Voice of the Whale

July 17, Lensic Performing Arts Center

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival launched a new “Music at Noon” series on Wednesday with a satisfying and nicely varied program in which George Crumb’s pioneering composition Voice of the Whale (Vox balaenae) for Three Masked Players followed sonatas for violin and piano by Franz Schubert and Claude Debussy.

Schubert wrote his Sonatina in D Major in 1817, a year after Beethoven composed the last of his 10 celebrated violin and piano sonatas. (The complete Beethoven set will be performed during the Chamber Music Festival’s final week this summer.) Schubert idolized Beethoven, but for inspiration here, he looked back to the music of Mozart, who created sonatas in which the violin was less flashy than it became during the 1800s.

It’s a short piece, just 12 or 13 minutes in length, not particularly difficult to play, and the thematic development of the music is quite basic. In the right hands, however, its perfect proportions can deliver a great deal of charm, as it did here played by pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe and violinist Jennifer Frautschi. Roe can be a too-extroverted player at times, but for this piece, she found an appealing directness and simplicity. Frautschi was especially impressive in her lower-register playing, which was warm, rich, and full. Only some fuzzy-toned higher notes needed tweaking. The overall effect was classic Viennese gemütlichkeit, the warmth of hearing it well played in a cozy drawing room.

Debussy’s sonata dates from 1917 — exactly a century later — and it shares several characteristics with the Schubert, including its brevity and its use of the standard three-movement structure. It was part of a large-scale project urged on the composer by his publisher: to write six sonatas for “various instruments,” with the last to include all the instruments used in the previous five. Debussy was gravely ill with colorectal cancer when the project began and he completed only the first three, with this one being the last. He died soon afterward in March 1918.

His illness and the deprivations France endured during World War I hover not far from the surface of the piece, especially in the first two movements, aspects of which were nicely illuminated by Frautschi and Roe. The finale, marked as “very animated” in the score, is energetic and dance-like, with echoes of what at the time was called “gypsy music” and some jazzy rhythms, interrupted briefly by a languid interlude.

In 1970, a surprising group of popular new vocalists emerged — hundreds of humpback whales — on a recording of their eerie, haunting songs that became a multi-platinum hit, selling more than 2 million records. Suddenly, whale-inspired music seemed to be everywhere. The actual recordings were used by Judy Collins in her Whales & Nightingales album and by Alan Hovhaness in his symphonic poem “And God Created Great Whales.”

George Crumb took a less literal approach in Voice of the Whale (1971). Its three instrumentalists are amplified, and each uses a variety of unorthodox playing techniques — the flutist must play and sing into the instrument simultaneously; the pianist plucks strings by hand and alters their sound using a paper clip, a chisel, and a glass rod; and the cellist tunes his strings to unusual pitches and engages in call-and-response whistling with the flutist, to name just a few. The composer also specified that the players wear black masks, to suggest “the powerful impersonal forces of nature,” and hoped for “deep-blue stage lighting” during performances, both of which were provided by the festival.

The piece begins with a “wildly fantastic” vocalise for flute, suggesting a whale-like timbre. It ends with a parody of the famous theme from Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (known to film fans as the fanfare from 2001: A Space Odyssey). A “Sea-Theme” is then stated by the cello, followed by five variations, each depicting an evolutionary eon or era. The “Also Sprach Zarathustra” theme returns in the final variation, the Cenozoic era, which announces the arrival of mankind. The concluding “Sea-Nocturne” suggests “a larger rhythm of nature,” ending with “a suspension in time,” per the composer.

Pianist Roe, cellist Joseph Johnson, and flutist Tara Helen O’Connor gave totally committed and involved performances while remaining as neutral as possible physically. Performer emotionality is often a welcome aspect of concert-going, but not in this piece. The trio created an enormous array of sounds and colors, including lots of harmonics (those eerie, high-register sounds with no vibrato) from each instrument. Asian aesthetics, including hints of a Japanese flute and lute, and the masked drama of Noh theater, successfully suggested that the composer had an international agenda in mind.

It’s fascinating to see and hear, with lots of “how did they do that?” moments, but the real payoff is that the piece builds to a moving emotional climax, even as the music dies away at the end of the glistening “Sea-Nocturne.” The trio then continues “playing” in total silence for several seconds as the lights dim, which is a surprisingly powerful image. Voice of the Whale is once again timely, given the growing concerns over the state of our environment, and the performance here received a sustained ovation.

As part of the festival’s increased emphasis on lieder and song this year, the new Wednesday series includes three more vocal programs. On July 24, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sings works by Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss, followed on July 31 by bass-baritone Philippe Sly’s performance of Schubert’s great song cycle, Winter Journey (Winterreise). Susan Graham, Santa Fe’s favorite mezzo, returns on Aug. 7 for a program that includes Berlioz’s radiant Summer Nights (Les Nuits d’été). The song component of the series is slated to expand to four concerts in 2020 and all five in 2021.