Musical Hunters

Hochman and Orion Prove Their Musical Worth

Look to the stars
The next time you’re waiting for things to happen in St. Francis Auditorium, courtesy of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, glance up at those three microphone lines elegantly looped and dangled above the stage. If you like, think super-minimalist Calder. Then, by way of contrast, look stage right at the SITE Santa Fe piece, part of the “Story Line” installation by Santa Clara artists Eliza Naranjo Morse, Nora Naranjo Morse and Rose B Simpson.

The refined, fine-drawn grace of the Calderesque mike-lines characterizes the work of young Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman in his fine-lined reading Saturday, Aug. 9, of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” This immense, complex work is the K2 of keyboard pinnacles, one of the longest journeys in the literature, making intense intellectual, technical and spiritual demands on the performer. Glenn Gould’s love-it-or-hate-it 1955 recording, dubbed “sexy” by critic Tim Page, put both the piece and the performer squarely on the map.

My most recent encounter with “Goldberg” and his 30 variations was at a performance last year by Angela Hewett, who delivered a warm and satisfying pianistic reading. Hochman is clearly intent on making his own mark on this profound work. He’s very, very good, offering singing tone, clarity of line and a deft touch. He brings out the inner voices, playing throughout with calm assurance and authority. There’s nothing flashy or ill thought-out here. It’s all Bach all the way, including all the repeats.

His 4th variation is a model of crisp control; the three variations modeled on dance rhythms sparkle swiftly along; he conveys the austerity and anguish of variation 15 with powerful simplicity. The 25th variation, with its intensely moving minor-key eloquence and dark chromaticism, has been called the emotional center of the work. Wanda Landowska famously dubbed it the “black pearl” variation. Hochman’s stillness and deliberation here, his poised portrayal of grief and tragic understanding, brought us close to the spirit of the Passions.

In a more physical context and at another concert last week, it’s a minor shock to observe the gradual graying of the Orion String Quartet: whispers of mortality, and all that. But when they pick up their instruments—well, mortality be damned. Or so it seemed in the first two of three programs concluding their cycle of Beethoven’s quartets, a series inaugurated by the SFCMF last season.

The Thursday, Aug. 7, program featured an early (Op. 18, No. 4), a middle (Op. 59, No. 3) and a late (Op. 127) quartet. It’s well-known that in his first set of six quartets, the Op. 18, Beethoven worked with and against the Mozart-Haydn models that had defined the genre. The men of the Orion provided a powerful reading that emphasized the work’s innovational qualities, its visceral energy mingled with wit and stormy contrast.

Beethoven’s late quartets can be readily described in negative terms; they’re unearthly or unexpected or unfathomable. The Orion presented Op. 127’s mood-shifts and modulations, frankly, to perfection. And the same can be said of their exemplary reading of the third of the Op. 59, “Razumovsky” quartets.

Their August 10 concert proved to be a very Janus. Looking over his shoulder in Op. 18, No. 5, Beethoven gave a backward glance at the gracioso modes he was leaving behind. The Orion’s ingratiating performance seemed just right. And so did their reading of the ever-astonishing Op. 132, a sui generis vision of musical futurity if there ever was one. Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler—they’re all right here. In the endlessly evolving slow movement we hear the music of the spheres.  Later a hurdy-gurdy finds its way into canonic imitations. Slashing sforzando attacks signify the world’s end. If there ever was a desert-island work plus a correspondingly urgent and vital desert-island performance, the Orion Quartet proved that this was it.

Operatic redux
I’ve been told that for a time Edward Gorey attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. It’s too bad that music writers can’t do the same with, say, the Santa Fe Opera. Every performance tells a different story.

The other night I revisited Falstaff with Anthony Michaels-Moore in the title role. It’s a whole other opera from the one that opened the season on June 27—broader, quicker, wittier, with a Falstaff who’s totally at ease in his fat suit. Michaels-Moore is a natural. His comic timing, his gift for deft gesture, his cultivated voice, all make this show the overstuffed canneloni it’s supposed to be.

And a second look at Billy Budd confirmed my earlier suspicion: that this production is the ne plus ultra of retiring General Director Richard Gaddes’ tenure.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Various times and locations. Through Aug. 25.

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