First Presbyterian Church, Jan. 19
Serenata of Santa Fe reached the midpoint of its 32nd season last Saturday with a program titled “Old, New, Borrowed & Blue.” Artistic director Pamela Epple explained to the audience that each piece represented at least one prong of that familiar assemblage of somethings that more commonly relates to the bridal trousseau.
Serenata is a chamber collective that includes accomplished New Mexico musicians and colleagues from afar. It draws different players from its circle to provide considerable variety in the course of a season. Epple is the organization’s oboist, and some of its best concerts are those that turn the spotlight on her fellow wind players, as this one did. The résumés of those musicians — flutist Diva Goodfriend-Koven (doubling piccolo), clarinetist James Shields, bassoonist Toni Lipton, and hornist Scott Temple, in addition to Epple — include former or present membership in nationally prominent orchestras. Rounding out the roster was the fluent, sensitive pianist Yi-heng Yang.
Everyone participated in the Concerto for Piano and Woodwind Quintet by Wallingford Riegger — a rarely played piece by an obscure American modernist. Previous encounters had led me to write off this piece as crabbed and austere. This performance changed my mind. The players ripped into it with full-throated enthusiasm that set the scene for an invigorating encounter. It was intended to represent the concepts of “old” (being written way back in 1953) and “blue,” as in “the blues.” One could imagine some of the rhythms in the opening movement to be jazzy, but this performance did not emphasize that aspect; much of the movement’s punch seemed more inspired by Stravinsky than by jazz. Yang rendered her part with firm-fingered clarity and a rich tone that countered the tangy sonorities of the wind quintet. Much of Riegger’s music, including large portions of this piece, employ his idiosyncratic take on 12-tone technique — a point I hesitate to mention since that sort of music is so much less fashionable today than when this piece was born. But Serenata’s interpretation did not invite listeners to focus on the thorny theoretical processes that always seem to hog conversations about 12-tone composition. Instead, it was about achieving specific sonorities, coordinating a broad range of dynamics, making a rhythmic impact — and, as an added benefit, reminding listeners of a composer who deserves more attention than he gets.
Two ensuing pieces were the “new” contingent. Jennifer Higdon’s introspective Legacy, a seven-minute movement for flute and piano, is a chamber counterpart to her most acclaimed piece, the orchestral blue cathedral. Both were written in 1999, following the death of a beloved brother, so this would also qualify as “blue,” in the sense of “sad.” The piano’s raindrop staccatos, which began midway and continued to the end, lent much-needed character to the mournful phrases. What’s Going On, a 2018 wind quintet by John Steinmetz, fell in the column of both “new” and “borrowed,” since it alluded to various bits of pre-existing music, from Carlos Nakai-type Native American flute-playing to a Mahlerian funeral march. A bassoonist himself, Steinmetz proved adept in plumbing the ensemble’s sonic possibilities in this genial piece.
The evening concluded with Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, a journeyman work from 1796 that “borrowed” its instrumentation, key, structural layout, and general flavor from a better quintet Mozart had penned a dozen years earlier. The ensemble filled this familiar piece with propulsive rhythmic flow, Shields impressed with top-drawer clarinetistry, and Yang shaped the piano’s phrases with supple grace.