James M. Keller considers two early-music concerts at San Miguel Chapel and a performance by the Brentano String Quartet
This old church: music at San Miguel Chapel
Aplacard in front of the San Miguel Chapel on Old Santa Fe Trail proclaims it to be “the oldest church in the United States,” which, by most definitions, would seem to be accurate. It is firmly documented back to 1628, and part of it may have been in place a decade or so before that. As with most old adobe buildings, whatever existed at first was transformed considerably through the centuries. In this case, the church was partially destroyed in 1640 in a feud between civic and ecclesiastical authorities. It was rebuilt, but it sustained major damage again in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When the Spanish re-established their sway in town, Don Diego de Vargas had the place repaired anew, and since 1710 it has at least been spared willful destruction. It has undergone various “improvements” and restorations since then, and the most recent refurbishment, managed throughout the past seven years by Cornerstone Community Partnerships, has brought the site to a point where it is handsome and welcoming, its most stunning feature being a towering reredos (altar screen) that dates to 1798 and incorporates some paintings that are even older than that.
A season ago, the chapel began hosting a series of mostly classical concerts under the rubric Concerts at San Miguel, the organization of which is handled through St. Michael’s High School, whose La Sallian Brothers oversee the ecclesiastical administration of the place. On Feb. 27, the series offered a program titled Rediscovered Treasures: Music of 18th-Century Spain & Mexico , featuring the Chicago Arts Orchestra Baroque Ensemble. The event was co-sponsored by Santa Fe’s Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which also presented a symposium on the subject the preceding day. The society’s members threw their zeal into this venture, filling the chapel’s hundred-plus seats entirely on the night of what must have been the city’s most daunting snowstorm of the year.
In principle, the confluence of the society, the chapel, and the orchestra made perfect sense. Although the Chicago Arts Orchestra, headed by artistic director Javier José Mendoza, programs a range of music, it has made a specialty of Spanish Colonial repertoire, an enterprise it has developed in tandem with Drew Edward Davies, its scholar in residence, who is a musicologist at Northwestern University and a researcher of Latin American cathedral archives. The evening did not disguise its academic overtones. It began with a 20-minute lecture by Davies and then further remarks from Mendoza, which proved quite head-filling even before the start of what turned out to be a very long concert.
The music all came from the cathedral archives of Durango and Mexico City, mostly by Ignacio Jerusalem, an Italian-born composer and cellist who spent time in Spain before moving on to Mexico. Items from the pens of Santiago Billoni (also Italianborn), Juan Corchado, and José Herrando also made brief appearances — plus, for indistinct reasons, a harpsichord sonata by the well-known Domenico Scarlatti. The performing group was chamber-sized, comprising two violins, cello, and harpsichord, plus three singers — some drawn from the ranks of the Chicago Arts Orchestra, others drafted from New Mexico’s talent pool.
The pieces were significant in a historical sense, but as the evening wore on it became impossible to ignore how negligible they were in strictly musical terms. Most of them adhered to a galant style, with undistinguished melodies harmonized in simple sixths or thirds, devoid of counterpoint, hardly braving even to modulate, providing chromatic drama only through the seemingly arbitrary insertion of Neapolitan (lowered supertonic) sixth chords. In short, this was music for people who might have found Pergolesi just too, too daring. Billoni’s spirited sacred aria “En su concepción” seemed marginally above average in these surroundings, a set of Corchado’s instrumental versets (written to punctuate verses of hymns) were noteworthy thanks to their arcane genre and mild chromatic touches, and a Dixit Dominus by Jerusalem (here receiving its modern-day premiere) climaxed in a pretend fugue that didn’t quite cut the mustard. Perhaps New World provincials in the 18th century would have been amazed by such music, although even they were surely not subjected to two hours of it in a concert format. And perhaps performances in old-time Durango were not unlike those heard at this performance — which is to say that they fell far short of what we could today call a professional standard. The only one of the musicians who offered an adequate performance was baritone Michael Hix, a voice professor from the University of New Mexico, who contributed solidly to some chanted psalms as well as to an excerpt from Al combate , a coronation ode celebrating the accession of Charles III of Spain in 1759. As the listeners’ advocate, it falls to me to inform the string players that intonation must occupy a place of much higher priority than they gave it.
It was announced that this is to be an ongoing collaborative project with the Hispanic Arts Society, and that next season the full Chicago Arts Orchestra will return to town to perform a concert at St. Francis Auditorium. I have not heard the complete orchestra live, and I can only hope that the society’s administration vetted the group in person and found its standards to be of an entirely different order from those conveyed by this chamber ensemble.
