A letter to the editor that appeared in The New Mexican on Aug. 2 inspires me to offer amplification on … amplification. Our correspondent voiced disappointment on reading in my review of Doctor Atomic that the singers were amplified, citing John Crosby, who founded Santa Fe Opera: “I can still hear Mr. Crosby pronouncing that ‘If you cannot project in my opera house, you will not sing in my opera house.’ ” This was an understandable reaction, but it invites clarification in connection with Doctor Atomic or, for that matter, last season’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which the letter-writer also mentioned, hoping “that this is not going to be a trend.” Let us be clear: The Carmens and Violettas and Cio-Cio-Sans audiences hear at the house fill it with their own lungs. Manipulating a singer’s voice through electronics enters the picture only when it is indicated in the score, and many contemporary composers, including John Adams, are doing precisely that.
Adams prefers to use the term “sound design,” which to me sounds a bit overblown and euphemistic; still, although amplification is a central part of it, it is not all of it. He wrote about this in his 2008 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, where he explains: “For all the daunting challenges it entails, the incorporation of electronic instruments into the orchestral palette of my operas and orchestral works has enabled me to deeply enrich the nature of my sound world. … By 2000, with all my major stage works I was requiring that every aspect of the production be subject to sound design. This extended not only to the performers — the singers, chorus, orchestra, and electronic sounds — but to the actual room itself. The confidence I had in doing this was bolstered by the growing collaboration I was enjoying with an exceptionally brilliant and creative sound designer, Mark Grey, who proved that sensitive and subtle use of technology can be a major artistic element in the listening experience.” Indeed, Mr. Grey is credited in the program as one of the sound designers. Adams goes on to underscore that what he does is particular to his own works: “By utilizing sound design with its multiple microphones, speakers, and mixing boards in my stage works I certainly was not proposing it ought to be the norm for the next run of Figaro or Traviata.”
From the perspective of my seat, there were only a few short expanses during the production’s opening night when a singer sounded unmistakably amplified, with an attendant metallic brightness, or when, conversely, a singer was drowned out by the orchestra, which may have derived from overamplification of the instruments. I found that the sound design was unobtrusive in general. We know that it was present, even if it was not obvious. It comes with the territory if a company is to produce Doctor Atomic. I appreciate our correspondent’s concern. Vocal training should absolutely prepare opera singers to project throughout an opera house without amplification. But I don’t see a slippery slope here, and I anticipate that Santa Fe Opera will limit its amplification to situations where an individual composer chooses to create an electronically manipulated sound world.
Using amplification invites new opportunities for things to go wrong. Consider the two evenings that opened the new season of Performance Santa Fe, on Aug. 3 and 4 at the Lensic. As is customary, both featured Stars of American Ballet, a troupe headed by Daniel Ulbricht, and the two programs were distinct except for one overlap. That was the Jerome Robbins ballet “In the Night,” set to four nocturnes by Chopin, which were played live by Susan Walters, a solo pianist at New York City Ballet. As the piano was situated deep in the back of the stage, amplification was deemed to be necessary. On the first night, it was pumped up to a tragic degree. Although the four Chopin pieces (his Op. 27, No. 1; Op. 55, Nos. 1 and 2; and Op. 9, No. 2) cover considerable dynamic ranges — the first of them stretches from pp to fff — their overall sound level tends to be quiet. What emanated from the Lensic’s speakers was invariably loud, harsh, and distorted. That happened to be the day when downtown Santa Fe experienced an extended power outage, and the out-of-control sound levels were among the unfortunate consequences; the time allocated to achieving proper settings disappeared into powerless silence. The problem was addressed by the next night, when the piano was just lightly amplified. Walter’s playing now came across as far more sensitive to Chopin’s directives of dynamics. Elsewhere on that second program, Ann Kim played four movements drawn from three of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites (for Robbins’ “A Suite of Dances”), and Walters joined her in a laudable performance — again, amplified only slightly — of the slow movement from Grieg’s Cello Sonata (in “Change of Heart,” a new piece choreographed by Ask la Cour). Walters and an unidentified violinist also made a stab at the once-famous Czardas, a salon standard by Vittorio Monti (for the U.S. premiere of “Monti Moves,” choreographed by Ulbricht). It is heartening when ballet companies give their dancers and their audiences the honor of performances that use live music; but if amplification is part of the equation, it is sure to introduce serious challenges. As we heard here, it takes some taming.
