Every summer, about two-thirds of the way into the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's season, there's a tectonic shift in venues. Most concerts move from swell, uncomfortable old St. Francis Auditorium to the recently opulent Lensic. Nobody misses being crammed into those beat-up pews or wincing at the crash of dropped programs hitting the flagstones or, lately, hearing***image1*** day-workers' thuds on the roof. What we do miss, though, is the lively acoustic, the crowded portales at intermission and, maybe, being crammed into those beat-up pews.
But fate and increased seating capacity dictate the move to the Lensic and, though lacking the slightly clubby feel of St. Francis, it's a far cry from the grubby, gum-encrusted movie house where I wasted afternoons watching low-budget Westerns in the dim long-ago. This came sharply to mind last week during a classy performance of Beethoven's Opus 16 Quintet for woodwinds and piano. Well, yes, what with Liang Wang, the NYPhil's principal oboe, and Ricardo Morales, the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal clarinet, and Julie Landsman, the MetOpera's principal horn, and Milan Turkovic, world-class bassoonist and Jon Nakamatsu, Van Cliburn Gold Medalist, on board, what do you expect? It was almost enough to make one forget about Gabby Hayes and the Sons of the Pioneers.
Granted, just putting five or six of the universe's hottest classical performers together in the same room doesn't absolutely guarantee a searing, white-hot performance, especially given the limited rehearsal time at the SFCMF. And the opening Allegro of the Beethoven was less than perfectly cohesive. But then the quintet just put their foot in it, as they say in the South, emphasizing the divertimento/serenade-like Mozartean graciousness of the piece.
The previous noon at St. Francis, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor had joined that group for Ludwig Thuille's less well known and perfectly charming Opus 6 Sextet, a Schumann-y, Brahms-y, blue-sky interlude. Audience and artists alike smiled their way through the good-humored, impeccably performed piece, though at one point O'Connor and Landsman got the giggles to the extent that I feared for the latter's embouchure. The Thuille Sextet provided a summery contrast to the opening work at the noon concert: Prokofiev's angry, despairing Sonata No. 7, in a ferocious reading by the young Russian pianist Natasha Paremski. The hall's vigas y latillas are still rattling.
Meanwhile, back at the Lensic, the Beethoven Quintet had been sandwiched between two performances by the Miró Quartet, the first a work by Brent Michael Davids. His Tinnitus Quartet (2005) documents the composer's physical and emotional experience with that terrible auditory condition and, as such, is a dramatic if minor contribution to the musical portraiture of disease. (Think Strauss' Tod und Verklärung or the conclusion of Wozzeck.) The Miró folks provided a suitably uneasy, agonized performance. Their gutsy reading of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet brought the concert to a prestissimo ma non quite unanimous close.
For its penultimate concert of the season, Sunday, Aug. 19, the SFCMF opened with more Beethoven and then went to the Slavs. The German composer's five string trios broke sharply with the form as practiced by Haydn, offering far more harmonic richness and complex instrumental interplay. In their reading of the String Trio No. 4 in D Major, violinist Viviane Hagner, violist Michael Tree and cellist Peter Wiley made this perfectly clear in a fine-grained if somewhat impersonal account of the work.
But, no doubt about it, the next offering poured on the personality: Pinchas Zukerman accompanied by Marc Neikrug blazed through Joseph Suk's appealing Opus 17, Four Pieces for Violin and Piano. There's no substantial connection among the four works except their demand for bravura fiddling and a feeling for Slavic stylistics. Elements of dumka and furiant and folksong play a role, and there's a sense that the older composer, Leoš Janácek, hovers over the whole. But it's probably calculated to bring an audience to its collective feet and, given a restive Lensic crowd that's rather prone to applaud while standing anyway, it did.
When Suk's teacher and father-in-law, Dvorák, came to write his Opus 48 String Sextet, he accentuated the darker timbres, doubling the string quartet's viola and cello lines. For all that, though, the piece bounds pleasantly, tunefully along with hardly a dark thought in its pretty, nationalistic head. Concluding the evening's program, a workmanlike performance by the Miró Quartet, joined by Tree and Wiley, got the Lensic right back onto those happy feet.