Singing Strings; The Chamber Music Festival’s opening week doesn’t disappoint

Shai Wosner
Santa Fe Reporter

By John Stege

If you sensed the flutter of phantom wings at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s concerts on July 19 and 20 in the St. Francis Auditorium, that would have been the pale shade of Marcel Proust.

His summons? Libations of Gallic melody composed in the hyper-civilized manner of his own fiction.

Claude Debussy’s music dominated the pre-intermission program: his “Sonata for Cello and Piano” and the rarely heard second version of the “Chansons de Bilitis.”

Pierre Louÿs’ literary hoax, pretending 143 Sapphic prose poems to be the work of the imaginary Bilitis, enchanted Debussy. He set three of those poems for mezzo-soprano and, in 1901, chose a dozen to be recited with instrumental accompaniment. Sensuous and erotic, the texts received an elegant low-key reading by Claire Bloom. Two flutes (Tara Helen O’Connor and Bart Feller), two harps (June Han and Giuseppina Ciarla ) and celesta (Mark Neikrug) provided the insinuating, superchromatic accompaniment.

Bloom returned to narrate another rarity, André Caplet’s “Conte Fantastique,” a creepy Debussy-esque meditation on Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” The Johannes String Quartet plus harpist Han accompanied Bloom. Hectic, a bit silly, the piece was worth hearing. Once.

Debussy’s sonata received a vivid reading by cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and Neikrug, now on piano. They’d opened with Gabriel Fauré’s “Elegy, Op. 24,” a sad salon morsel that the melancholiac Proust must have savored. Post-intermission, violinist Soovin Kim, cellist Peter Stumpf and pianist Shai Wosner offered a beautifully paced performance of Brahms’ “Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 8.” That ineffable Adagio movement sounded, well, ineffable.

The Festival cranked up on July 23 with a full house, an enticing program and an attractive gaggle of string players, again the Johannes String Quartet. Every string quartet has its own character. Or lack of it. The Johannes is all about transparency—no showboating, just the music, ma’am. They opened with Mozart’s “Quartet No. 23, K 590,” so-called the “Prussian” since it was the last of three quartets composed for Friedrich Wilhelm II, king of Prussia and a gifted cellist. Not surprisingly, the cello has plenty to do, and Stumpf made the most of it. The work received a solid, unexceptional reading.

The concert caught fire with the other quartet on the program: Béla Bartók’s “Quartet No. 4,” a knotty, unpredictable exercise in mood and texture. From the work’s disturbing monologues to its violent folk energy, the Johannes String Quartet probed its guts with precision and rhythmic ferocity.

The centerpiece of last Sunday’s concert, the premiere of a festival co-commission by the elder statesman Gunther Schuller, cast a reflective eye on his earliest musical career. He began as a professional horn player some 70 years ago, eventually at The Metropolitan Opera. His new work, “Quintet for Horn and Strings,” was written for the present principal horn there, Julie Landsman. She performed it here with the Miró Quartet.

The opening Moderato is largely for horn obbligato over busy string passagework. The Lento that follows takes the form of a quiet serenade, the horn in sotto voce. After a brief agitated section, the movement returns to music of the night. The concluding Rondo, again, gives the strings plenty to do, with interjections and distorted hunting calls from the horn. And then it’s abruptly, inconclusively over.

Although skillfully performed, the work has an unassimilated quality; it’s filled with potentially valuable musical ideas but seems more a sketch than a coherent entity. Not so with Carl Maria von Weber’s familiar “Clarinet Quintet, Op. 34,” which concluded the program. Now it was the Santa Fe Opera’s principal clarinetist, Todd Levy, who joined the Miró Quartet for a lively, lovely reading of the work.

Levy’s graceful pianissimo runs and his singing bel canto phrasing gave particular pleasure. And so did Miró’s opener, Joseph Haydn’s “String Quartet, Op. 74, No. 2:” quick, crisp and finely articulated throughout.