Over at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, one wondered if improved amplification might have made the Aug. 6 performance of William Walton’s Façade the delightful experience one hoped it would be. The performance was competent without straying into the realm of the extraordinary or memorable. The seven instrumentalists knew their parts, and Lawrence Foster kept them ticking away efficiently, but the result was mostly foursquare, infused with more solemnity than wit. Narrators Lucy Shelton and John Rubinstein filled in the speaking parts reasonably well. Shelton presented a broader spectrum of vocal color and often looked up to direct Edith Sitwell’s bizarre texts toward the audience, whereas Rubinstein seemed intent on communicating only with his music stand. Neither truly caressed the words, which is what the piece screams out for, and both tended to overstress accented syllables and let the ones in between fend for themselves. They were often in a losing battle with the louder ensemble, and that is where a more sophisticated amplification system could have given them a fighting chance. A few of the 22 numbers stood apart in their effectiveness: “The Man from a Far Countree,” which Shelton enunciated with gravity; “Something Lies beyond the Scene,” where Rubinstein and the instrumentalists had forthright fun with the sprightly jazz inflections; and “Jodeling Song,” where the two narrators allowed insouciance to reign. On the whole, however, this was an earnest Façade that lacked abandon and mostly invited a shrug.
Façade was premiered in June 1923, just four months before Stravinsky unveiled his Octet for Winds, which figured on the Chamber Music Festival’s noon program on Aug. 2. Foster conducted, again clearly; but this time he achieved an incisive quality and the work came across as spiffy, as it should. The surprise on the program, however, was the piece that followed, Dohnányi’s Serenade for String Trio. The performing personnel changed at the last minute, after William Preucil, who was to have been the violinist, became estranged from his festival engagements due to #MeToo allegations. Musical chairs ensued. Ida Kavafian, who was to have played viola, reverted to her usual role as violinist; the viola part she was to have played was assumed by Steven Tenenbom, her husband; and Mark Kosower continued as cellist. This is a piece that can easily pass by without calling much attention to itself, but here the players dug into its possibilities. Their well balanced, finely tuned performance was filled with character, especially in the sparkle of the Scherzo, the melancholy mystery of the antique-flavored Theme and Variations, and the ebullient rondo finale. It was top-drawer chamber playing all around, with no electronics adding to the challenge.
Even the Santa Fe Desert Chorale was not exempt from malfunctioning technology. Cristo Rey Church was pelted by torrents of rain during the group’s Aug. 2 concert, conducted by Joshua Habermann — a program devoted to colonial-era music from the Jesuit missions of South America and Mexico. Much was made of its being a multimedia presentation, which meant that slides or slowly moving pictures of Latin American churches, art, and landscapes were projected onto a pair of large screens beside the choir while the pieces were sung. Sure enough: Boom went the thunder and out went the projections, for a considerable span. I doubt that anyone missed them much. The musical aspect of the performance, however, went smoothly and was enjoyable indeed.
The program employed all 24 of the Chorale’s singers, sometimes divided into sub-choirs or spotlighted as solo or small-ensemble performers. (Among the featured singers, tenor Stephen Soph earned best of show.) A group of instrumentalists from the Caminos del Inka organization assisted, affording considerable sonic variety. Percussion was employed to especially entertaining effect. The repertoire ranged from folk-like pieces (some in regional languages) to more formal liturgical settings, with one example each of psalm, antiphon, and sequence. Some of these pieces were likely brought to the New World by missionaries, while others would have been composed on this side of the ocean. Even the most involved of these works were relatively limited in their musical ambitions, restrained in harmonic breadth and academic in their counterpoint. An anonymous Veni Sanctus Spiritus, found in the archive of the Bolivian mission of Moxos, would remind a listener of mainstream Italian music from the tail-end of the Baroque by the likes of Porpora or Pergolesi. A large-scale Dixit Dominus by Juan de Araujo (a Spaniard who worked in Lima, Cuzco, and Sucre) demonstrated its composer’s comfort level with the old-style polyphony of Victoria or other late-Renaissance composers in Spain; and “A este sol peregrino,” by Tomás Torrejón y Velasco (another Spaniard active in Peru) sounded almost like a spirited movement from a Cavalli opera. ◀