Aug. 30--The ears certainly got a workout over the past couple of months. From the first night ?of Santa Fe Opera on June 28 to its last, on Aug. 24, that organization offered ?37 performances of the five operas on its main-stage schedule, as well as three go-?rounds of an opera aimed at family audiences, two of Apprentice Scenes, and a ?couple of concerts. Between those bookending dates, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival purveyed 37 dates in town, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale gave 17 go-rounds ?of five separate programs, and the Santa Fe Concert Association hosted three vocal recitals and two dance evenings. Not counting open rehearsals, youth concerts, special galas, out-of-town run-outs, ancillary lectures, or the offerings of less "summer-oriented" establishments (like church concerts), that adds up to 103 per?formances just in the domain of classical music. Of course, during the same period other performing arts enterprises were chugging along, too, so a culturally inclined person could keep very occupied indeed.
In such a wealth of offerings there are bound to be high points and not-so-high points. This summer provided examples of both. On the whole, I didn't think that this qualified as one of our more memorable summer seasons. At Santa Fe Opera, the only production that seemed a success across the board was the revival of Le nozze di Figaro, which displayed taste and refinement in Bruce Donnell's reinvention of a production unveiled here five years ago. Mozart gets some credit in the bargain, for sure, but the opera came close to a bull's-eye in its casting, assembling an ensemble that rose to the task both as individuals and as a group; and of the summer's conductors, it was John Nelson, leading Figaro, who made the strongest mark.
Rossini's La donna del lago was especially notable for the outstanding singing that ?tumbled out of mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato and Marianna Pizzolato, but it's a pretty lame opera from a dramatic point of view, and the production was so ?negligible that it scarcely merited comment. Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein also had a star at the head of the cast, although the voice of mezzo-soprano ?Susan Graham seemed seriously underemployed in this comedy. I've never liked the piece, but it was staged to a fare-thee-well, almost enough to obscure the meanness of spirit that inhabits its heart. La traviata seemed a strange candidate for revival, since its production, by Laurent Pelly, was received so ambivalently when it was new ?in 2009; but it did introduce us to soprano Brenda Rae, whom we look forward to hearing next season in Mozart and Stravinsky, as well as to up-and-coming tenor Michael Fabiano. One wished well for the premiere of Theodore Morrison's Oscar, but already going into it an impartial observer had ample basis for doubt. One of the reasons we all cherish Santa Fe Opera is that it is a company of national prestige, and one consequently expects that it would tender commissions only to seasoned composers who have earned such a rare honor. When it comes to commissioning major new operas, exterior pressures or prospects may play into the decision-making -- ?the enthusiasms of a singer or of a funder, for example. But commissions are not given to a star singer or a deep-pocketed donor. They are given to a composer and a librettist, and it would seem a mistake for a company to assume unnecessary risk by choosing unproven parties for such a high-profile enterprise.
Ad hoc ensembles
Whereas SFO lavishes a great deal of care into working up productions that will receive numerous performances, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presents programs that are once-and-done or, on a few occasions, twice-and-done. That presents no problems when music is played by a soloist or a self-standing group; at least in theory, they will have spent considerable time delving into their scores quite apart from the festival. But that covers only a minority percentage of the pieces presented, since the festival brings in rather few established ensembles. Far more frequently, it assigns repertoire to more casually assembled groups of players who may be tackling a piece together for the first time. Experienced and efficient musicians can pull off an admirable performance in such circumstances, but quite often the interpretations instead reveal a degree of insecurity and haphazardness. Given the festival's propensity for stitching together somewhat random programs comprising pieces by different composers for different ensembles, listeners may easily encounter a beautifully crafted performance back-to-back with one that is dutiful but underrehearsed. As the season raced along, one might have felt that the festival's principal goal was to check off items from a long list of repertoire. Could we imagine instead a model that stresses quality over quantity, perhaps one that allows ensembles to give two or three cracks at a piece rather than just one, with double or triple the rehearsal time attached to the work's preparation?
The envelope, please
We have some awards to hand out for meritorious achievements during the summer ?season:
Most Conspicuous Absence. The award goes to Santa Fe Opera for taking the lago out of La donna del lago. Since Rossini based his opera on Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake and constructed it so the title character would make her entrance steering a boat across the water, the lake would seem indispensable. But the opera dispensed with it. The runner-up is the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, which two years ago announced the inauguration of the Bach Motet Project, "an undertaking to present all of Bach's motets over several seasons." The group performed one in 2011, and then last year reduced the scheduled motet to a couple of sections; and by this season the Bach Motet Project seems to have disappeared completely, to the regret of choral aficionados.
Most Engrossing Chamber Music Performance. It's a three-way tie involving irreplaceable masterpieces in which the performers managed to seize the magic on short notice. The most jaw-dropping was Lucy Shelton's rendition of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, a tour de force of Sprechgesang that drew on the singer's lifelong commitment to musical modernity. Two 19th-century classics also got hit out of the ballpark. Pianist Jeremy Denk seemed the driving force behind an interpretation of Brahms' B-Major Piano Trio that stressed passionate abandon, with violinist Soovin Kim and cellist Peter Stumpf (half of the Johannes String Quartet) bringing their own expressive authority to the task. Also memorable was Schumann's Piano Quartet, played by violinist William Preucil (who boasted the most ravishing violin tone of this summer's festival), violist Steven Tenenbom, cellist Eric Kim, and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott; it was a showcase for ardor, tenderness, musical balance, and forthright clarity.
Most Endearing Revival. Shakespeare in Santa Fe, tentatively resurrected following a decade-long slumber, was noteworthy for a program titled All for Your Delight: A Charming Medley of Scenes and Songs From Shakespeare's Most Popular Classics. Charming much of it was, thanks to a cleverly constructed script by Nagle Jackson and a cast in which actor Mario Cabrera brought particular pleasure. It was performed to large, enthusiastic audiences on three nights, outdoors on the campus of St. John's College, and on the evening ?I attended the moon proved graciously cooperative during the scene from The Merchant of Venice that begins "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!"
Most Candid Admission From a Soloist. This goes to Garrick Ohlsson, hands ?down. Near the end of his solo recital, given in his capacity as the Chamber Music Festival's artist in residence, the pianist turned to the audience and stated that he had planned to conclude with Prokofiev's Four etudes, op. 2, which he described as 10 minutes long and very difficult. His schedule had not worked out quite as he had planned: "They are not yet ready, so I'll play Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 instead." (He played it impressively.) Frankly, we hear quite a lot of performances that seem not quite ready. I applaud Ohlsson for choosing not to add to their number, and I do hope we'll have occasion to hear him play the Prokofiev etudes when he feels the time is ripe.
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