On typical nights in July and August, the most intense concentration of musical talent hereabouts is found in the orchestra pit of the Santa Fe Opera. The orchestra is not the primary draw for audiences, to be sure, but few listeners can fail to be impressed by the music being made where the spotlights do not shine. It’s no surprise; the orchestra’s membership, which enjoys considerable continuity through the years, is populated by highly experienced instrumentalists, many of whom hold prominent positions — including principal and associate principal chairs — in leading American orchestras whose seasons are on hiatus during the summer.
One of those musicians is principal harpist Grace Browning, who until earlier this year was the harpist of the Dallas Opera and in the fall begins as principal harpist of the Rochester Philharmonic. This summer she decided to harness some of the musicianship in the opera orchestra by producing a chamber series at the intimate and historic San Miguel Chapel. Each of the five concerts involves players from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, in some cases joined by colleagues or musician-spouses who are visiting. At the recital on Aug. 11, she was joined by Bart Feller, principal flutist of the New Jersey Symphony, and Kim Fredenburgh, a violist who heads the string program at the University of New Mexico and who appears with local ensembles throughout the year.
You can safely wager that a recital for flute, viola, and harp will include Debussy’s Sonata for that combination. Indeed this one did, at the end of the concert, but it also began with an evocative moment from the same composer: his Syrinx, for unaccompanied flute, which Feller began to intone from the wings, scarcely within earshot, gradually moving closer before walking slowly into the audience’s view for the work’s conclusion — a lovely bit of staging that underscored a winning musical interpretation. He and Browning continued with Narthex, by contemporary French composer André Bernard. It included unusual effects — blowing into the flute’s top joint while withdrawing a finger therefrom to suggest a slide-whistle, scraping or rapping the harp frame to create a clatter — but these seemed like no more than avant-garde superimpositions over what was, at heart, a pleasant eight-minute piece grounded in tradition. Takemitsu’s And Then I Knew ’Twas Wind invited the trio to explore delicacies of timbral shading, and they spun a web of mystery without making it sound New Agey. Their take on Debussy’s famous Sonata was less reticent than one often hears, proving energetic and even lusty in the second movement and puckishly joyful in the third. The San Miguel Chapel can be a tricky performance space, but this trio was perfectly suited to its intimacy. They filled its modest expanse without overstepping its comfort level.
Debussy also opened pianist Gloria Chien’s recital for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Aug. 8: His Suite bergamasque was delivered without the timidity that some performers show when faced with his airy textures. In the ever-so-familiar “Clair de lune” movement, she lavished attention on the voicing, rendering inner lines with polish; and the concluding Passepied was an exercise in charm. Three of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words followed, all the more welcome for their rarity on serious recitals. A thoroughly modern pianist, she allowed nothing sappy here, not even in the famous one in E major (Op. 19b, No. 1), where she rendered the accompanying arpeggios firmly, with no rhythmic swooping. The third in her set (Op. 30, No. 1) took on a serious mien, rather thickly pedaled, its melody articulated with a pesante character — Mendelssohn masquerading as Brahms, you might say. This was, in all, a calming program, although variety of mood arrived with three études by György Ligeti; the first and last of these (Désordre and Fanfares) were dynamic and punchy, while in the middle one (Arc-en-ciel) Chien courted a Bartókian spirit of mysticism. Good Chopin-playing closed the program: solid renditions of the Nocturne in D-flat major (Op. 27, No. 2) and of the beloved Barcarolle, in which she preferred clarity to gossamer veils and pushed forward eagerly in the più mosso near the end.
On Aug. 7, the Danish String Quartet opened its festival recital with the Ten Preludes — aka String Quartet No. 1 — written in 1973 (and revised three years later) by Danish contemporary composer Hans Abrahamsen. Already in the first of the 10 movements, Abrahamsen seemed to have used most of the string effects known to man — and there were still nine movements to go. Each followed its own lodestar — screeching dissonances, repetitive figures, sustained exhalations, persistent buzzing, nods to folk song, to neo-medievalism, to Vivaldi. Most of it seemed sprung from the loins of Crumb and Ligeti, and it went on and on. The group followed up with a firmly conceived, well-executed account of Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor (Op. 127), a work seemingly omnipresent in recent seasons. Apart from some intonation issues (Mr. Cello seemed out of sorts), there was little to argue about in the ensemble’s interpretation, which tended toward muscularity rather than lyricism. Nonetheless, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” in the Lydian mode achieved the sense of stasis it is supposed to — a bastion of stability surrounded by much activity. In general, the Danish String Quartet is a forward and forceful ensemble, technically adept, drawn more to monumental statement than to elegance.
A pièce de résistance in the Chamber Music Festival’s summer kicked off its final week, on Aug. 13, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Alan Gilbert, back for his third go-round as the festival’s artist-in-residence, conducted an ensemble of 15 instruments in Mahler’s orchestral song cycle (or symphony in all but name) Das Lied von der Erde, here in a reduced arrangement begun by Arnold Schoenberg in 1921 and completed by Rainer Riehn in 1983. A few days before the concert, the announced mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, withdrew due to illness and was replaced by Michelle DeYoung; the other vocal soloist, tenor Paul Groves, remained in place. The concert began. Groves got through the first of the work’s six songs, and DeYoung made it halfway through the second when a crack of thunder pealed forth and the lights went out. The players hung on gamely, playing tentatively from memory; and a few seconds later, lights came up in the auditorium, though not on the stage. This was not an auspicious way to embark on Mahler’s epic struggle with mortality, and Gilbert was wise to cut off the performance and get a bearing on the situation. It turned out that a swath of the city was without power and that the Lensic’s backup generator served only the auditorium and not the stage. Then, too, Gilbert informed the audience, something had not been working with the electronic synthesizer that was standing in for the harmonium Schoenberg called for. Anyway, it was decided that the musicians could read their parts if they moved closer to the lip of the stage, where spillover from the houselights would provide some illumination.
The performance picked up where it had left off and continued through to the end, by which time the storm had passed and the audience left feeling not at all cheated by what had turned out to be a memorable evening. With so much disruption, it would be out of place to say anything beyond the fact that the performers showed great poise under pressure and that they all earned an “A” for Assiduity. ◀