Lis­ten Up

James M. Keller re­views the Fes­ti­val of Song se­ries; a con­cert of cham­ber works by Jen­nifer Higdon; and a new work from Sean Shep­herd

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Three cheers for the Scot­tish Rite Cen­ter. I had rather taken the place for granted un­til sud­denly it was de­clared off lim­its to per­form­ing groups in 2014, and the colos­sal pink struc­ture be­gan its on­a­gain-off-again trek through the real-es­tate list­ings. Af­ter much soul-search­ing, the Ma­sons de­cided they could gen­er­ate the re­sources needed to main­tain the cen­tury-old struc­ture af­ter all. The happy re­sult is that this sum­mer, fol­low­ing a year­long scram­ble of dis­place­ment, mu­sic lovers are again con­gre­gat­ing in the build­ing’s au­di­to­rium to en­joy per­for­mances against the his­toric, hand-painted back­drops of me­dieval cas­tles or forested glades. The 250 seats on the main floor are com­fort­ably up­hol­stered, rea­son­ably spaced from row to row, and af­ford gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent sight lines. The 102 seats up­stairs are less invit­ing; I have some­times won­dered if they were de­signed to gen­er­ate new busi­ness for the town’s chi­ro­prac­tors. But the down­stairs en­cap­su­lates com­fort and in­ti­macy, pro­vid­ing a pleas­ant set­ting ide­ally scaled for cham­ber mu­sic or song recitals.

Per­for­mance Santa Fe took up res­i­dence there dur­ing the open­ing stretch of Au­gust for its “Fes­ti­val of Song” se­ries, which it presents an­nu­ally to spot­light some of the singers ap­pear­ing at Santa Fe Opera. I caught the first and last of the three of­fer­ings, on Aug. 2 and Aug. 9, miss­ing a recital by so­prano Anna Christy that took place be­tween. The idea of the se­ries, at least in prin­ci­ple, is to give the singers a fo­rum in which to dis­play their artistry as in­ter­preters of song. Whereas suc­cess on the opera stage may re­quire beam­ing a voice and a dra­matic char­ac­ter­i­za­tion through­out a good-sized au­di­to­rium — reach­ing 2,128 seats in the case of Santa Fe Opera, not count­ing stand­ing room — in­ter­preters of art songs usu­ally are more at home in a smaller space, where it is eas­ier to con­vey more de­tailed mu­si­cal del­i­ca­cies and gen­er­ate per­sonal rap­port with the au­di­ence.

The open­ing act in the se­ries was a joint con­cert by so­prano Mar­jorie Owens and bari­tone Quinn Kelsey (as­sisted by pi­anist Ta­mara Sanikidze), who did not cap­i­tal­ize on the op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ti­macy that the hall af­forded. Kelsey has made a strong im­pres­sion in Rigo­letto’s ti­tle role this sum­mer. Owens is not on the com­pany’s ros­ter, but she is mar­ried to Kelsey and has an es­timable opera ré­sumé in her own right. Both pos­sess big voices, which they some­times let ring out at gale force. The recital was struc­tured in an un­grat­i­fy­ing way. In song recitals, ex­pe­ri­enced lis­ten­ers know to dis­count the open­ing set of pieces, where soloists of­ten ad­just their bear­ings be­fore re­ally find­ing their mojo in the en­su­ing num­bers. Here, Kelsey sang a group by Brahms, and then Owens of­fered a set by Du­parc; both sets qual­i­fied as “set­tling in,” and nei­ther was con­veyed with enough aban­don to al­low for much sto­ry­telling or tone paint­ing. By that time, a third of this short recital was over. Kelsey re­turned to sing three songs by Ger­ald Finzi, all to Shake­speare texts. He is a stately and solemn singer by na­ture, and the long-span­ning lines of “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” (from Cym­be­line) proved ideal for his tem­per­a­ment. I find his voice es­pe­cially re­ward­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate for its tech­ni­cal as­pects. At least at this point in his de­vel­op­ment, his deep bari­tone is un­ques­tion­ably ap­peal­ing in its tim­bre, but he strays lit­tle from his es­sen­tial color. None­the­less, his singing evokes con­stant ad­mi­ra­tion of the ab­so­lute se­cu­rity of his vo­cal place­ment. Of­ten a note is at the “sweet spot” right from the at­tack; some­times, a lis­tener hears him ze­ro­ing in on it and seiz­ing it quickly, al­low­ing for no de­viance from the ex­act place he wants to lo­cate it in the phys­i­cal net­work of his res­o­nant body. Lis­ten­ing to him is a les­son in the fun­da­men­tal ab­so­lutes of vo­cal prac­tice.

Owens’ sec­ond solo set, three songs by Strauss, in­cluded an ex­pan­sive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the much-loved “Wiegen­lied,” and that was the end, so far as the song recital was con­cerned. I do not ap­plaud the idea of giv­ing a song recital over to op­er­atic ex­cerpts; the song reper­toire is so rich and the op­por­tu­nity cost is ac­cord­ingly dear. But it did seem that the au­di­ence was hun­gry for red meat, so per­haps the cou­ple was right to pro­gram an ex­tended, high-deci­bel duet, “Wie aus der Ferne” from Wag­ner’s

Der fliegende Hol­län­der (The Fly­ing Dutch­man). That and an en­core — the duet “Mira, d’acerbe la­grime” from Act 3 of Verdi’s Il trova­tore — re­ceived fullthrot­tle read­ings that made the ear­lier songs seem all the more pal­lid in com­par­i­son, which should not be the take-away from a song recital.

