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In the Desert, Echoes of Compositions, One With the Ink Still Wet
The New York Times
By Anthony Tommasini
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in New Mexico
There are many tales in music history of composers frantically trying to finish a commissioned work and completing it just in time. Or sometimes not. So it was at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
One of the works the festival commissioned for its 40th season this summer was a piece for clarinet and piano by Magnus Lindberg, to be performed by the clarinetist Chen Halevi with Mr. Lindberg at the piano. The premiere took place as scheduled at a noontime concert Thursday in St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the airy and intimate performance space in the center of the city where most concerts are presented.
It was a close call. Before the program began, Steven Ovitsky, the festival’s executive director, announced that Mr. Lindberg had put “the final touches” on the piece at 1:30 that morning and came up with the title at the last moment as well. That would be “Acequia Madre,” and when the savvy audience heard it, people broke out laughing. The Spanish phrase, which means “Mother Ditch,” refers to the oldest irrigation ditch in Santa Fe.
The commanding performance of this 11-minute piece suggested that the final touches may not have been that extensive, or that Mr. Halevi and Mr. Lindberg are experts at the honorable musical tradition of faking. “Acequia Madre” opens with a stern, four-note theme, punched out on the piano, embedded in thick chords and driven home by the clarinet with raspy power. The music unfolds in fits, hurtling forward with cluster chords, skittish piano runs and wailing clarinet lines that segue into elusive riffs.
Overall the harmonic language is modernist and steely. Yet in an intriguing internal conflict, the musical gestures are often stirring and neo-Romantic, like something Rachmaninoff might write if he were working today. The intense music keeps threatening to break out into some form of animated release but never does.
After “Acequia Madre” these two musicians were joined by the cellist Anssi Karttunen for a performance of Mr. Lindberg’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano (2008). The first movement opens with ominous, grumbling figures in the lowest range of the piano. The clarinet and cello come to the rescue by playing rising, beckoning melodic lines that animate the stuck-in-place piano and crest to intense highs, only to dissolve over and over into descending cascades. I liked best the third and final movement, in which for the first time the piece settles into an extended episode of pulsating music, all breathless energy and fractured phrases.
At last summer’s festival I heard the Orion String Quartet play Schubert’s astonishing final String Quartet in G. What are the odds that on my few days in Santa Fe this week I would again be present for a performance of that 45-minute masterpiece? This time it was the Miró Quartet that ended Thursday’s noontime program with an exceptional account of the piece. The ensemble played with lithe tempos and lean textures, beautifully balancing cool refinement and intense expressivity.
The Miró Quartet was back that evening to open a different program with an ardent performance of Barber’s early String Quartet in B. The achingly sad, slow movement is famous in its guise as a work for string orchestra, “Adagio for Strings.” The directness and clarity of the quartet’s performance of the original made the beefed-up version seem almost obvious in comparison.
The brilliant pianist Kirill Gerstein gave a fleecy account of Oliver Knussen’s bewitching piano piece “Ophelia’s Last Dance” and was the sparkling partner for the violinist Ida Kavafian in Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A. They were then joined by Mr. Halevi for Bartok’s “Contrasts,” a performance so rhapsodic and impish you would have thought the players were improvising.
But a program early Friday evening was a missed opportunity. It was called “A Tribute to Peter Lieberson,” presented in honor of this distinguished American composer, who died last year at 64. (Mr. Lieberson lived in Santa Fe for the last years of his life.) But this concert was not much of a tribute. Just two Lieberson works for cello and piano were performed, both wonderful, and both played beautifully by the cellist Felix Fan and the pianist Andrew Russo: Three Variations (1996) and “Remembering Schumann” (2009), a three-movement piece that evokes the spirit and musical gestures of Schumann but is through-and-through Lieberson.
The program was filled out with repeat performances of pieces heard the previous day: Mr. Lindberg’s long Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, and Mr. Knussen’s “Ophelia’s Last Dance.” There was also a performance of Mr. Knussen’s “Requiem: Songs for Sue,” an affecting piece for soprano (Tony Arnold) and chamber orchestra (conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky), written in memory of Mr. Knussen’s wife, who died in 2003. Presenting Mr. Lieberson in context with fellow composers was a promising idea, but there was something gratuitous about repeating works that had just been heard and calling the program a tribute.
On some days this Santa Fe Festival can seem like an outpost of the New York music scene. This week Alan Gilbert arrives as artist in residence to conduct and play works by Strauss, Schoenberg and others. Mr. Lindberg is familiar to New York Philharmonic audiences from his three seasons as the orchestra’s composer in residence, which just ended.
The festival’s current offerings, under the artistic direction of the composer and pianist Marc Neikrug, are varied and enticing: 41 programs and 5 youth concerts; some 100 musicians playing nearly 90 works. Coming up are the New Mexico premieres of recent works by David Del Tredici and Aaron Jay Kernis, scores that have been performed elsewhere and are therefore quite complete. The festival directors can relax.