Mendelssohn Quartet

July 14, New Mexico Museum of Art

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival opened its 47th season on July 14 with a concert featuring a New Mexico premiere (a new work titled IF by celebrated composer John Harbison) and three pieces by giants of the early Romantic era (Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn).

The mostly winning program had gratifying internal cohesion — IF and Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen) both featured a soprano soloist singing texts from the 19th-century German song tradition — and it offered an exciting, visceral performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings. The only disappointment was the new piece: IF received a confident performance under the composer’s direction but, on first hearing at least, the work wasn’t persuasive.

Harbison has a decades-long history with the Chamber Music Festival, including the 1991 season as its composer-in-residence. Early in his career, he was one of 10 young composers who spent the 1962 summer here with Igor Stravinsky in conjunction with the Santa Fe Opera’s presentation of the composer’s complete stage works. He recalled the experience with obvious fondness during his pre-performance talk.

Described as a “Monodrama for Soprano and Ensemble,” IF was a co-commission by the festival, Boston Musica Viva, and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The text is based on a poem, Wenn aus den Ferne (If from the Distance), by 19th-century German author and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin. In a unique twist for its times, the speaker is a woman, and there’s an autobiographical aspect: She’s the great love of Hölderlin’s life, a woman who had recently died, and the poet is imagining what he wishes she had said to him.

This 15-minute piece is scored for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano, and marimba, giving the composer opportunities for unusual timbres, enhanced by the ghost-like qualities of the marimba. Harbison translated the poem himself, and it clearly has personal resonance for him, but the challenging vocal line worked against a dense and elusive text.

The first line is 60 words long, ending with, “In what way does your girlfriend wait for you in the same garden where after terrible and dark times we meet again here, by the wellspring of the world’s beginning?” A less literary, more straightforward adaptation of the original might have helped us better appreciate the qualities that Harbison finds compelling.

The most familiar work on the program, Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, brought with it violinist Paul Huang, one of the music world’s fastest-rising young violinists. Based on this concert, it’s easy to see why. His playing combines spot-on accuracy and a big, gleaming tone. He can fully embrace the emotion in a piece and play soft music with taste and restraint. He served as musical leader for violinist Jennifer Frautschi, violist L.P. How, cellist Clive Greensmith, and the Miami String Quartet, gifted colleagues all.

Mozart and Schubert gave him a run for his money as child prodigies, but Mendelssohn outdistanced them with this piece, written at age 17. A string octet was, and still is, an unusual form, so he was covering new ground in addition to demonstrating his compositional skills. It was written as a birthday gift for his violin teacher, who must have been an excellent player, judging from the challenging first-violin part.

Commentators have often decried Mendelssohn as the purveyor of a pleasant but bloodless romanticism. This performance took its cue from Huang’s “heart-on-the-sleeve” playing to offer a vigorous and lusty counterinterpretation. The first movement is marked “moderately fast but with fire,” and it was taken at the upper limits of the tempo, but still with plenty of fire. The gossamer sound webs of the playful third movement featured perfect harmonics by Huang and well-executed unison playing by the octet, which floats away to a feathery finale. In the last movement, Mendelssohn demonstrated his study of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and his skill with Baroque-era counterpoint. The composer calls here for “very fast” playing and so it was, leaving just enough room for red-blooded crescendos.

Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock might well be called a duo-drama in which a soprano and a clarinetist play the characters, with piano accompaniment. Its operatic exuberance and dramatic story arc were no accident. Schubert wrote it at the request of a famous diva who had asked for a vocal showpiece. Astonishingly, it was composed during the sad final months of the composer’s short life, not long after Winterreise (Winter Journey), the melancholy song cycle masterpiece that will be featured on the festival’s midday concert on July 31.

The singer here is a shepherd standing high over a valley, first enjoying the sound of his own echo, which eventually reminds him of his missing beloved, then lamenting his loneliness and despair, and finally celebrating the arrival of spring. The role played by the clarinet evolves as well, from back-and-forth echoing in the first section to an intertwining with the singer’s dark emotions in the second to reinforcing hope and joy in the finale.

In a particularly striking compositional touch, we hear first the clarinet’s echo of the shepherd’s call. Todd Levy launched the piece with a nicely gauged crescendo, continuing with lovely phrasing and breath control throughout, supported by Elizabeth Joy Roe’s well-matched piano. Sarah Shafer’s lyric soprano seemed ideal for this piece, warm and sunny in her fast-moving music and with some effective dark coloration for the contrasting middle section. (A few saggy pitches may be credited to the well-known challenges of singing at Santa Fe’s altitude.) Overall, this was a warmly satisfying interpretation of a fascinating and seldom-heard piece.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat major performed by clarinetist Levy, cellist Greensmith, and pianist Roe. There were occasional balance issues in the fast, outer movements where the cello’s lower register was hard to distinguish, but otherwise, it was a winning presentation of this work from Beethoven’s early years. The final movement, which starts with a theme from a then-popular comic opera and continues with nine variations on it, was especially effective, evoking the improvisation contests that were part of the era’s musical life, albeit in a more collaborative and amiable spirit. 

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