Jon Kimura Parker
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival moves into action on Sunday evening, July 19, when it launches its 43rd season. The organization will again be operating within its comfort zone. Its 35 mainstage concerts (not counting youth concerts and four run-outs to Albuquerque) are weighted toward very familiar pieces by very familiar composers, and the performing roster is heavy with the names of musicians who appear annually with the festival and, in some cases, are probably already booked here for years to come.
An advantage of such a strategy is that music lovers who attend the festival’s concerts with any regularity will be in a pretty good position to handicap the offerings. If you liked the way the Orion String Quartet played Beethoven’s Op. 127 last time, you will probably like it again this time. If you could hardly wait to applaud at the end of the most recent performance played here by the Miró, Miami, or Johannes Quartets, you will probably be eager to do the same this summer. The most exciting self-standing foursome in the whole lineup this season is the Dover Quartet, which was unusually fine in its festival debut performances last summer. The group will be back this season, but only to play a single piece: Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet, as part of the final concert of the season, on Aug. 24.
One entirely new ensemble will bow at the festival this year, the Montrose Trio, which offers piano trios by Turina (his Second), Beethoven (his First), and Brahms (his First) at St. Francis Auditorium on Thursday, July 23. Although the group is just recently minted, it consists of three distinguished chambermusic veterans who are well-known in these parts: violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith, who played together for more than a decade in the now-disbanded Tokyo Quartet, along with pianist Jon Kimura Parker.
Parker also takes the stage all alone this week, on Tuesday, July 21 (at St. Francis Auditorium), for the first of the festival’s popular noontime concerts. This Canadian pianist, who teaches at the Shepherd School of Music of Houston’s Rice University, makes the rounds of notable orchestras and concert halls, but he always seems to have some unusual, gratifying project up his sleeve as well, which may add to the sense of personal and intellectual bonhomie he projects. He has toured outposts in the frozen Arctic, performed in war-torn Sarajevo, and kept Canadian music lovers engaged through his television and radio broadcasts — and does now through the “Concerto Chat” video series on his YouTube channel.
His recital program this Tuesday opens with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor “quasi una fantasia,” popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata. Everybody has surely been exposed to brooding interpretations of its opening Adagio sostenuto movement; but very often those are glimpsed at an amateur level, and top-notch professionals program the piece less frequently than you might think. In any case, the sonata is much more than just its first movement, and particularly its finale, an unbridled Presto agitato, can convey drama of the most violent sort. From there, Parker moves on to two works that figure on a CD of piano fantasies he released last November through the idealistic music-distribution service CD Baby. The first is by Beethoven’s great admirer Franz Schubert, his Wanderer Fantasy. This is one of Schubert’s most virtuosic keyboard works. Its technical demands proved enduringly fascinating even to Franz Liszt, the premier pianist of the post-Schubert generation. Liszt went so far as to transcribe the piece into a version for piano plus orchestra, and it seems that when he came to write his own towering Piano Sonata in B minor, he did so with Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy hovering as a formal model.
To conclude his recital, Parker serves up a fantasy work that will be new to nearly all listeners: William Hirtz’s Wizard of Oz Fantasy. Though he’s far from a household name, Hirtz is a fluent musician who is mostly active as a songwriter and an orchestrator of film scores. (One cannot resist quoting André Previn’s assessment of him, posted on Hirtz’s website: “Bill has to decide whether to become John Williams or Horowitz.”) Parker writes that Hirtz “can work pianistic miracles out of harmony, rhythm and texture” and explains how the piece came about: “Several years ago he showed me a piano duet Fantasy that he had composed using several of Harold Arlen’s iconic themes from The Wizard of Oz soundtrack. It was joyous, technically raucous, and seemingly featured dozens of notes all at once. I jokingly commented that if he could arrange this Fantasy for one piano two hands I would happily play it. I thought nothing more about it.” Several months later, pages dense with musical notation began spewing out of Parker’s fax machine. “I recognized the music — it was indeed the Fantasy arranged for two hands — but couldn’t imagine how it might be played. I called Bill and complained, ‘Hey, didn’t you know that when you rearrange a four-hand work for two hands, that you’re supposed to leave out some of the notes!!’ … It’s one of the most difficult works I’ve played, period.”
Of the four further solo-piano recitals that pepper the season, two seem especially promising. On July 30, Parker’s fellow Canadian Marc-André Hamelin plays another of Schubert’s major keyboard achievements, the towering Sonata in B-flat major (D. 960), preceded by a work titled Toward the Center by Yehudi Wyner (also Canadianborn, though he grew up in the United States and has pursued his long and distinguished career at leading universities in this country). Wyner wrote this fantasy in 1988 to honor the retirement of pianist Ward Davenny from the faculty of the Yale School of Music, where they were colleagues for many years. Then on Aug. 18, Anne-Marie McDermott pays a return
visit, offering works by two composers with whom she shows a strong affinity. The pieces she has programmed, Bach’s Partita No. 2 and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, are both highlights of her recorded catalogue, benefitting from her combination of technical dazzle, musical clarity, and emotional breath.
