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Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

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.

Baroque bizarreries

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.

Silken strings

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

El­iz­a­beth Blu­men­stock

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