BRITTEN SERENADE

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7

One of the most compellingly programmed events of the summer music season is the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s Britten Serenade, which includes two masterworks by Benjamin Britten and the Elizabethan song that inspired one of them, as well as an iconic string quartet.

The concert begins with Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland for solo guitar, played by Meng Su. “I think it’s the greatest piece for guitar written during the 20th century,” said Marc Neikrug, the music festival’s artistic director. “It’s an incredibly profound and beautiful and substantive piece. Britten has total command of the instrument’s technical possibilities, but you’re never aware of that while you’re hearing it.” All you hear, Neikrug said, is “just the music itself.”

The Nocturnal, which is based on the song “Come Heavy Sleep” by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, uses the time-honored “theme and variations” format, but with a U-turn. The variations come first, starting with the one farthest removed from the theme and then moving progressively closer to it, until it’s heard as the finale. Immediately afterward, tenor Paul Appleby joins Su to perform Dowland’s song, which dates from 1597.

A case of the measles is to thank, at least in part, for the existence of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. In 1943, the composer came down with such a severe case that he was quarantined in a hospital, where he composed much of this score and worked on his first opera, Peter Grimes, as well. Both works featured Britten’s life-partner, tenor Peter Pears, and 22-year-old Dennis Brain, a horn-playing wunderkind from the Royal Air Force Symphony Orchestra.

Britten took full advantage of Brain’s skills, with music requiring such expertise that for several years after the premiere it seemed no one else would be able to perform it satisfactorily. That’s no longer the case, but it remains a formidable challenge, taken on in this performance by one of the music world’s most formidable players, Stefan Dohr, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic.

A prologue for solo horn begins the piece, followed by highly evocative settings of six poems exploring the subject of the night in its various manifestations, from pleasurable and comforting to terrifying and nightmarish. All the texts are by British authors — Keats, Blake, Tennyson, Ben Jonson, and Charles Cotton — along with the anonymous “Lyke-Wake Dirge” from the medieval period. The horn solo then returns as an epilogue, this time played from offstage.

Appleby, a tenor who studied English literature as well as music in college, has been frequently praised for his sensitivity to language and promises to be an ideal interpreter of this piece. “These poems are very disparate in style and tone,” said Appleby, “yet they’re tied together by the musical language and the universal feeling of being alone at night with your thoughts. Britten was always expressing something deeply personal in his music, and his emotional commitment gives audiences something tangible they can bring into their own hearts.”

The concert concludes with Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, popularly known as Death and the Maiden, played by the Orion String Quartet. “It’s a pillar of the chamber music repertory,” Neikrug said. “We had to end with something very strong to balance the rest of the program, and Schubert’s transparency and lack of artifice beautifully match Britten’s approach. They both get right to the core of what really matters in a piece.”

“Britten Serenade” takes place at the New Mexican Museum of Art, St. Francis Auditorium, 107 W. Palace Ave. Tickets are $41-$77; call 505-982-1890 for ticket availability, santafechambermusic.com.

SUSANNE MENTZER & ROD GILFRY

Performance Santa Fe’s Festival of Song

4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 4

Baritone Rod Gilfry launches Performance Santa Fe’s second Festival of Song recital with Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée knowing that he’s just two degrees of separation from the composer. In the early 1980s, Gilfry studied with Martial Singher, the celebrated French baritone who premiered the three-song cycle back in 1934. It’s Ravel’s last completed work, in which the Spanish hero-lunatic presents himself as a lover, a warrior, and a drinker to his inamorata.

“Singher taught me that you have to dig into this piece and sing it with sharp elbows instead of Gallic suavity,” Gilfry said. “Ravel used all these jagged Spanish dance rhythms with great imagination. For instance, the first one you hear suggests the broken-down gait of Don Quichotte’s old horse. If you smooth it out, you lose the entire effect.”

The Festival of Song is a joint project with the Santa FeOpera, which gives audiences the chance to hear these talented performers in much more intimate circumstances. Gilfry takes on Don Alfonso in the company’s current staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, while his recital partner, Susanne Mentzer, plays the grandmother in Janácˇek’s Jenu˚fa.

The mezzo-soprano’s major contribution to the program is a generous selection of songs from Carlisle Floyd’s Citizen of Paradise, which is set to poems and letters by Emily Dickinson. Mentzer gave the world premiere of the song cycle in 1983 and it’s been in her repertory ever since, sometimes performed concert-style, as here, and sometimes as a staged monodrama. Her 2014 recording of the piece received rave reviews.

“World-premiere recordings of song cycles by Carlisle Floyd are expertly and lovingly detailed by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer,” wrote Opera News critic Judith Malafronte. “With exemplary diction, Mentzer’s voice is in great shape, and her connection to the material and internalization of the poetry are complete.”

“I love having been able to sing this wonderful piece over so many years and to see how the different circumstances in my life can bring new colors to it,” Mentzer said. “One of the songs is about the death of your mother. At first, I sang it with a sense of fear, about the unknown point in the future when it would happen. Now it’s in the past, so it has a much more elegiac feeling for me. I try to live in the moment of performing, and let the material take me wherever it goes as I’m singing.”

The wide-ranging program also includes four charming songs by Charles Ives, perhaps America’s most iconoclastic composer; two by Jake Heggie, who is best known for his operas Moby-Dick and Dead Man Walking; and two by contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen. Robert Tweten, head of the Santa Fe Opera music staff, is the accompanist.

Festival of Song, with Susanne Mentzer and Rod Gilfry, takes place at Scottish Rite Center, 463 Paseo de Peralta. Tickets are $45-$75; 505-984-8759; performancesantafe.org.

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