Capital C that rhymes with T that stands for Tengstrand
In the realm of classical music, Classical music with a capital C — denoting compositions from the second half of the 18th century — sets a standard when it comes to rhetorical logic and balanced discourse. Much of it is technically unencumbered when compared to the virtuosic demands of ensuing centuries, but it makes its own unforgiving demands involving elegant lines and exposed textures. Santa Fe Pro Musica devotes a weekend to Classical repertoire every year during this season, offering two go-rounds of an orchestral program plus a recital by the week’s soloist. This year the organization was thrown for a loop when the scheduled soloist withdrew only a couple of weeks earlier “due to an unexpected situation” (to quote the group’s tantalizing words), and it brought in as a substitute Per Tengstrand, a Swedish pianist who had appeared with the ensemble on several previous occasions.
Poor soul. He apparently picked up a bug en route, and then his solo recital fell on an evening when Santa Fe was socked by an aggressive snowstorm, which greatly diminished attendance. At least the show went on, and three cheers for that. To Tengstrand fell the closing number on the symphonic program, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor (K. 491). He and the orchestra, conducted by Thomas O’Connor, seemed generally in sympathy with this concerto’s demonic soul, but in the end their interpretation proved mostly monochromatic. Piano scales were very often not more than just scales. In the first movement, for example, they failed to build momentum and drama at the critical juncture where the development cascades into the recapitulation, a case in point of the way in which the best composers designed Classical-era structures to pack an emotional wallop. Here it was a neglected opportunity. Missed notes are not usually serious offenses in and of themselves, but it became increasingly hard to overlook the many off-target landings of Tengstrand’s fingers, the momentary dissonances inflicting little scars on Mozart’s crystalline texture. As Mozart did not write a cadenza for the first movement, Tengstrand played one he had prepared himself, in the course of which he worked his way toward an imaginative passage that flirted with Lisztian harmonies. His best playing arrived in the middle part of the opening rondo refrain, a passage he endowed with rhythmic élan and tonal shading that would have been welcome everywhere in the piece.
The “off” flavor of the concerto was exacerbated by the orchestra’s wind section, particularly the oboes and clarinets, which seemed to sense that they would not project over the piano and overcompensated by projecting unpleasantly strident timbres. This was baffling, as the winds had not shown this tendency in the concert’s opening item, Haydn’s Oxford Symphony. In fact, the orchestra’s sound in that work was centered in the deeper reaches, and more brightness from the oboes might have injected some light into the turgid textures. On the whole, the Haydn came across as tense and unremitting. The notes were in place, but one wished for more careful distinction in the articulation of phrases and more meticulous highlighting of the differences that separate one idea from the next — in short, a more clearly delineated character. These were solid, honorable performances, but if works by Haydn and Mozart are to be presented specifically in the context of a Classical Weekend, one might reasonably expect that the performance would be crafted with special attention to the niceties of that style.
The most satisfying expanse of the concert came in the middle with Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. While not a work from the Classical period, it draws inspiration from that era. Composed in 1937-1938, it is one of Stravinsky’s so-called neoclassical works. Although it was ostensibly inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and actually quotes the third of them at its outset, its placement in this concert helpfully underscored the fact that it owes as much or more to Haydn. Here the group’s sonorities were beautifully balanced. Stravinsky’s tricky rhythms kept players and listeners on the edges of their seats, and the audience seemed delightedly swept up in the work’s motoric buoyancy.
May I tell a story? Stravinsky called the piece merely Concerto in E-flat. It was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, a socially prominent couple who lived in a mansion named Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. It sat (and still sits) above the Potomac at a spot that had long been called the Rock of Dumbarton because of its presumed resemblance to Dumbarton Rock in Scotland. The Blisses arranged for Stravinsky’s French acolyte Nadia Boulanger to conduct the premiere at their mansion. Stravinsky was in Europe at the time and was baffled by the telegram he received from them: “Performance Concerto Dumbarton Oaks Worthy of the Work.” The curious name threw him for a loop, and he wrote to his publisher: “It wasn’t Nadia who conducted, for reasons they don’t give me. Illness? Or was she at the last minute afraid of not knowing the work well enough? According to Mrs. Bliss’s cable it was a certain Dumbarton Oaks who conducted.” When the Blisses’ message was explained to him, he was perfectly content that his piece should be named after their house. Not so his publisher, who protested that “in both French and German it sounds like the noises of ducks or frogs.”