On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 22, Guillermo Figueroa ascended the podium of the Santa Fe Symphony at the Lensic Performing Arts Center for his first concert with the group since being named its principal conductor last spring. One assumes that an incoming conductor will craft his inaugural appearance to underscore specific points about his artistic vision, perhaps showcasing a favorite contemporary composer or a preferred figure of the past (Figueroa often cites Berlioz as a passion). Reading the tea leaves of this concert allowed no ambiguity; it pledged allegiance to absolute traditionalism in concert format and repertoire. That would not be a cause for complaint for anyone who wants things to remain pretty much as they have been. Many members of the Symphony’s audience may have been relieved that this defining concert — heralded as “a new maestro in the new year!” — looked unswervingly to classical music’s past rather than to its future.
The playlist was a solid example of the standard concert formula of overture-concerto-symphony. Here that translated into Sibelius’s Finlandia, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, works that have been in the repertoire since 1899, 1774, and 1885, respectively. There was no overlooking the degree to which the program mirrored the “audition concert” Figueroa led here last February, which clinched his selection for the job; it comprised Weber’s Der Freischütz Overture (premiered in 1821), Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (1775), and Dvoˇrák’s Symphony No. 8 (1890). Last weekend’s concert therefore did not suggest a broadening of objectives or aspirations from when we last checked in.
Finlandia is a surefire choice if you’re looking for a stirring piece — it galvanized the Finns in their path toward independence — and the ensemble communicated it effectively. But the performance was also instructive in that, from the opening pages, it clarified the work that should lie ahead in terms of orchestra-building. The soggy blend of the brass section did not convey the snarling, threatening crispness that can put listeners on the edge of their seats at the outset. When the woodwinds responded with a more hopeful suggestion by way of a chorale phrase — and when, later in the piece, they expanded that idea into the piece’s “big tune” — individual players stuck out from what is meant to embody the absorbing of single voices into a unified whole.
Stefanie Przybylska, the orchestra’s principal bassoonist, was the soloist in the concerto. She played it with the security of someone who has had it under her belt for decades, negotiating its broad leaps with confidence. Her sound was at its most attractive in sustained notes, where tones gradually located their center and blossomed in vibrancy.
The orchestra’s best playing came in Brahms’ Fourth, and particularly in its second movement (Andante moderato). It sounded as if Figueroa had spent a great deal of rehearsal time coaching the strings here. Dividends came in the form of careful ensemble phrasing (in both pizzicato and bowed passages) and — in the case of the violins — a richer timbre than was their wont elsewhere. The soaring, syncopated climax, marked forte and espressivo, was both of those things. The third movement, the ebullient scherzo, was also realized with panache. If the first and last movements seemed rather less fully digested, the interior movements provided a glimpse of what this orchestra might aspire to. In a speech at the concert’s outset, Figueroa spoke of his intentions to make the Santa Fe Symphony one of the great orchestras of the American Southwest and, indeed, of the whole United States. We will all be the beneficiaries of his succeeding.
Chamber music: Roomful of Teeth
The preceding evening ( Jan. 21), Performance Santa Fe hosted the a-cappella vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth at St. Francis Auditorium. This octet-plus-conductor gained prominence when one of its members, Caroline Shaw, was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music in recognition of her Partita for 8 Voices, which she had composed for the group. That four-movement piece, which is laid out along the contours of a Baroque dance-suite, runs about 25 minutes, but the musicians offered only a single movement of it, the five-and-a-half-minute Allemande, which launched their program. The ancestry of this cheerful, entertaining composition might be traced to around 1960 and specifically to the precise perkiness of the Swingle Singers (in their bippity-bippity happy mode) and the Beat-inspired Word Jazz of Ken Nordine. Shaw’s Allemande opens with spoken text enunciated in counterpoint, but it soon breaks into a hearty, buoyant tune belted out in brash Balkan mode. The work is obviously conceived as a vehicle for the specific style of Roomful of Teeth, which draws its wide-ranging vocal techniques from a variety of ethnic singing methods as well as the Western choral tradition. The group’s interpretation can be considered definitive.
One wished Shaw’s entire Partita had been programmed — all the more so in light of Ted Hearne’s tedious Coloring Book, which occupied the next half hour instead. Make that 40 minutes, because Hearne was on hand to introduce the piece, which he did in lengthy comments that included a certain amount of oversharing. (Sorry about your troubled relationship with your dad, Ted.) The piece’s five movements set texts by three African-American writers — Zora Neale Hurston, Claudia Rankine, and James Baldwin. The composer expressed that he, as a white male, worried that appropriating these words might be an act of arrogation. We can’t solve that issue for him, but at least the audience didn’t have to grapple with it much since his overlaid textures rendered almost all the words unintelligible. He also reported that he was very attentive in the matter of text-setting. He may have been, but what gets put on the page can be different from what reaches the audience. Some of the most memorable bits involved percussive vocal effects.
The fault may not lie entirely with Hearne’s piece. Roomful of Teeth is a much-amplified ensemble. This intensifies their brightness, which seems not inappropriate given their optimistic mien overall. But much is also lost in the bargain. An electronified veneer ends up equalizing the effect of the eight individual voices. Ironically, that takes away from their distinguishing strength, which is the minute gradation of tone and the sonic variety provided by disparate singing styles. What is meant to expand the sonic palette ends up constraining it to some degree. Welcome to the uneasy overlap of pop and classical app-roaches to music-making. The electronic balance was often bass-heavy, and the sounds were almost always enhanced by substantial reverb. Honestly, it gave me a headache. Damon Lange was credited as the sound engineer.
That, in any case, is how I experienced it from my seat at the very rear of the auditorium. During intermission, I moved to a place farther to the front, and the acoustic was less boomy. From there, one could hear both the “live voices” and the “electronic voices,” with the latter not being entirely overpowering. From this perspective I enjoyed Caleb Burhans’ Beneath (inspired by an episode of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a pleasant movement employing a good deal of throat-singing (of the Tuvan tradition, I think), and a promise in the stillness, a lovely, contemplative piece by on-the-rise jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (not a jazz composition, though). The concert concluded with Otherwise, by the group’s director, Brad Wells, who wrote that it “features Sardinian cantu a tenore-inspired singing, belting, and some yodeling all in a melange to highlight a baritone in full bel canto glory.” It delivered on its promise. Wells’ note also provided the helpful information that “the title comes from one of my favorite Jane Kenyon poems but uses no text, only non-sense syllables as lyrics.” I don’t know if he had to pay royalties to her estate. ◀