then why would they not be performed as the chamber music they are, rather than the choral works they aren't? It all made no sense to me.

Tresler also conducted the Desert Chorale in a concert titled "The Triumphs of Oriana: The Birth of the Madrigal" at Loretto Chapel. In this reverberant acoustic the group (again 12 singers) sounded far, far better, including in several Gesualdo madrigals that also figured in their Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival repertoire. A little echo covers a multitude of sins. An especially appealing aspect of this program was that small groups of one-on-a-part singers occasionally handled pieces in the course of the show, which provided a break from the choral singing and also suggested how madrigals were envisioned in the late Renaissance. Indeed, some of the most affecting music-making came from these small groups, in works by Costanzo Festa and Thomas Weelkes, although the choral singing also sounded good, particularly gleeful in four selections from the English madrigal collection The Triumphs of Oriana (traditionally thought to have been written to celebrate Elizabeth I, although recent musicological research has cast that into some question).

Chamber conclusion

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival concerts on which the Gesualdo madrigals figured were advertised as a "festival within a festival" in which each concert included a Mozart piano trio and a Schumann chamber work, in addition to the Gesualdo. The concept was that the composers each wrote their respective pieces within a single year, which wouldn't have guaranteed compelling programming even if this factoid had been true (which it wasn't). The Mozart trios were consistently good (I heard K.502, 542, 548, and 564), providing a lesson in how chamber groups can successfully balance differing sonic ideals. Here, violinist Ida Kavafian offered extroverted playing with a bright, glossy tone; cellist Peter Wiley assumed a generally reticent posture with an unusually deep tone (almost resembling a double bass at times); and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott mediated between them. The result, while less "unified" than one might have anticipated, nonetheless covered a surprisingly broad range of expressive possibilities. Schumann's string quartets challenge with their persistently dense texture, and the Orion String Quartet did well by the Second String Quartet (on Aug. 13), most impressively in the first movement, where the players coordinated nice gradations of dynamics and expressive upward portamentos.

One of the most excellent performances of the festival's summer arrived on Aug. 14, with Schumann's Piano Quartet. McDermott was again the pianist, and Steven Tenenbom (of the Orion foursome) played viola. Although those two are members of the long- standing piano quartet known as Opus One, and although the other two members of that ensemble (Kavafian and Wiley) played on the same program, they were inexplicably separated for this piece, in which the violin was handled by William Preucil and the cello by Eric Kim, the former pointed yet rich in his tone, the latter forward and clarion. It was a top-notch performance, achieving a sense of sonic space in its texture, showing rhythmic elasticity in some of the themes, and richly infused with a sense of quiet passion. The scherzo scurried like leaves blowing in a cemetery on Halloween, and the slow movement, which is holy ground for lovers of chamber music, was everything one might hope (and kudos to Kim and Tenenbom for their songful approach).

The pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who is the festival's artist in residence this year, appeared (along with Preucil and the Orions) in Chausson's Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet on Aug. 11. It was a big-boned, surging performance of this somber piece, although the players did lighten up for the more crystalline Sicilienne movement, which is rather in the style of Faure. The Chausson unfortunately followed the world premiere of a string quartet titled Falling Angels, which the festival commissioned from Thierry Lancino, the unfortunate part being that we therefore had two markedly doleful pieces in a row. Lancino's piece, played by the Orions, seemed a meditation on Tristan und Isolde in which harmonic shape-shifting of a Wagnerian sort combined with shades of Barber's Adagio for Strings. It built up slowly using easily apprehended rhythmic-motivic patterns, reaching a high-point outburst but mostly inhabiting quiet territory. It succeeded in sustaining its cheerless mood, but by the end one worried that it may have needed more basic material to fuel its 21 minutes.

Ohlsson also appeared in a pleasing performance on Aug. 18 of the Sextet for Piano and Winds written from 1885 to 1889 by Ludwig Thuille, a composer from a region that was under Austrian dominance when he was born (in 1861) but that is today the city of Bolzano, Italy, in the Dolomites. It's a rewarding piece not often encountered, occasionally straying into Brahmsian territory, bustling with jovial high spirits in its finale. I did not find the wind contingent to be ideally matched, but some of the players impressed completely. Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor brought great character to her finely crafted phrases, and clarinetist Patrick Messina (who had opened the program with a virtuosic rendition on an unaccompanied piece by J rg Widmann) displayed an engaging tone, dovetailing with special finesse in passages with hornist Julie Landsman and bassoonist Theodore Soluri. Ohlsson kept mostly in the background, though in passages that called for it he displayed firm yet tensile strength.

The same description might extend to the solo recital Ohlsson played on Aug. 15. One never doubted the magisterial security of his technique, but its very monumentality could sometimes stand as an emotional barrier. Chopin's familiar Barcarolle was given quicker than we usually hear it, the water of this particular Venetian canal flowing swiftly and the spirit being unusually songlike. The same composer's F-Minor Fantasy seemed to be taking the same tack, but near the end Ohlsson rendered a modulating passage in a way that sounded shocking and suddenly gripping. A group of pieces from Charles Tomlinson Griffes provided an unusual touch; he was a sort of American Debussy, slipping off the harmonic cliff now and again. In Griffes' Barcarolle, Ohlsson worked up to an overwhelming fortissimo. Michael Hersch's Tenebrae received its world premiere here -- another dark, dark piece, sometimes evoking Liszt or Musorgsky in its creepiness, and at one point suggesting Bartok in the throes of a panic attack. To conclude, he offered some real Liszt, the Faust-inspired Mephisto Waltz No. 1. It was filled with powerful pianism, though quite lovely in the clearly-voiced conversation between Gretchen and Faust in the central section. Ohlsson is not a flashy player -- certainly not by current standards of pianistic flashiness -- but he consistently conveys an impressive presence at the keyboard.

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