Solo recitals stand a bit outside the central mission of a chamber music festival, to be sure. Nearly all the programs of actual chamber music hew to the organization’s variably rewarding mix-and-match format, in which each piece features different personnel and the individual items in a concert have no particular connection from one to the other. It creates work for the people who rearrange the furniture onstage, but apart from that, the benefits of this over-familiar format are elusive. It is accordingly easier to recommend individual pieces within programs than programs in their entirety this summer.
One of the entries that looks especially promising is the Piano Quintet of Leo Ornstein, which Hamelin and the Johannes String Quartet will perform on Aug. 2 and 3. Ornstein, who died in 2002 at the age of either one hundred and eight or one hundred and nine, was a brash modernist in his youth, and his Piano Quintet, from 1927, incorporates quite a bit of the then-new musical ways of thinking. It is a large-scale work — its three movements span about 40 minutes — and it moves with quicksilver finesse through passages that may suggest nighttime mystery à la Bartók, romantic flair à la Rachmaninoff, and Jewish cantillation à la Bloch. In a good performance, it packs a punch. Another piano quintet that should be worth a detour is Bartók’s, which McDermott and the Miami String Quartet will perform on Aug. 16 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. This is an early work in which the composer began to express his distinctive style while still in the embrace of the influence he inherited from Liszt and Brahms. The Miami String Quartet is not noted for finesse in classic works, but it may prove well-suited to the emerging Bartók; and about McDermott one would have no cause for doubt.
Sean Shepherd’s String Quartet No. 2, which is one of this year’s two festival commissions, will be entrusted to the FLUX Quartet for two outings, on Aug. 6 and 7 (following its world premiere the preceding night in Albuquerque — take that, Santa Fe!). Now in his mid-30s, Shepherd tends toward an intricate style that provides a lot of information to process at first hearing, but his music also conveys logic and security that will convince most listeners to stick with it. His achievements have won him exposure at a high level. He spent two years as a composer-fellow at the Cleveland Orchestra, and in 2012 he was the first person named as the Kravis Emerging Composer of the New York Philharmonic. The Festival’s other commission is a set of Seven Impromptus for Two Pianos by Alexander Goehr (scheduled for Aug. 17). Two further pieces commissioned by parties other than the Festival will receive their first hearings: Goehr’s Variations (Homage to Haydn), commissioned by pianist Kirill Gerstein, who will play it on Sunday, July 19, and Monday,
July 20; and a guitar quintet by Marc Neikrug, the Festival’s artistic director, commissioned by a member of the Festival’s advisory council and scheduled on Aug. 9 and 10. The latter work includes among its interpreters Łukasz Kuropaczewski, a Polish guitarist still in the formative stage of his career; he will appear in programs four days running, including a solo recital. Guitar aficionados will more naturally gravitate toward the recital by the more established David Starobin, although for some reason his free “Indian Market concert,” at St. Francis Auditorium on Aug. 21, does not figure either on the Festival’s website calendar or on some of the circulars the group is distributing. We are assured that it is taking place, though.
The organization’s artist-in-residence this summer is Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, who fulfilled the same role three seasons ago. On that occasion he appeared as a violist in addition to conducting various pieces. This year he will be on the podium the whole time, conducting Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat major (K. 361), the Gran Partita, at the Lensic on Aug. 22, and Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles … (From the Canyons to the Stars …) in the same hall the following evening. The Mozart is a supernal work for 12 winds plus double bass, a piece most music lovers want to visit often. The Messiaen is a monumental entry in the repertoire: 12 movements (divided among three sections, the whole running beyond an hour and a half) inspired by a trip in 1972 during which the composer and his wife visited some of the most spectacular sites of the American West, including the national parks of Bryce Canyon and Zion. These concerts are self-recommending, and if you don’t have tickets reserved yet, you would be unwise to wait much longer. The Mozart serenade sits at the edge of the traditional definition of chamber music, which involves relatively small ensembles with a separate musician on each part, the group almost always playing without a conductor. The Messiaen requires resources still more vast; its birdsong and sublimity is entrusted to 44 players, and it could not be essayed without a conductor. In any case, it appears to be the only piece in this summer’s lineup that truly supports the idea of “festival,” even if it sets aside the concept of “chamber music” to do so.
Jon Kimura Parker
Johannes String Quartet