***image2***One thing that plenty of the so-called "gala" evenings have in common around here, whether it be at the opera or at chamber music concerts: A goodly portion of the assembly vanishes at the first break. Maybe they've seen and been seen. Maybe the pre-event partying got too intense. At any rate, the crowd that exited Saint Francis Auditorium on Aug. 7 at the second of two gala concerts by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival missed out on one of those really, really big events of the season. The Johannes String Quartet joined forces with the Orion Quartet for a performance of George Enescu's rarely heard Octet, Op. 7.
Call it Mr. Enescu's wild ride. This piece just wouldn't quit. The 19-year-old composer poured everything he had into a grandly scaled, hugely energetic 45-minute opus that belongs right up there, almost, with such better-known works as the Mendelssohn Octet or Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," or even, I'll say it, Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht."
***image1*** No, it's not as harmonically daring as the Schoenberg-keeping one eye on the Smetana-Dvorak-Suk tradition of Middle-European chamber playing. But Enescu's Octet has much of the same late Romantic hyper-intensity and dense pressure that announce a new if not entirely radical way of making chamber music. The big, extended unison passage that opens the work tells us that Enescu has serious ambitions here.
We can hear elements of folk melody and dance forms from time to time, but these never detract from the high-wired originality that pulses through each of the four movements. There's a muted lullaby marked Lentement that cradles the ear with shifting harmonic patterns. The waltz finale is symphonic in scale, powerfully rhythmic, breathing with excited vitality up to its startling coda. At Sunday's concert the two quartets up on the platform delivered a turbo-charged account of the work that deserved its massive ovation.
The program opened with a Festival commission, the world premiere of Mark O'Connor's String Quartet No. 2, subtitled "Bluegrass," played by the composer and the rest of his Appalachia Trio, Carol Cook and Natalie Haas, joined by violinist Daniel Phillips. It's a gentle, harmless work, loaded with O'Connor's countrified mannerisms-foot-tappin' rhythms and just-plain-folks fiddle tunes-with a classical overlay of canonic imitation and semi-sonata form. Still, though it may be easy listening like much of the rest of this talented fiddler's music, the piece just doesn't hold the listener's attention for long. Like some other ethnic preparations, you're
still hungry an hour later.