Aweek later, on March 7, San Miguel Chapel again resounded to the sounds of early music, and the experience could hardly have been more different. The three period-instrument musicians who assembled for the evening — violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, viola da gambist Mary Springfels, and harpsichordist Matthew Dirst — all brought serious international bona fides to the occasion, not to mention well-honed chamber-playing sensibilities that bore out the concert’s title of Music
for Severall Friends II . That name was actually borrowed from the concert’s opening piece, a suite by the 17th-century English composer Matthew Locke, which achieved particularly infectious swing in its Courante movement. A handful of other English pieces ensued, including anonymous divisions (i.e., variations) on the then-popular tunes “Greensleeves” and “Paul’s Steeple” and concluding with a suite by William Lawes, which upped the ante for weirdness as only the English Baroque composers could do. In the midst of the set came a winning interpretation of William Byrd’s “Walsingham,” a solo for Dirst, who rendered it at a leisurely pace that allowed an unanticipated intersection of severity and luxury. More Baroque oddness, in what is known as the
stylus phantasticus (fantastical style), lay ahead in selections by 17th-century Germanic composers. Springfels brought panache to her rendition of a Sonatina by the obscure Augustinus Kerzinger, partic-
ularly delighting the ear with her precise rendition of echo phrases; Dirst plumbed the chromatic intensity of a Toccata and Capriccio for harpsichord by the cosmopolitan Johann Jakob Froberger; and Blumenstock led a searing, “take no prisoners” interpretation of the C-minor Sonata from the 1681 sonata collection of the Austrian Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, negotiating the requisite retuning ( scordatura ) of her top string midway through with admirable accuracy. The final set comprised J.S. Bach’s C-minor Sonata for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord and his G-major Trio Sonata (BWV 1039), the latter given in the performers’ hybridized but logical arrangement for their three instruments. Unfortunately, both of the string instruments proved a bit out of sorts in this concluding set, with what sounded like slipped tuning pegs creating moments of stress. This reflects no shortcoming of the performers’, and in fact it was a testament to their expertise that they recovered from their instruments’ orneriness as unflappably as they did. Of particular note was Blumenstock’s unorthodox grouping of certain notes in the finale of the Violin and Harpsichord Sonata, an imaginative idea that injected a frisky sense of rhythmic displacement, underscoring how Bach’s violin writing grew out of the quirkiness we had just heard in Biber. A commendable venture in its own right, this second installment of Music for Severall
Friends was especially welcome in light of the scarcity of period-instrument performance in our town. The program was beautifully scaled to the San Miguel Chapel, where one hopes these players will return in future seasons.
On March 8, the Brentano String Quartet held sway at the St. Francis Auditorium, courtesy of Santa Fe Pro Musica. The foursome is one of America’s finest, and its musicianship proved topdrawer throughout. Again, there was a recalcitrant instrument. Hardly had the group begun Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat major (Op. 50, No. 1) than first violinist Mark Steinberg’s instrument popped a string, which necessarily brought things to a halt while a replacement string was installed. Was it something with the weather last weekend?
The ensemble played the piece with a glossy tone, and its attention to niceties of phrasing and balance served as models for what chamber players ought to aspire to — for example, in the elegantly shaded variations of the second movement and in the uncannily perfect group attacks of the finale. One element did leave me scratching my head. The first movement opens with an example of portato , which cellist Nina Lee rendered with textbook perfection: a series of repeated notes played while the bow keeps moving in the same direction, creating a throbbing effect. In the context, it was probably Haydn’s obeisance to the cello-playing monarch Friedrich Wilhelm II, to whom the Op. 50 set is dedicated. The motif is later taken up by second violin and then first violin, and I did not understand why the violins played it so much more legato than the cello had — a rendering they maintained with absolute consistency every time it arrived. With a group of this quality, you can be sure it was a conscious decision; but I couldn’t see the advantage in the players’ not matching each other as closely as possible in what at heart qualifies as a thematic recurrence.
The String Quartet No. 3 of Scottish composer James MacMillan is an imposing piece, its three movements spanning nearly half an hour. After its initial modal melody, which sounds vaguely Japanese, it wastes little time finding its footing in the Land of Anguish, where the dense deployment of forces in the opening movement creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. Texture is more varied in the middle movement, but at that point the score is overtaken by a plethora of modernist clichés that I wish MacMillan had employed more selectively. The first movement’s “bird shrieks” and wild pizzicatos now give way to knocking on wood, bowing behind the bridge, bowing col legno (i.e., with the wooden part of the bow interfacing with the string), and so on. Gradually it dawns on a listener that the whole thing is a tribute to Shostakovich. That idea becomes difficult to shake when the third movement unrolls as a study in poignancy and desolation, its protracted harmonies and suspensions recalling the unremitting adagios of that composer’s Quartet No. 15, right down to its fade-out into nothingness. To conclude, the Brentanos offered a splendid reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. They stretched their silken sound in different directions to serve interpretative needs, achieving haunting, ethereal passages in the opening Allegro and paragraphs of proto-Brahmsian muscularity in some of the second-movement variations.
Brentano String Quartet