Sure, it’s probably less than relevant, but I’d like to give two cheers for whoever invented the midday chamber music concert. Latterly, it might be Charles Wadsworth, the golden boy from Newnan, Ga., who created and curated Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Spoleto (Italy) Festival noon-time chamber series, starting in 1959. Wadsworth later became impresario of the immensely popular midday chamber concerts at Charleston’s Spoleto USA.

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival has staged similar concerts for a few years now, and a very good thing, too. They’re relatively informal, they’re untroubled by intermissions, and they set the audience free in plenty of time for a lovely lunch. The music can be pretty good too, and, as a bonus for many, the programming lacks Wadsworth’s cornpone personality. Case in point: last Thursday’s nooner at St. Francis Auditorium, an all-Schumann assemblage of four tasty duos for piano plus horn, viola, voice and cello.

For openers, pianist Jon Kimura Parker and Peter Ulffers, principal horn of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, collaborated on Schumann’s Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro, a miniature display-piece for the horn. The placid opening movement, originally titled “Romanze,” features the rather newly invented valve horn’s lower register; the rousing Allegro is an obvious precursor of the well-known Conzertstück for four horns and orchestra that Schumann would complete a week later. Ulffers could have handled his temperamental instrument with greater nuance; Parker’s accompaniment was graceful and low-key.

Parker played a more important role in the following work, Märchenbilder, Op. 113, but the star of this set of four fairy-tale miniatures was Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic. There had been little to no solo literature for viola prior to 1851, so this charming work stands as a significant innovation. Phelps’ performance was impeccable in every way, especially in the heartfelt lyricism of the dark lullaby that concludes the work.

Lyricism in a more literal sense followed when soprano Arianna Zuckerman offered a lieder selection from Schumann’s remarkably lyrical year, 1840. That year he composed some 150 songs and, finally, was able to marry Clara Wieck. Zuckermann chose five of the more familiar lieder. She possesses a warm mid range, shown to advantage in a carefully phrased “Du Ring an meinem Finger” from the Frauenliebe und –leben cycle. Her upper reaches at volume tend to harshness, and it’s regrettable that she used a music stand, but her readings are honest and correct, her diction solid. Marc Neikrug provided the sympathetic accompaniments.

Concluding this pleasant program of intimate Hausmusik, cellist Ronald Thomas and Neikrug’s account of the Phantasiestücke, Op. 73, sang with fluid expression.

The most anticipated SFCMF premiere this season opened the Aug. 3 program at St. Francis Auditorium: Kaija Saariaho’s “Serenatas,” composed for the ensemble Real Quiet—Felix Fan, cello, Andrew Russo, piano and David Cossin, percussion. Its five brief movements, marked Dolce, Languido, Agitato, Delicato, Misterioso, can be performed in any order determined by the artists. The 17-minute work, exotic and richly textured, proved to be a rewarding exploration of the infinite varieties of timbres available to the three-man ensemble.

Saariaho, in her opera Adriana Mater, now on view at the Santa Fe Opera, and in several other major works, has been influenced by what’s come to be called “spectral music.” That’s one of the compositional techniques associated with IRCAM, the electronic music enterprise founded in Paris by Pierre Boulez in the late ’70s. Spectralism plays with the physics of tonality, the spectrum of overtones produced by an instrumental note. Computers provide a spectrographic analysis of that sound which the composer can then use to construct sonic patterns that enhance or counterbalance one another.

In “Serenatas,” for example, you hear a high-frequency note of the cello segue into the sound of a bowed cymbal, the harmonics of each blending into an unexpected and often beautiful whole. Percussive, complex modalities recalling the Balinese gamelan resonate throughout. The cello employs glissando,
tremolo, multiple stopping to exploit the sonic potential of the instrument. The piano’s strings are struck and plucked.

A vast array of percussion devices extends the overtone range in remarkable ways, providing a sound that’s both alien and oddly familiar. The three
performers, with the composer, ask us simply to listen. It’s a serenade, not for the intellect but for the ear, the emotions, and, at best, the spirit.

The balance of this concert included fine readings of Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 2, and the Brahms String Sextet, Op. 36. Given the performance-enhancing properties of that battery of percussion instruments filling the back of the stage with all their sympathetic vibrations, I wonder if these two works ever sounded better.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Various times and locations. Through Aug. 25.