Performance Santa Fe begins its 80th season this week with the sixth installment of its Festival of Song concerts featuring (mostly) singers who are appearing on the summer’s roster at the Santa Fe Opera. The organization introduced the series in 2011, the very first of those concerts being a recital by the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, whose career has moved markedly upward since then. Unfortunately, this year it has also been moving in directions that don’t lead to Santa Fe, such that she withdrew not only from the cast of Don Giovanni at the Opera but also from the duo recital she was slated to share with baritone Daniel Okulitch, who is currently singing the title role in that work. In the event, her place will be taken by soprano Keri Alkema, who is also filling her shoes as Donna Elvira at the Opera — so we shall have a joint recital by the libidinous Lothario and his cast-off conquest after all. Their program consists entirely of music by Glen Roven, who is in the midst of a remarkable career that spans concert music, musical theater, recording, and music direction for television. Alkema is set to sing his Six Ancient Chinese Songs (with PSF’s artistic director Joseph Illick accompanying) and to join Okulitch in an excerpt from Roven’s Goodnight Moon, based on the well-known children’s book. What the local audience is probably looking forward to the most is Roven’s The Santa Fe Songs, set to texts by poets associated with our town, including Jimmy Santiago Baca, Jane Lin, N. Scott Momaday, and Valerie Martínez. Roven himself will assist in this performance, which will feature Okulitch. The baritone’s appearance as a recitalist is all the more highly anticipated thanks to the pristine, nuanced singing he has brought to his portrayal of Don Giovanni. This opening concert takes place at the Scottish Rite Center at 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 28.
The remainder of the Festival of Song continues apace thereafter. The impressive soprano Angela Meade is not performing at the Opera this year, but she is spending time here because her husband, tenor John Matthew Myers, is one of the company’s apprentice singers. Hers is a relatively rare type of voice, variously described as a spinto coloratura or a dramatic coloratura, which suggests that it combines vocal heft, agility, and plush timbre through a range that reaches high when necessary — a soprano for Bellini’s Norma, for example, or Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, or for Verdi’s Requiem, which is the part I last heard her sing. Apparently she would rather be singing opera than lieder, since a good deal of her Festival of Song recital on July 31 is given over to arias, but she does at least offer some art song selections by Bellini, Liszt, and Strauss. Soprano Leah Crocetto, appearing at the Opera as Donna Anna, has a voice of a not dissimilar sort, which she will bring to bear on arias from Rossini’s Semiramide and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, as well as art songs by Strauss, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff.
At the Opera, tenor Ben Bliss and baritone Joshua Hopkins are appearing in Capriccio as adversaries in the battle for the countess’ affections — Bliss as the composer Flamand, Hopkins as the poet Olivier. But they will have to be on the same page at their joint recital on Aug. 7, at least at the concert’s end, when they join for duets from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles and Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Working up to that, Hopkins makes a tour of Vaughan Williams’ much-loved Songs of Travel and Bliss offers a sampling of songs by Britten, Duparc, and Chausson, among others. Both of these artists should prove well suited to the repertoire they have chosen. Hopkins has made a charming impression at the Opera in seasons past, most memorably as Nardo in La finta giardiniera, Sid in Albert Herring, and a baseball-cap-bedecked Papageno in Die Zauberflöte; readers of these pages may recall our enthusiastic response to Bliss as Tamino in the Los Angeles Opera’s performances of Die Zauberflöte this past winter. Also during the coming month, PSF presents the annual visit of Stars of American Ballet, headed by New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht. The group, which includes several NYCB principals and soloists as well as dancers from other companies, offers two separate programs on Aug. 10 and 11.
During the fall-through-spring season, the pickings grow sadly slim for classical music lovers. Performance Santa Fe adopted its name in April 2014 after decades of being known as the Santa Fe Concert Association. This “rebranding” was at least partly occasioned by the fact that the organization, which formerly offered classical concerts and comparatively little else, was now presenting a greater variety of offerings. The 2016-17 season clarifies the extent to which this is true. Apart from the four Festival of Song recitals, the season’s only full-fledged classical concerts will be a return recital by pianist Stephen Hough on Nov. 29 (playing Schubert, Franck, Liszt, and his own Sonata III, Trinitas), a Christmas program with The King’s Singers (Dec. 5), and the traditional orchestral concerts led by Illick on Christmas Eve (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring Claire Huangci) and New Year’s Eve (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). On Jan. 21, the nine-member “vocal orchestra” Roomful of Teeth performs a signature program, which one expects will draw heavily on “world music” sounds and aesthetics; and Illick continues his Notes on Music lecture series, which this season focuses on Wagner’s Lohengrin (Aug. 30), the art of conducting (Oct. 4), and Schubert ( Jan. 31, the composer’s birthday).
