One summer, two worlds of chamber music

Clockwise, Violinist Leila Josefowicz, Violinist-conductor Alan Gilbert, Composer Brett Dean, Pianist Juho Pohjonen, and Cellist Mark Kosower


The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 2021 season is a best-of-both-worlds scenario, says Executive Director Steven Ovitsky. “Because we work so far in advance, we couldn’t roll the 2020 season into this year,” he told Pasatiempo. “What audiences are going to hear is our plan for 2021, plus some exciting additions from 2020. In particular, we’ll have an unusually large number of commissions and premieres — eight in all — plus a new chamber opera composed by Marc Neikrug, our artistic director.”

Geographic variety and youth (at least by classical music standards) characterize the composers of the new works. Augusta Read Thomas (U.S.) and Brett Dean (Australia) are the grizzled veterans of the group, but both are just in their 50s. Helen Grime (Scotland), Huw Watkins (Wales), and Sean Shepherd (U.S.) are all in their 40s, Michael Seltenreich (Israel) is in his early 30s, and the participants in the festival’s development program for young composers, Lara Poe (Finland) and Jack Hughes (U.S) are wee sprouts still in their 20s.

When he talks about cooking up a chamber music festival season, Neikrug really does have a culinary approach in mind. “I’m a foodie, and I’ve seen some really good chefs shop for a special meal,” he says. “They don’t go in with a list, they make instinctive decisions based on what looks best in the market and what ingredients would pair best with each other.” Neikrug’s not a fan of programs with overt themes, so you won’t find A Night in Old Vienna on the schedule, but he does program with an ear toward the sonorities of different pieces and how they’ll work in sequence to take listeners on an emotive journey.

“Part of our mission is to perform the 60 or so iconic pieces that should be played and heard on a rotating basis,” Neikrug says, “so a portion of them become a foundation for each season. You see that reflected in our season-opening concerts [Sunday, July 18 and Monday, July 19], which have an early Beethoven string trio, Mozart’s Quintet for Horn and Strings, and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.”

Festival concerts often bring together a standard work, a premiere, and a contemporary classic, such as the program for Wednesday, July 21. The centerpiece is the U.S. premiere of Brett Dean’s Imaginary Ballet — Dances and Interludes for Piano and String Trio. Dean’s international profile took a great leap forward with the premiere of his opera Hamlet at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. The Guardian says of it, “New opera doesn’t often get to sound this good,” and American audiences will get to hear what sounds so good about it when it comes to the Metropolitan Opera in May and June 2022.

Flanking the Dean premiere are Franz Schubert’s justly popular Octet in F Major, a late, large-scale work intentionally modeled on Beethoven’s equally popular Septet in E-flat Major, and Rain Coming, a chamber orchestra piece by Toru Takemitsu, whose work fused Asian aesthetics with harmonies and instrumental timbres inspired by Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen.

Rain Coming will be conducted by Alan Gilbert, who was music director of the Santa Fe Opera from 2003 to 2006 and who has been a frequent collaborator with the chamber music festival over the years. Gilbert is also a first-rate violinist; he’ll be part of the ensemble for the Schumann piano quartet on the season-opening program, and he partners with legendary horn player Stefan Dohr and pianist Gilles Vonsattel for György Ligeti’s Horn Trio, “Hommage à Brahms,” on July 25 and 26.

Neikrug is palpably enthused about the festival’s July 24 concert. “I think it’s a walk-out-feeling-great program. The finale is Igor Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto. It’s scored for 15 players and comes from his neoclassical period, so it reflects the spirit and form of the baroque concerto grosso.” Vivaldi concertos for flute and for cello and bassoon precede it, as well as Ernesto Cavallini’s Grand Artistic Duet No. 2 for two clarinets. Cavallini was known as “The Paganini of the clarinet,” and Neikrug discovered the piece using one of his favorite techniques — asking festival participants what they like to play at home or in casual sessions with friends.

Solo piano recitals will be given by Gilles Vonsattel (Thursday, July 22), Cecile Licad ( July 27), Juho Pohjonen (Aug. 3), Kirill Gerstein (Aug. 17), and Zoltán Fejérvári (Aug. 18). Violinist Leila Josefowicz, a contemporary music luminary, joins Gerstein as the soloists in Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with 13 Wind Instruments on Aug. 8 and 9. “This program is going to be one of our ‘sleeper hits’ this summer,” Ovitsky predicted. “We have two incredible soloists and a knockout ensemble of wind players.”

Santa Fe Symphony Principal Conductor Guillermo Figueroa leads an Aug. 11 concert with the joyfully iconoclastic singer-composer HK Gruber performing one of his own pieces, Frankenstein!! A Pan-demonium (check out a sample at, along with instrumental works by Benjamin Britten and Brahms. The following day, Gruber partners with Gerstein for a noon program of songs by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, many undoubtedly set to texts by Bertolt Brecht.

J.S. Bach lovers have not one but two rare opportunities this summer. Mark Kosower, principal cello of the Cleveland Orchestra, plays all six of his Cello Suites, three on July 31 and three on Aug. 7, while Juho Pohjonen’s Aug. 3 piano traversal of the Goldberg Variations is followed on Aug. 21 by an arrangement for string trio.

Most festival concerts take place at St. Francis Auditorium, but several during the final week will be at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, including A Song by Mahler, Neikrug’s new opera, on Aug. 19. The song in question is “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If you love for beauty”) from the Rückert Lieder; in the opera, it’s the encore number for a married soprano and pianist whose relationship is challenged when she develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The festival offers two Summer Youth Concerts this year, one devoted to the music of Felix Mendelssohn on July 26 and one featuring Franz Joseph Haydn on Aug. 2. These free concerts are at 10 a.m. at St. Francis Auditorium. No tickets are required; adults must arrive with at least one child to be admitted.

SFCMF performances run from Sunday, July 18, through Aug. 23. Tickets are $28-$98 from 505-982-1890 or ◀

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