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Kuok-Wai-Lio
Pianist Kuok-Wai Lio evokes his composers’ inner emotions for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Elements of Style

Chamber Music Festival delivers in parts, but not whole

July 26, 2011, 12:00 am

A concert program doesn’t just invent itself. Somebody has to visualize the thing and put it out there. Some programs stick with a single composer. Some take the thematic or nationalistic route, or just go with what a given set of artists may have in its repertorial bag. Still others choose challenging or suggestive juxtapositions, like the recent John Adams/Bruckner couplings by the Cleveland Orchestra at the Lincoln Center Festival.

In its opening week’s five programs, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival offered all of the above. The last of these program types, here a pianistic pairing of Janácek with Schubert, turned out to be the most rewarding of the three concerts I heard.

This is the third season for young pianist Kuok-Wai Lio’s participation in the SFCMF. Each summer, he’s made impressive appearances in ensemble and solo work, and this season proved no exception. Viz last Tuesday noon, in a well-filled St. Francis Auditorium, he prefaced Schubert’s expansive B-flat Major Sonata, D. 960, the composer’s final sonata, with the concise Janác%u02C7ek piano suite, “In the Mists.”

One distinguishing quality of Leoš Janácek’s music, its originality and freshness, rarely fails to surprise the listener. His broadly conceived opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, immerses us in the composer’s startling, convincing view of less-than-familiar natural forces. The four miniatures that make up “In the Mists,” itself a sort of nature-sonata, offer an equally fresh, individual account of the sounds of the earth.

In Lio’s fluent, coherent reading, an episodic vision of the green world prevails: deeply introspective, wistful, melancholy. Lio’s transparent technique—his delicacy of touch and crystalline clarity of expression—convey the intense inwardness of Janácek’s surprising, often disturbing suite.

This in turn prepares us for Schubert’s surprising, often disturbing sonata, particularly its opening two movements. No matter how often you’ve encountered the piece (we heard, that first 1973 SFCMF season, Alfred Brendel’s memorable performance), it can take you unaware when an artist of Lio’s capacity is at work. He weaves the seeming illogic and dark caprice of the sonata, sometimes taken as Schubert’s last testament, into a complex, completed web of self-exploration for both performer and composer.

The festival’s July 17-18 opening concert, a programming mélange, featured a labored reading of Zelenka’s Trio Sonata No. 1, followed by the Penderecki String Quartet No. 3 (2008) played by the Shanghai Quartet, for whom the work was commissioned. It’s a meritorious, largely tonal work, lyrical and insistent by turns. Shostakovich and Bartók lurk just beneath the surface, to the piece’s advantage. Concluding the evening, a rousing, barn-storming but unbalanced account of Dvorák’s Piano Quartet No. 2, Op. 81, brought the rather sparse house to its collective feet. The Shanghai Quartet was joined by Lio, whose piano was scarcely audible.

An all-Bach program finished up the week. British violinist Daniel Hope was soloist in an almost comically vigorous reading of the A Minor Violin Concerto; those rushed triplet figures in the final movement recalled Berlioz’ Ride to the Abyss. The D Minor Concerto for Two Violins with Jennifer Gilbert and Harvey de Souza as soloists took a more moderate, if still propulsive, approach.

This season’s artist in residence, soprano Dawn Upshaw—a favorite of Santa Fe audiences—concluded the sold-out concert with the solo Cantata No. 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut.” This is one of several cantatas in which the singer moves from despair to hope, and Upshaw delivered a heart-felt, emotional reading. Though pushed in the upper register and diminished in the lower, her mid-range retains the bright, youthful gleam that has always characterized this beloved singer. Unhappily, the wonderful oboe and, in this case, cello obbligati failed to please.

 

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