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Artist-in-residence Susan Graham adds some glitz to Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 38th season.
Photo: Dario Acosta

Do It for Dvorák

Amid a mixed week, a trio takes the lead.

July 28, 2010, 1:00 am
A touch of glamour opened the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 38th season at St. Francis Auditorium last week, personified in Susan Graham, the festival’s first artist-in-residence, and Jake Heggie, the hot youngish composer whose operatic ventures have been popular success stories recently. Chief among them: Dead Man Walking, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book, with Graham playing Sister Helen at the 2000 San Francisco premiere.

Fast-forward two years to Heggie’s song-cycle, “The Deepest Desire,” a sequence of four spiritual poems by Sister Helen, and also composed with Graham’s enthusiastic cooperation. SFCMF’s performances, with flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, thus had the authentic touch. Sister Helen’s verses don’t pretend to compete with those of her fellow Catholic poet of another age, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. Still, these deeply personal texts express her search for a connection with God.

Herbert’s poem, “The Call,” definitively set by Vaughan Williams in his “Five Mystical Songs,” prefigures Sister Helen’s first text, also titled “The Call.” The drama inherent in her lyrics finds a melodramatic counterpart in Heggie’s setting. More successfully, Sister Helen’s second text gets a light-hearted treatment in “I Catch On Fire,” almost a cabaret number with jazzy, gospel overtones.

The climactic poem, “The Deepest Desire,” shows its trio of performers working hardest; a ballad of discovered vocation, there’s a Sondheim-y quality that reflects Heggie’s attachment to American music theater. Copland’s spare sounds turn up in the cycle’s coda, “Primary Colors,” the most effective of Heggie’s settings. Is it necessary to add that the three artists were exemplary?

This program opened with a hyper-Gallic trifle by André Jolivet, his 1944 “Chant de Linos.” Essentially a flute sonatina for O’Connor accompanied by harp (Giuseppina Ciarla) and string trio (Jennifer Frautschi, violin; Nokothula Ngwenyama, viola; Ralph Kirshbaum, cello), the piece mingles pastorale and Bacchic abandon. It’s skillful, dated background music—Jolivet was musical director for the Comédie Française for many years. The concert ended with an honorable, dutiful performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor. Artists: William Preucil, violin, Jon Kimura Parker, piano, plus Ngwenyama and Kirshbaum.

Those SFCMF noonday concerts are a palpable hit, as a capacity crowd at the first of these on July 20 attested. Why not? This intermissionless program kicked off with an airy reading of Haydn’s String Trio, Op. 53, No. 1 (Frautschi, Ngwenyama, Kirshbaum) and finished with Preucil and Parker’s unbalanced account of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 47, No. 9, the “Kreutzer.” Too much piano, Mr. Parker.

On July 22, for the first of their Thursday evening concerts, the festival offered an unusual appetizer: Joseph Joachim’s Hebrew Melodies, Op. 9, for viola and piano. In the hands of Ngwenyama and pianist Marc Neikrug, it proved to be an exercise in lyrical monotony. Beethoven’s lightweight, lengthy Serenade in D Major, Op. 25, offered a hardworking threesome, O’Connor, Frautschi, and Ngwenyama (busy woman!), plenty of notes, but behind a pleasant façade, it was hard to find much substance in a performance that rarely rose above the level of gifted sight-reading.

Still, the final work of the evening, Dvorák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky,” proved to be the instrumental high point of the week. This is, for sure, a warhorse that can’t gallop along often enough for most listeners, and Preucil, Kirshbaum, and Parker rode it hell-for-leather round the track. Loaded with Slavic schlag, crooning portamenti, and furious near-furiantes, their hair-raising performance tore through the auditorium like a gang of wild mustangs. After a week of mixed successes, there couldn’t be any doubt about it: Dvorák was in the lead by many, many lengths.


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