Santa Fe Pro Musica: Revolutionaries and Romantics, Sept. 18, Lensic Performing Arts Center

Santa Fe Symphony: Brahms, Wagner, & Dvořák, Sept. 25, Lensic Performing Arts Center

Orchestra season got up and running during the past two weekends as Santa Fe Pro Musica, led by Thomas O’Connor, gave its first concerts of 2016-2017 on Sept. 17 and 18 (we caught the latter), and the Santa Fe Symphony, with guest conductor Roderick Cox, did the same on Sept. 25, in both cases at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. About a fifth of the players overlap between the two groups, which in part reflects the available talent pool. The shared personnel are most prominent in the strings, and within that family, especially in the violins. In fact, the biggest challenge for orchestral programming hereabouts must be to select repertoire that is within reasonably firm grasp of the violins — not just the chairs toward the front but throughout the depth of the sections. Winds and percussion present less of a personnel challenge. An orchestra requires far fewer representatives of each of those instrumental groups, and there are usually plenty of adept practitioners to fill an ensemble’s needs. This is the area from which the two orchestras derive most of their distinct sonic profiles, displaying relative strengths in this or that wind department. Speaking of overlap, should you go to a concert of the New Mexico Philharmonic in Albuquerque, you would find that half of that orchestra consists of faces familiar from one or the other (or both) of these Santa Fe orchestras.

O’Connor met the string challenge head-on in his Pro Musica concert by including three short movements for strings alone by Jennifer Higdon, the much-played American composer whose opera Cold Mountain was premiered here a summer ago. Of those three items, the most appealing was the middle one, String Lake, a placid piece in which she gave free rein to her Barberesque propensities. The musicians achieved luxurious tone borne on rich, dense harmonies, while an expanse spotlighting the principal players was laudable in its precision and transparency. The program note suggested that the opening piece of the triptych, To the Point, had some connection to the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan that inspired Debussy. Britten or Bloch crossed my mind instead of Debussy or gamelan; and in any case, this perky fugato struck me as a rather pro-forma piece in which Higdon unspooled her music in rote-like fashion. The third piece, String, came off as a simplistic composition, a neo-modernist effort that wended its way to a folksy jig. It involved much trading-off of lines among the string instruments, which was accomplished with finesse, and it challenged the violins by goosing them way up into their high range.

The concert began with an enjoyable rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, one of the composer’s finest achievements in the field of comedy. The fast movements bustled along genially. The slow movement was on the quick side, too, or so it felt; in fact, it may have been less a matter of the tempo per se than of spirit, which did not really seem attuned to the idea of an Adagio. One always looks forward to the beginning of the recapitulation in the last movement. There, where one would expect the full orchestra to pound out the main theme, Beethoven instead gives the tune to just a solo bassoon, chortling along merrily (and marked dolce — sweetly — which I think was perhaps a wicked taunt from the composer). Bassoonist Crawford Best did well by it.

Higdon had offered us premonitions of Barber. The second half was given over to Barber himself, which is, on the whole, to be preferred. Joshua Roman was the charismatic soloist in the composer’s Cello Concerto, which is not quite so winning an achievement as Barber’s Violin Concerto but does not fall far short of it. Roman’s interpretations of contemporary music have been attracting a good deal of attention, but he also proved a magnetic player in this more classic work from 1945. One wants considerable mellowness from a cello, and this Roman possessed; but his tone was also characterized by the slightest bit of grit at the periphery, the tiniest measure of huskiness, which gave his playing an expressive edge that surpassed mere prettiness. His performance grew downright gripping in the first-movement cadenza, where the emotive canvas is enlarged still further through the extensive use of harmonics. Barber’s concerto reaches its height in the slow movement, where oboist Kevin Vigneau admirably delivered an obbligato part so extensive as to qualify him almost as a co-soloist. O’Connor controlled the orchestra carefully throughout, never allowing it to swamp the cellist (which can happen so easily in performances of cello concertos) yet affording it plenty of bite in the more threatening passages of the finale. The piece concludes suddenly — Barber had perennial trouble with endings — but not before Roman impressed with more thrills in another cadenza.

The Santa Fe Symphony also had a fine young string player to spotlight in its concert: Alexi Kenney, returning for his third visit to the orchestra, this time toting a Stradivarius lent to him by the New England Conservatory, to which it was recently donated from the estate of an alumnus. This was one of ten Strads owned by the eminent 19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim, and it may even have been the one on which he performed the premiere of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which happened to be Kenney’s vehicle for the afternoon. I don’t think anything is gained when the orchestra’s printed program inflates this to say that it was that violin, which is unverifiable; nor do I believe that it is right to repeat the information Kenney disseminates about being “the recipient of top prizes at the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition (2012),” among other competitions, when in fact he won third place in that one — a prize, but not a top one. The insinuation qualifies as an injustice to the two violinists who beat him, and it is high time that he retire this from his résumé.

He played beautifully. The Brahms Concerto is not the most vivacious of pieces, and the first movement (Allegro non troppo) had a very relaxed feel to it, which is not abnormal. Kenney had the work thoroughly in hand, but he seemed to inject more vibrant articulation into the cadenza, which was (appropriately) the one penned by Joachim, than into the piece proper. On the other hand, the slow movement flowed a bit more quickly than one usually hears, yielding not really the Adagio that Brahms marked. Kenney’s sweet tone and gracefully molded phrases were exemplary here, as was his dexterity in the finale. He followed up with an encore: the Sarabande from Bach’s D-minor Unaccompanied Partita, which he infused with sonic purity and constrained elegance. As in the concerto’s cadenza, I found Kenney’s playing at its most satisfying when he was on his own. Perhaps that has to do with having limited experience playing with orchestras — understandable for a young soloist — but maybe it’s something in his temperament.

The program opened with a listless interpretation of the “Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla” from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, in which the symphony’s brass section did not entirely rise to the occasion, and it concluded with a spirited reading of Dvorˇák’s Symphony From the New World, which proved more successful. Cox, who has been the assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and was recently promoted to associate conductor, has a fluid conducting style. The ensemble’s response to some of his initial downbeats suggested it may be just a shade too fluid, but once the movements got rolling, they flowed buoyantly. Several of the orchestra’s players should be specially applauded for the high quality of their solo input: the French horn section in the first movement, English hornist Vigneau (Pro Musica’s oboist) in the second, and clarinetist Lori Lovato in the third.

Assuming it is just a coincidence, an unwitting beneficiary of the Santa Fe Symphony’s program will be the New Mexico Philharmonic. Next April 22, at Albuquerque’s Popejoy Hall, Roberto Minczuk will be leading that orchestra in a concert comprising Brahms’ Violin Concerto (with Jennifer Koh as soloist) and Dvorˇák’s Symphony From the New World. The players who also perform with the Santa Fe Symphony will already have those two pieces on the front burner. Perhaps Minczuk will add some Wagner to start. It rather reminds one of George Bernard Shaw’s observation about such a confluence in London during the “Mozart Year” of 1891: “The Crystal Palace committed itself to the Jupiter Symphony and the Requiem; and the Albert Hall, by way of varying the entertainment, announced the Requiem and the Jupiter Symphony.” ◀

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