Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s opening program
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival sidled into its 43rd season earlier this week with two go-rounds of a very long program that rewarded listeners who sat it out to the end. Again this year I cannot explain why the festival delights in opening its season with a negligible work, of which Gioachino Rossini’s three-movement Duetto for Cello and Double Bass is an exemplar. Cellist Joseph Johnson and double bassist Kristen Bruya brought technical finesse to the task. Their unison pizzicatos in the first movement and Johnson’s cantilena in the second were admirable, but when all is said and done, it was a dull 15 minutes well-played.
Pianist Kirill Gerstein then took to the stage to perform the premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Variations (Homage to Haydn), which he had commissioned. But for the title, no listener could possibly have guessed that there was a Haydn connection. In a comment printed in the program, Goehr reveals that his piece borrows some structural elements from Haydn’s F-minor Keyboard Variations. “To do this,” he maintains, “does not imply a closeness to the original, rather inevitably a distance from it.” Goehr’s aspirations did seem distant from many of Haydn’s, which very often center on wit, charisma, and unpredictability. Then, too, Haydn’s music often discloses its depths through repeated listening, and who am I to question whether or not Goehr’s Variations would do the same? Gerstein’s interpretation, rendered in pianistic grisaille, mostly stressed the piece’s three-note gestures, usually going up, sometimes going down, persevering for 10 minutes within a seemingly atonal, generally unappetizing atmosphere.
A workmanlike rendition of Mozart’s Piano-and-Winds Quintet followed. Notwithstanding nicely turned playing from some of the participants, notably pianist Jon Kimura Parker and clarinetist Todd Levy, one rarely sensed the unanimity of purpose that marks carefully considered chamber interpretations. Someone — Parker, I guess — had the idea to elongate the opening notes of the principal themes of the first and third movements. It rendered the respective melodies flat-footed rather than nimble or graceful, and in any case, the notion was adopted only sporadically by the wind contingent.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, which occupied the second half, therefore had a lot of redeeming to do. Cellist Ronald Thomas, a regular on the festival’s roster through many years, always seems to elevate the performances in which he participates. This was no exception. His deep, warm tone and unostentatious commitment set a high bar that the other players — violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Gerstein — came very close to clearing. Gerstein projected firm-handed authority, and Beilman displayed admirable accuracy even when unleashing himself on the work’s more passionate passages. It has been a pleasure to hear this young violinist mature over the past several years. At full throttle, his tone could err on the side of plangency, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Of course, it was not an issue at all in the ninth variation of the massive second movement. There the strings install mutes, and Beilman used that opportunity to produce sounds in which almost unbearable sweetness was imbued with a haunting quality. Everyone added balletic lilt in the sixth variation, and the eighth, a fugato, provided a measure of levity that was exceedingly welcome by that point. The contrasting tempos of the variations unrolled with a naturalness and logic that can only have been achieved through the musicians’ attentive forethought. — James M. Keller