The other day an old pal recalled a little lecture delivered in this space a few years back. The gist? Will you audiences please, please stop already with those obligatory knee-jerk standing ovations? Save same for the real, rare spine-tingling concert where the body is helplessly impelled to jump up.
Well, that's a lost cause obviously, at least here in Santa Fe.
Now, though, time for yet another lecture. Imagine that a brilliant performance has just concluded, its final note still vibrates in the air, a hushed audience sits transfixed. And then some doofus brays BRRRAAAVO, triple forte, and the spell, dammit, is broken. Long ago, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, leading the Vienna Philharmonic, had just finished Schubert's Unfinished; his hands were still in the air; our faces trickled with tears as only Schubert can jerk them; and the precise moment had arrived for a pack of nearby turistas—not American—to break out in a wretched cacophony of yells and furious applause. Had there been machetes in the Musikverein, heads would have been rolling all over the parquet.
Compliments, Santa Fe. No such thing happened at the end of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's Aug. 4 concert when a breath-snatching performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht concluded, and the audience offered its highest tribute: silence. And then the ovation.
A standing one, richly deserved by the Orion Quartet, augmented by violist Ida Kavafian and cellist Peter Stumpf, who'd concluded an impulsive, fastidious, haunting exploration of Schoenberg's dense narrative thicket. It's been said again and again that this work is the composer's—and the Western world's—last goodbye to tonality. No quasi-elegiac farewell could be better expressed.
The evening's program, designated as "Night Music," had opened with John Harbison's sonorous Twilight Music for Horn, Violin & Piano, at first a lyrical dialogue between violin and horn that then waxed and waned among the three instruments, then a serenade with echoes of Gallic neo-classicism, featuring abrupt dynamic contrasts and ending on a dying fall. The personnel: indispensable Daniel Phillips, violin; Philip Myers producing remarkable sounds from his horn; and pianist Victor Santiago Asunción.
Beethoven's Sonata No. 14, the "Moonlight," followed in a mannered reading by Asunción, and then after the break, Arthur Foote's Nocturne and Scherzo for Flute and String Quartet. Tara Helen O'Connor joined the Orions in the suave, summery, minor-Brahmsy "Nocturne" and a swinging Scherzo whose bright invention conjured up the spirit of Mendelssohn.
Last Thursday, Aug. 7, proved a mighty busy day for SFCMF premieres. The jam-packed noon concert featured a first US outing of British composer Julian Anderson's String Quartet No. 2, sub-dubbed "300 Weihnachtslieder." If you were expecting "Silent Night," no, that did not happen. In a decidedly cerebral exercise, Anderson had researched old German Christmas carols and selected several, some familiar and others less so, for significant harmonic manipulation.
In his seven-movement work, those carol tunes are deconstructed to be beyond recognition, with Anderson splintering off a rhythm here, a tonal sequence there, rarely a hinted-at wisp of twisted melody in an otherwise dissonant, fragmentary composition. He says that he also layers bell-derived harmonic strata into the whole, and that he uses a "macrotonal" system of temperament. The slippery intonations used by the FLUX Quartet who performed the piece defy easy description.
Tumultuous dramatic effects abound: violent pizzicati, odd bowing tremolos, pencils thrumming the strings, slashing, spiky discordant cadences. Might a buried agenda, a riddle of sorts, lurk beneath the difficult surface? (Hint: Anderson's opera, Thebans, based upon the Oedipus cycle, opened recently to good notices at Covent Garden.) Well, maybe. His ambitious quartet is, on first hearing, an over-hewn, less-than-friendly puzzlement. The FLUX foursome delivered a fearsomely committed performance.
The second premiere of the day arrived that evening at six, another SFCMF co-commission—Lowell Liebermann's song cycle, Four Seasons, Op. 123. It felt like we'd slipped a few decades back to the lyrical American art songs of the past, populated by the likes of Samuel Barber and, more recently, Ned Rorem. There's a retro feel about his texts, too: five poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay that seem overwrought and melodramatic these days but, for some, might retain a certain period flavor.
If the piece seemed made for its performers, so it was. Liebermann had in mind the rising young mezzo, Sasha Cooke, the clarinetist David Shifrin, and members of Opus One—Steven Tenenbom, viola; Kavafian and Stumpf, violin and cello—when he composed the cycle, with himself at the piano. Skillfully scored, colorful and kind to the voice, the work seems more workmanlike than inspired, perhaps by reason of the not-quite-top-drawer texts, mostly lovelorn lamentations attuned to the passing seasons.
Still, it would be hard to imagine a more generous performance. Cooke's remarkable voice, large, plush, flexible and totally at one with the lyrics, makes the cycle into a thoughtful, almost persuasive dramatization of lost time and lost loves. The instrumentalists, especially Shifrin and Liebermann, simply shone.
A reminder: Last Sunday the SFO Apprentice Artists knocked it out of the opera house in the first of their annual "Scenes" presentations. Next Sunday, Aug. 17, the double-header concludes with staged scenes from, among others, Wagner, John Adams, Mozart and, finally, the delirious "Gran Pezzo Concertato a 14 voci" from Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims.