Two kinds of concerts fill the calendar each December. The majority are styled as Christmas events, purveying good cheer by way of familiar seasonal standards, maybe with some newfangled festal fare mixed in. But “concert life as usual” also pursues its reliable course through the month, serving a solid diet of classical music with no overlay of jingle bells, unless Mahler’s Fourth should happen to be on the program. Most of my concert-going last month was given over to the latter kind, and it filled my heart with gladness because it included some of the best local listening I have experienced so far this season.
The only “holiday” aspect to Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra’s Dec. 29 concert was its date. It has been a pleasure to witness this chamber orchestra’s steady improvement over the years to a point of admirable mastery. Thomas O’Connor, its music director, put together a program that was anything but ordinary — one, in fact, that challenged the audience as well as the musicians. The substantial program opener was Falla’s El Amor brujo (Love, the Magician), a pungent piece at the intersection of nationalism and modernism. The composer unveiled it in 1915 as a staged theater piece consisting of short songs, dialogues, and dances accompanied by 15 musicians, but a decade later he enlarged it into a more standard ballet with a larger orchestra, the version played here. O’Connor led a tasteful performance, decisive in its contours yet smoothing out some of the roughness — and even violence — that lurks around the edges.
An especially memorable flavor infused the Andante tranquillo section of the Intermedio (Pantomima) movement. This is one of Falla’s inspired pages of orchestration, with solos from a muted horn, a flute, and a cello sounding against a string section that mixes various techniques: first violins play sul ponticello (with bows near the instrument’s bridge), second violins and double basses play pizzicato, violas play sul tasto (with bows touching the strings up over the fingerboard), section cellos play “normally,” and the piano lets loose sparkling eruptions like distant shooting stars. In this way, Falla gives a conductor the most punctilious instructions about how to interpret this section, but there’s a lot to attend to. O’Connor balanced the passage with hushed dynamics that underscored the balminess of the gently swaying rhythms.
The rest of the program featured American composers. Copland’s Music for the Theatre, from 1925, is a five-movement curiosity from his early years — not a piece related to any particular theatrical production but something he felt suggested a theatrical spirit in a general way. This dates from when the idea of “symphonic jazz” was brand new — Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example, had appeared just the preceding year — and Copland threw his hat into the ring with this suite, working stretches alluding to jazz and vaudeville into what is at heart a resolutely symphonic piece. The trumpets and trombones had great fun in the blowsy “Burlesque” movement. The suite is an evocative period piece, the exact musical equivalent to what art aficionados find in Martin Lewis’ coeval prints of working-class urbanism.
A Leonard Bernstein Memory is a five-minute piece by Santa Fe composer Aaron Stern, a protégé of that monumental personality of American music. He wrote it upon learning of Bernstein’s death, in 1990. If Copland’s piece had prefigured Bernstein in many ways, Stern’s literally “post-figured” him. Its ghostly textures were inhabited by string contours swirling around a theme suggestive of the “Dies irae,” the liturgical chant for the dead. This short piece wept, perhaps inspired just a touch by Bernstein’s beloved Mahler.
Copland and Stern having evoked Bernstein from fore and aft, O’Connor concluded with a work by the man himself, Bernstein’s Serenade After Plato’s “Symposium,” featuring solo violinist Benjamin Beilman. Bernstein was serious about his appreciation of literature but could sometimes seem heavy-handed in underscoring how his music related to it. This is a case in point, and I’m not sure one gains very much by trying to hear Bernstein as Plato. The Serenade, which is being played seemingly everywhere during this centennial of the composer’s birth, is an enjoyable piece that strolls through a number of the styles of which Bernstein was a master. The first movement seems cut from some of the same cloth as his opera Candide (which we’ll hear at Santa Fe Opera this summer), the third has some of the bustling pungency of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, and the slow fourth movement might have some kinship to Samuel Barber. Beilman brought a super-sweet tone and gracious gentility to his interpretation. As an encore, he offered the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s E-major Partita for Unaccompanied Violin.
The Performance Santa Fe Orchestra, conducted by Joe Illick, has been a staple of the city’s late-December music-making. The ensemble convenes for only two programs each year (each played twice) on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It has stressed meat-and-potatoes repertoire and, in recent years, has imported soloists of considerable repute as well as a number of musicians to fill key chairs in the orchestra. The evening’s featured soloist was pianist Joyce Yang, a repeat visitor on the orchestra’s programs. She rendered Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with élan. Although she was completely up to the challenge of the work’s great technical demands, she seemed at heart a lyrical artist, bringing particular elegance to the more overtly graceful variations.
On New Year’s Eve, Augustin Hadelich was the spectacular soloist in Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto. The first movement of this thrice-familiar piece can easily come off as glib, but Hadelich made it electrifying, his precise vigor combining with just a touch of grittiness. He displayed gorgeous legato in the long-spanning phrases of the Andante, yet he ended his opening “paragraph” of that slow movement with an unusually fast trill. Then follows a section in double-stops; there, the fluttering repeated notes of the lower, accompanimental line pushed forward insistently as the violin’s main melody unrolled above. Such details helped energize what might fall into languid torpor in a more casual performance. The finale was enchanting, filled with nuances of bowing and articulation, covering a sonic palette that included even some super-cute ascending arpeggios that could have been chirped by Betty Boop.
One might think of Hadelich as a Romantic player not terribly far removed from Classical roots. His playing is filled with both imagination and discipline without coming across as stern. I wondered if Paganini might have played somewhat like this. And then, called back for a well-earned solo encore, Hadelich performed music by none other than Paganini — his difficult Caprice No. 24. That happens to be the piece that inspired Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which many in the house would have heard just a week earlier — a choice, we were later informed, that Hadelich had made with precisely that connection in mind.
New Year’s Eve was the end for the Performance Santa Fe Orchestra. It has been part of our holiday scene since 2008, which is the year Illick was named the head of Performance Santa Fe, then called the Santa Fe Concert Association. He stepped down from that position in 2016 to concentrate on other aspects of his career, which include being artistic director of the Fort Worth Opera. But fear not: The holiday-season orchestral concerts will continue under the aegis of the Lensic Performing Arts Center, which is where the concerts have always taken place anyway. Going forward, they will fall under the “Lensic Presents” banner. The change looks to be essentially administrative, and from the audience’s point of view, the 2018 New Year’s Eve symphonic concert will probably feel very much like the one just past, with Illick assembling and conducting the orchestra.
The Christmas Eve concert will change more. Joel Aalberts, the Lensic’s executive director since 2016, brought us up to speed on where things stand. “As a community performing arts center,” he said, “one of our goals is to provide equitable use of our calendar space to the groups that use us. One of the things I heard when I arrived was the interest the Santa Fe Symphony and Santa Fe Pro Musica expressed about obtaining choice holiday performance dates.” The plan is that the plum Christmas Eve slot will be bounce from year to year between those groups, at least. Aalberts reports that Performance Santa Fe has also recently expressed interest, so it is possible that they may enter the rotation as well. “We’re still working on how things will all fall into place,” Aalberts said, “but we expect to finalize the plans before long.” The long and short of it is that in upcoming Decembers, one or another of our local classical-music groups will give a concert at the Lensic on Christmas Eve, and on New Year’s Eve the Lensic will host Illick and a symphony orchestra convened annually for the occasion. ◀