Every time I hear a fine, well-produced contralto voice, I get the chills. Maybe it goes back to my grandmother's old Schumann-Heink 78s. Kathleen Ferrier's "Embarme dich," and anything else she recorded, knocks me out. In the Santa Fe Opera's Griselda last season, Meredith Arwady's interpolation from the Vivaldi "Stabat Mater" did it too.

For Mozart, the wind instrument most resembling the human voice (um, yes, another wind instrument) was the clarinet, a horn that comes in many flavors. Take the B flat clarinet, concentrate on its lowest registers and, presto, you've got yourself an instrumental contralto.

Except that you don't. You've got a clarinet. And among the many fine things on the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's roster this season, programming has favored that familiar vocal sound: in just three weeks, 13 pieces with clarinet. Clearly, somebody at the festival likes licorice sticks.

A chunk of that clarinet-fest turned up at the Creative Dialogue V concert on July 24. A workshop/symposium sponsored by the Sibelius Academy had invited 11 talented young artists from a variety of top conservatories to the Acequia Madre House for a week of total immersion in strictly, often prickly contemporary repertory. This year, their distinguished mentors were composer Magnus Lindberg, cellist Anssi Karttunen and clarinetist Chen Halevy.

Of nine brief works programmed for their final concert, six featured the clarinet. Three were premieres by young composers working with Lindberg; three were by Lindberg himself. Each demonstrated a collaboration among the invitees, plus of course their mentors. Halevy's presence accounted for the front-and-center position of the clarinet.

Two works from the first half of the concert, both by Lindberg, were impressive for their boldness and technical difficulty. "Ablauf" (1983/88) and "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1990) made stunning demands on the young performers while providing kaleidoscopic, unpredictable pleasures for an appreciative audience.

The festival’s woodwind emphasis continued with three clarinet/cello/piano trios featured in the SFCMF’s second and third weeks. I heard Lindberg’s rich, dense Trio (2008), with Halevy, Karttunen and the composer on July 27. It’s a compelling work, moving from a darkly disturbing opening, through a fluttery middle movement marked by neurasthenic glissandos and arpeggios, to a finale with witty exchanges between clarinet and cello that exploit the sonorities of both instruments with finesse.

July 30 brought the Brahms Trio, Op. 114, now with Inon Barnatan taking over as pianist. Barnatan's solo recital the following day would prove to be a major event of the festival, but in the Brahms nothing mattered but exquisite ensemble work. In this late, great work, the three artists played as one, making love to the opalescent music and offering the most impressive single performance I've heard so far this summer.

At noon Aug. 2, Beethoven's light-hearted Trio, Op. 11, completed the trio-trilogy. The giddy finale, an excitable theme-and-variations romp, shows what the composer could do with a mindless theme—hinting at the future "Diabelli Variations." Clarinetist Todd Levy, cellist Kajsa William-Olsson and pianist Joyce Yang did the honors.

One of the season's most anticipated works arrived July 29: Berg's insanely complex 1925 Chamber Concerto for piano (Kirill Gerstein), violin (Steven Copes) and 14 wind instruments (including—please note—three clarinets). Dedicated to Schoenberg, the work channels Wozzeck plus incipient serialism into a foundational monument of modernism.  Frédéric Chaslin led a heroic account of the score, and SFCMF's large audience received the Berg with an ovation. An excited buzz lasted through intermission.

Would this have been conceivable forty years back? Not ruddy likely.

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