Santa Fe Symphony starts the new year with something new

Mary Elizabeth Bowden and Vivian Fung at the world premiere of Fung’s trumpet concerto, performed by the Erie Philharmonic


Santa Fe Symphony, The Lensic Performing Arts Center, Jan. 16

The Santa Fe Symphony launched the 2022 concert year with a program featuring a Mozart symphony, a Haydn concerto, an overture that’s an orchestral showpiece, and a co-commissioned premiere that had very unusual but highly welcome aspects.

Mozart’s final symphony, No. 41, the so-called “Jupiter,” had something of a dual personality issue. In his curtain speech to the audience, conductor Guillermo Figueroa described it as an epitome of classicism, with a first movement that’s “made of marble” and an overall “pinnacle of Enlightenment rationality” quality.

In performance, Figueroa’s musical approach seemed to derive more from the long-standing Romantic-era traditions than the current thinking about classical-era music, with larger string sections, slower tempi, and thicker orchestral textures than are often heard today. The first movement, which is marked “very fast” (allegro vivace), was played at a pace I would describe as stately and, ultimately, not engaging. There was lovely playing by the flutes and oboes, but also a lack of unanimity in the first violins on some challenging exposed passages.

Mozart wanted a song-like quality for the slower second movement, which came through nicely in the playing, with the muted violins creating a sense of mystery blended with a bit of suspense. The third movement has the qualities of a Viennese ländler, a folk dance that was a waltz precursor. Here, it was strongly inflected but lacking in forward momentum.

Not so the astonishing fourth movement, one of Mozart’s most complex and audacious pieces of orchestral writing, with six different themes manipulated in a dazzling variety of ways. The tempo called for here is “very fast,” and Figueroa and the orchestra nailed it, providing a compelling conclusion. Special kudos to flutists Jesse Tatum and Jennifer Lau, oboists Elaine Heltman and Rebecca Ray, and bassoonists Elizabeth VanArsdel and Leslie Shultis for their impressive playing during the work’s many featured passages for woodwinds.

Female composers aren’t as uncommon in the classical music world as they used to be, thank goodness, although there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Female trumpet soloists are truly rarae aves, however, and you could probably count the number of trumpet concertos by female composers written for female soloists on your thumbs.

The Santa Fe Symphony co-commissioned one, from Canadian-Cambodian composer Vivian Fung for soloist Mary Elizabeth Bowden, and its local premiere was one of the concert’s highlights. It’s a substantial piece, circa 16 minutes in length, performed in one continuous movement, and Fung succeeds in “stretching the imagination as to what is possible for the instrument,” as she describes one of her goals.

The concerto requires virtuosic playing almost throughout, showcasing Bowden’s facility in rapid passage work, register extremes, and unusual techniques such as flutter tonguing, the trumpeter’s equivalent of a rolled letter R. It begins backwards in terms of standard concerto form, starting with what amounts to an extended cadenza, then continuing with full orchestra and soloist.

For most of the piece Bowden’s musical line soars over the accompaniment, in which short, repetitive themes are passed between sections. It’s not minimalism, however, thanks to Fung’s dynamic and sometimes explosive style.

There are recognizable sections within the concerto, including a jolly, off-kilter march that takes a menacing turn; a slower and more lyrical passage in which Bowden plays the flugelhorn, a mellower trumpet with a deeper sound; and a hip-hop inspired section that leads into the raucous finale. Bowden’s versatility and the orchestra’s committed playing earned the concert’s biggest ovation, and rightly so.

Bowden and the orchestra also essayed Haydn’s trumpet concerto, with slightly less glorious results. Especially in the first movement there were more fluffed notes than Bowden would have liked, and what seemed like some shortness of breath in sustained passages, a not uncommon phenomenon for guest artists adjusting to the altitude.

The orchestra for it made use of a smaller string section than that deployed for the “Jupiter Symphony,” with a noticeable improvement in tightness of ensemble and beauty of tone. To be fair, the Haydn is easier to play than the Mozart, but it did make me want to hear the symphony again with a smaller group of strings.

With his operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mikhail Glinka created a recognizable national style for Russian classical music. The latter piece was an epic fairy tale, derived from an Alexander Pushkin poem, with a text cobbled together by a team of writers.

The opera itself is a hit-and-miss affair, due to problems with its plot, pacing, and dramaturgy, but no such doubts surround the overture. It’s a flashy and immediately appealing piece that here received an appropriately extroverted reading, with Figueroa setting a blistering pace. It pushed the orchestra to the limits of its capabilities, with exciting and crowd-pleasing results.

Coming at the end of the program, the overture functioned like an encore, rather than a curtain raiser. The concert was performed in reverse order compared to that printed in the program book, at the request of the soloist. There’s nothing wrong with making the change, but it wasn’t mentioned to the audience by Figueroa or by Executive Director Emma Scherer in their pre-performance comments from the stage, an unfortunate oversight that left many attendees puzzled.

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