Forty years old already? It can't be that long since I heard several concerts at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's inaugural season—six Sunday afternoons back in 1973. The music's still playing in my head: Alfred Brendel's account of Schubert's B flat Major Sonata and Jean Kraft splendidly singing Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis."
The ante's gone up a bit in the years since: over 40 concerts this year, plus bolder programming and higher performance standards. Observe the first week's concerts. Yes, there was Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, plus some surprises—like a world premiere.
Helen Grime's "Snow on Snow" opened the festival on July 15 and 16, featuring Todd Levy, clarinet; Teng Li, viola; and pianist Haochen Zhang. A brief, earnest work referencing the Ted Hughes poem, it provided pleasant sounds but did not linger in the memory.
More delightful pleasantries followed: Ernst von Dohnányi’s delectable Serenade, Op. 10 with violinist Jennifer Frautschi, Teng Li and cellist Joseph Johnson, and then the familiar Brahms Piano Trio No. 2. William Preucil’s violin and Gary Hoffman’s cello provided loving, lovely sounds, but Zhang’s piano seemed a mile away.
The July 22 and 23 concerts opened with a tepid Frautschi and a passionate Jon Kimura Parker collaborating in Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1. The Santa Fe Opera’s Maometto, Luca Pisaroni, offered four songs from Schubert’s Schwanengesang; “Der Atlas” made a particularly strong impression. And more Dohnányi concluded the evening: the 17-year-old composer’s Op. 1 Piano Quintet, his vigorous, buoyant homage to Brahms in a lively reading by Preucil, Frautschi, Hoffman and Parker, joined by violist Aloysia Friedmann.
The third of the SFCMF’s popular noon concerts featured, on July 24, a solo recital by pianist Kirill Gerstein, 2010 winner of the exclusive Gilmore Award. After a hesitant start, Gerstein settled down to an idiosyncratic reading of Schumann’s “Carnaval,” one marked by ultra-sharp dynamic contrasts, lingering rubatos and a prestissimo that really meant it. Everything worked, in a crazy, quasi-improvisatory way. Manic brilliance defines the piece, after all, and Gerstein made it sound like the asylum was just a step away.
His second offering, Brad Mehldau's jazzy "Variations on a Melancholy Theme," had been commissioned by jazz-loving Gerstein. Weaving blues, ragtime and semi-improvised riffs into a complex whole, the work would benefit from some thoughtful scissoring. Two of Earl Wild's Gershwin transcriptions, "Somebody Loves Me" and "I've Got Rhythm" closed the concert.
The SFCMF's "Tribute to Peter Lieberson" on July 27 didn't contain many of the late composer's own works—just two, including his Three Variations for Violoncello & Piano, a deft miniature performed by cellist Felix Fan and Andrew Russo. The second piece, another set of three variations titled "Remembering Schumann," was especially notable for its long-spun central variation, a deeply felt, inward-looking lament. The same artists were in charge.
British composer Oliver Knussen contributed two works to the program as well. A Gerstein commission for piano and performed by him, "Ophelia's Last Dance" began as a sinuous, sad waltz, then reached a rhapsodic climax before concluding on an abrupt note of shadowy melancholy.
Another Knussen piece, his "Requiem: Songs for Sue" concluded the program. A setting of four texts (Dickinson, Machado, Auden, Rilke) for soprano—here Tony Arnold—and fifteen instrumentalists conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, the work glittered with color and texture. You heard Britten, perhaps, and even Mahlerian pensiveness as the requiem moved through its compact, complex sonorities.