Santa Fe, N.M. — With the embarrassment of riches that is the Metroplex classical music scene, why would a person travel nearly 600 miles to hear chamber music, opera, or choral performances? August, that’s why.
Not only is Santa Fe’s clement weather a blissful respite from the three-digit temps typical of our summers, but also August in Texas can induce withdrawals in music lovers accustomed to the flood of concerts available the rest of the year.
Not only that, but if the one opera and one chamber music performance I experienced in Santa Fe are at all representative, and I suspect they are, the quality of the performances is wonderfully high. Our own Gregory Sullivan Isaacs reviewed all of this year’s Santa Fe Opera productions, including Don Giovanni; the production I also saw, La Fanciulla del West; Samuel Barber’s Vanessa; Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette; and Richard Strauss’ Capriccio.
Although certainly the best-known Santa Fe musical experience, opera is not the only option. The Santa Fe Desert Chorale produces a summer as well as a winter festival, while the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is a five-week, 30-plus program adventure in works for small ensembles.
I was able to attend a Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival performance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center near the Santa Fe Plaza. It is an ornate, Spanish-style theater, built in 1931 and originally used for movies and vaudeville productions. The interior does create some acoustic challenges for performers, but its elaborate beauty is abundant recompense for the loss of acoustical precision.
The Chamber Music Festival draws some of the most outstanding musicians from the U.S. and overseas. The sometimes-challenging performances draw large crowds of enthusiastic listeners.
Sunday’s concert began with an ambitious first half: Francis Poulenc’s Le bal masque, an absurdist romp for baritone, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion was the opening piece on the program. The French text, by Max Jacob, is pure surrealist silliness, not unlike Edith Sitwell’s lyrics for William Walton’s Façade. Featured musicians included the Dallas Symphony’s own principal bassoonist, Theodore Soluri, and pianist Haochen Zhang, who was co-gold medalist in the 2009 Cliburn Competition. For the most part, all the musicians met the considerable challenges of the piece ably. With this combination of musicians, balance could easily have been a problem, and yet violinist L.P. How and cellist Eric Kim’s fine playing was audible throughout. Haochen Zhang, still in his 20s, is developing into a gifted collaborative pianist, if his excellent work on this piece is any indication.
The Orion String Quartet took the stage for the remainder of the program—first Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, as arranged by Anton Webern for piano quintet. The pianist was the eminent Peter Serkin. The arrangement played by Serkin and the Orion Quartet is one of several, but it’s a bit of an oddity in that the original instrumentation was for ten winds and five strings. The piano quintet instrumentation is more conventional, but clearly very different in timbre, balance, and other criteria from the original. In any case, this piece is formidable, requiring an extremely high level of musicianship both individually and collectively. Even those audience members who harbor no great love of Schoenberg may well have been wowed, as I was, by the abilities of all five musicians.
The post-intermission offering was Beethoven’s late String Quartet Op. 127, also performed by the Orion. While this quartet certainly offers different challenges than the Schoenberg, it, like Beethoven’s other late quartets, is an enormous undertaking in its own right. In the expert hands of the Orion, the music was thrilling. The first chords brought chills, the third movement Scherzo was suitably jaunty, and the second and fourth movements, despite a little untidiness of ensemble, were exquisitely crafted delights.
If you have the good fortune to visit Santa Fe in the summer, yes, go to the opera. But catch a Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival concert at the Lensic, too, if you can, and hear remarkable music in a charming venue.