Among PSF’s “family events,” one notes particularly its production, in abridged form, of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan (Jan. 13-15). It is a surprising selection, since in recent years the piece has become a hot potato due to its stereotypical portrayal of Asian characters. Perhaps this will be a nontraditional revision, but the photos in PSF’s brochure suggest otherwise.
The remainder of the season is given over to what the industry calls “attractions,” packaged shows designed for general-interest audiences and maximum marketability. Three of the attractions PSF will host are managed by Columbia Artists Management Inc. (CAMI), the New York-based mega-agent of the concert world. CAMI shows tend to be slick, energetic, and amplified. That is what we can expect of the Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China (Oct. 6), The Havana Cuba All-Stars (Nov. 10), and Taj Express (April 12). CAMI describes the last, for example, as “a fusion of film, dance, and music,” a “dazzling international sensation” that captures “the vibrant, expressive spirit of the world of Bollywood movies that have been entertaining billions of people in India for generations.” Two other attractions, not from the CAMI portfolio, may be a bit less ornate. Cuisine and Confessions (Feb. 21-22) is a production of the Montréal-based contemporary-circus company Les 7 doigts de la main, which says it combines the group’s “usual eye-popping flight of acrobatic choreography and pulsating music” with senses associated with the kitchen — “the touch of hands in batter, the smell of cookies baking, the taste of roasted oregano” — in a performance that includes the actual preparation of food and the audience’s consumption of same. Rounding out the season is Well-Strung (March 14), an ever-so-gay string quartet comprising four talented, gym-sculpted gentlemen who sing and play in a crossover style that references classical, pop, and country music.
There’s nothing wrong with attractions. Audiences have every reason to hope that all of these will hew to high artistic standards. But two points ought to be made. The first is that Performance Santa Fe was serious about its rebranding. It is no longer the Santa Fe Concert Association in deed as well as in name. During this 80th-anniversary season, it can point back with pride to a legacy that regularly brought to town pianists like Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, and András Schiff; violinists like Yehudi Menuhin, Joshua Bell, and Gil Shaham; singers like Feodor Chaliapin, Kathleen Ferrier, and George London; and ensembles like the Cleveland Quartet, Kronos Quartet, and Beaux Arts Trio. “Much has changed since 1937,” states the group’s website, “but Performance Santa Fe continues its mission to present and produce the best in performing arts, and to enliven the hearts, minds, and spirits of the community through artistic excellence.” Classical-music lovers, who are abundant in Santa Fe, may adopt a wait-and-see stance for the time being.
The other shift is perhaps less obvious. The PSF events that fall in the attractions category will be held at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, which is entirely appropriate given the theater’s capacity and technical possibilities. But all of them are the sorts of attractions that, in the past, have characteristically been presented not just at the Lensic but by the Lensic. For many audience members, the distinction is meaningless; they buy their tickets the same way, they sit in the same hall, and they have no reason to care what invisible party has made the arrangements that make the evening possible. The Lensic has been rented out for world-music, world-dance, and crossover performances in the past, but by and large, the full scope of producing and presenting such events seems to have been a high-profile part of that organization’s home turf. The Lensic is currently in the throes of a management transition that, from the outside looking in, appears none too smooth. It is accordingly difficult to prophesy what its programming stance will be when things settle down. PSF could not have foreseen this when it planned its current season. From one perspective, you could view it as a happy coincidence that PSF is bringing in so many general-audience attractions at a moment when the Lensic is probably not booking big acts very far in advance.
For my part — and my part includes speaking on behalf of Santa Fe’s lovers of serious concert music — I don’t really care who presents eminent concert performers as long as somebody does. A kind of ecology applies to a city’s concert life, and a healthy ecosystem always involves diversity. During the summer, our musical scene overflows; although one might like to see it tweaked this way or that, its greatest challenge is overpopulation. Santa Fe has also struck a good balance during what in other cities is the “normal” concert season, with Performance Santa Fe being the principal purveyor of big-name classical-music talent. Other organizations add importantly to the mix, to be sure. Santa Fe Pro Musica, for example, usually presents recitals by a couple of acclaimed soloists or ensembles every year, and this year the Santa Fe Symphony will be experimenting with Pro Musica’s model of having a concerto soloist also offer a solo recital. Nonetheless, it is PSF that has assumed the greatest responsibility for top-tier classical music recitals, and it has done so commendably over the course of fourscore years. I would like to see them continue along the same lines. But if they are intent on heading in a different direction, I hope the new administration at the Lensic, when it is finally in place, will leap in to occupy the niche for what is an essential strand of Santa Fe’s cultural life. ◀
Performance Santa Fe’s Festival of Song series takes place at 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 28, and on July 31, Aug. 4, and Aug. 7. Recitals take place at the Scottish Rite Center (463 Paseo de Peralta). Tickets ($45-$75) for these recitals, as well as for ensuing events during the 2016-17 season, are available through www.performancesantafe.org (505-984-8759) or www.ticketssantafe.org (505-988-1234).