An 1839 painting of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy by James Warren Childe

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival launches its 2019 season on Sunday, July 14, with a concert highlighted by the New Mexico premiere of IF, a monodrama for soprano and ensemble by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison. Works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schubert are also on the program, which will be repeated on Monday, July 15.

“The Chamber Music Festival’s relationship with John Harbison goes back decades,” says artistic director Marc Neikrug. “He’s now a composer of great stature, so when I found out we could join the group commissioning the score, we jumped at it. The text for IF is a German Romantic-era poem called If From the Distance, and it treats many of the same themes that Schubert addressed almost 200 years earlier in The Shepherd on the Rock for soprano, clarinet, and piano. That’s why we programmed them together.”

Soloist Sarah Shafer called the work beautifully challenging. “And it’s becoming more and more natural to sing as I work on it. There are lots of dramatic turns in the text, and they evoke a wide range of emotions. The Schubert is also a work for a solo singer. I think it’s his only successful opera. It has three scenes, with the clarinet playing an important role in each one. It goes from evoking my character’s past to intertwining with my current emotions to becoming the hope and joy that finally start to bubble up from my heart.”

The other works on the program reflect young composers finding their compositional voices.

Beethoven was a celebrated piano virtuoso by 1797, as well as an ambitious composer. The Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano demonstrates his willingness to let the then newfangled clarinet come to the fore, with graceful accompaniments by cello and piano. One of the most beloved pieces of chamber music ever written, Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings is an astonishingly advanced work for a 16-year-old composer. It features joyfully energetic first and last movements, a scherzo that anticipates the gossamer music he would write for Midsummer Night’s Dream years later, and exceptionally showy music for the first violin throughout — a tribute to his own violin teacher.

The Chamber Music Festival’s new initiative is a five-performance noonday series on Wednesdays, which has a special emphasis on solo vocal music, including Lieder and art songs by Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Berlioz. Schubert’s complete song cycle Die Winterreise is a highlight sung on July 31.

“For 20 years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to support the lieder and art song repertory,” says Neikrug, “and now I think I’ve got it. The concerts are around an hour long, which is perfect for a song program. Three of the five Wednesdays will have vocal music this year, then four next year, and all five in 2021.”

The overall shape of the 47th season is similar to those in years past, with 45 concerts performed by 87 musicians in St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Lensic Performing Arts Center, over a 37-day span. The most noteworthy piece of festival programming comes during the final week, with Beethoven’s complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano performed over three consecutive evenings (Aug. 13, 14, and 15). It’s a special opportunity for Santa Feans and visitors to trace Beethoven’s artistic development over a 14-year period, in the talented hands of violinist Ida Kavafian and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who are internationally renowned for their work as soloists and in small ensembles.

The festival has a laudable and long-standing commitment to new work — which is in full view on Aug. 2, with three string quartet world premieres. Michael Gandolfi, whose work has been described as “tuneful, tonal, and inspired by world and popular music,” contributes his String Quartet: Dissembling the Essential, an homage to his teacher Oliver Knussen. Works by Matthew Ricketts and Alex Stephenson come via the Festival’s Young Composers String Quartet Project, now in its seventh year.

Festival executive director Steven Ovitsky sees the “Britten Serenade” program on Aug. 7 as one of the sleeper hits of the season. “Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland is the 20th century’s greatest piece for solo guitar,” he says. “It’s a haunting theme and variations, but it goes backwards, starting with the variations and ending with the theme. The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings features tenor Paul Appleby and horn player Stefan Dohr, conducted by David Zinman. Appleby is one of America’s best young lyric tenors, and Dohr may just be the greatest horn player alive today.”

There’s no such thing as a chamber music festival without a solo piano recital, and this year there are five, two of which offer stimulating thematic programming. Kirill Gerstein’s July 18 recital includes two works with a political bent, Funérailles from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and Leoš Janáček's Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (From the Street, October 1, 1905). The Liszt memorializes the Hungarians who died in a failed independence uprising in 1848-1849; the Janáček is a tribute to a young worker killed during demonstrations in favor of establishing a Czech university in Brno. Zoltán Fejérvári’s undoubtedly more lighthearted Aug. 13 program features Schumann’s Humoreske in B-flat major, contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann’s Eleven Humoresques, and Three Burlesques by Béla Bartók.

Movie buffs should check out the July 23 matinee. The Escher Quartet plays Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s String Quartet in D major, which is based, in part, on music from his renowned film scores, including Between Two Worlds and The Sea Wolf.

There’s also a great contemporary example in Alfred Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn, a mash-up of Mozart and Haydn for dueling violinists on July 31. If your taste runs to the Romantic era, opt for Aug. 14 and Janáˇcek’s charming Concertino, which depicts a forest full of animals, including grumpy hedgehogs and fidgety squirrels.

The festival opens many of its working rehearsals to the public at no admission charge. Each Thursday, the schedule for the following week is posted on the website. Youth Concerts are offered at 10 a.m. on four consecutive Mondays — July 15, 22, and 29, and Aug. 5 — at the New Mexico Museum of Art. They’re free of charge, and adults must bring at least one child to be admitted. ◀


▼ Mendelssohn Octet

▼ 6 p.m. Sunday, July 14 and Monday, July 15

▼ Pre-concert talk with composer John Harbison at 5 p.m. both days

▼ New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave.

▼ Tickets $70-$95, discounts available; 505-982-1890,