The fi­nal con­cert had an un­ac­cus­tomed twist; in­stead of show­cas­ing lead­ing singers, it as­sem­bled eight mem­bers of Santa Fe Opera’s ap­pren­tice pro­gram for an ami­able hour of vo­cal cham­ber works by Schu­bert, Schu­mann, Rossini, and Brahms. A col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit in­hab­its this se­ries in the first place, and that fla­vor was here re­in­forced through the par­tic­i­pa­tion of artis­tic heads of both or­ga­ni­za­tions who served as the con­cert’s pi­anists: Joseph Il­lick, who is the gen­eral di­rec­tor of Per­for­mance Santa Fe, and Harry Bicket, who is chief con­duc­tor of Santa Fe Opera. The ap­pren­tices are all highly ac­com­plished, if still in the early stages of their pro­fes­sional ca­reers. They keep busy up at the Opera, serv­ing as cho­ris­ters, ap­pear­ing in small parts, and stand­ing by as cover singers to leap in if un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances should ar­rive. More re­hearsal would have yielded more metic­u­lous in­ter­pre­ta­tions, but the recital none­the­less in­cluded some care­fully crafted re­fine­ments. It was an en­joy­able con­cert, burst­ing with con­vivi­al­ity. A touch of the op­er­atic ar­rived by way of “I gon­do­lieri,” a sa­lon quar­tet that opens the first vol­ume of Rossini’s Péchés de vieil­lesse (“Sins of Old Age), which was not ac­tu­ally staged but none­the­less in­cor­po­rated soupçons of dra­matic in­ter­ac­tion; as in­di­vid­ual singers pre­pared for turns in solo mo­ments, the glances of their col­leagues led view­ers’ eyes in

In a con­cert of cham­ber works by Jen­nifer Higdon, the strictly in­stru­men­tal pieces were en­er­gized from the in­side out.

other di­rec­tions, con­stantly en­hanc­ing the el­e­ment of sur­prise and keep­ing the au­di­ence slyly en­ter­tained. The same could be said of their en­core, the mu­si­cally hi­lar­i­ous “La pas­sag­giata,” which closes the same Rossini col­lec­tion that “I gon­do­lieri” launches. It was a re­fresh­ing dessert.

The main course in this con­cert was Brahms’ muchloved Liebeslieder Waltzes (Op. 52), with the clos­ing num­ber of his se­quel col­lec­tion, Neue Liebeslieder

Waltzes, tacked on for good mea­sure. Il­lick and Bicket seemed to be en­joy­ing their four-hand par­tic­i­pa­tion to the fullest. The vo­cal per­for­mance was in­fused with en­thu­si­asm, if not with a great deal of Gemütlichkeit. The po­ten­tial mys­tery of the fifth song, “Die grüne Hopfen­ranken,” ac­cord­ingly went rel­a­tively un­plumbed, while the more straight­for­ward Mag­yar kick of the 11th, “Nein, es ist nicht auszukom­men,” was vi­va­cious in­deed. I would hap­pily hear any of the eight singers again, but there was none­the­less one who took the prize for Best of Show: tenor Aaron Short, a sec­ond-year ap­pren­tice. He has a lovely, sweet voice; he projects an un­pre­pos­sess­ing stage man­ner; and he put across a pleas­ing nat­u­ral­ness through his em­phases of dic­tion and vo­cal color.

Back on July 26, the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum hosted a con­cert of cham­ber works by Jen­nifer Higdon, an event put to­gether jointly by Santa Fe Opera and the Al­bu­querque en­sem­ble Chat­ter, and cu­rated by Opera Or­ches­tra flutist Bart Feller. Higdon’s first opera, Cold Moun­tain, would re­ceive its pre­miere the fol­low­ing week­end, but this pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for lis­ten­ers to ac­cli­mate them­selves to the sort of work she has achieved in cham­ber for­mats, go­ing back as early as 1988 and stretch­ing as re­cently as 2013. I found the opera’s score more com­pelling in its or­ches­tral writ­ing than in its vo­cal parts, which did not sur­prise me. Higdon was trained as an in­stru­men­tal­ist (a flutist, to be pre­cise), and prior to com­pos­ing her opera, her em­pha­sis was strongly on in­stru­men­tal mu­sic. The cham­ber pro­gram in­cluded both vo­cal and in­stru­men­tal works, and it was telling that the au­di­ence, which filled ev­ery seat of the mu­seum’s au­di­to­rium, ap­peared pal­pa­bly riv­eted on the in­stru­men­tal pieces and less in­volved dur­ing the vo­cal ones. This is the op­po­site of what usu­ally hap­pens; nor­mally singers, armed as they are with words to con­vey, have a leg up when it comes to au­di­ence con­nec­tion. I don’t think the singers were specif­i­cally to blame for this. Mezzo-so­prano Megan Marino did honor to two pieces from Higdon’s Bent­ley

Roses cy­cle (2002), which in­cludes some writ­ing rem­i­nis­cent of Bar­ber’s Knoxville: Sum­mer of 1915, some folk­ish modal­ity, and some heart­land cho­rale ref­er­ences; and so­prano Ade­laide Boedecker sang worthily in ex­cerpts from the cy­cle Love Sweet (2013). But in both cases, the vo­cal lines seemed du­ti­ful, their decla­ma­tions sound­ing less richly imag­ined than the in­stru­men­tal parts that sur­rounded them.

The strictly in­stru­men­tal pieces, on the other hand, were en­er­gized from the in­side out. DASH, from 2001, was an aptly ti­tled moto per­petuo for flute, clar­inet, and pi­ano; and its 2005 re­com­po­si­tion, as

SMASH (with vi­o­lin, vi­ola, and cello added to the in­stru­men­tar­ium) added solid ground­ing to the pre­ex­is­tent perk­i­ness. Steely Pause (1988), for four flutes (Higdon’s own in­stru­ment), was an en­ter­tain­ing study in ris­ing “flute calls” that over­lapped or suc­ceeded one another in quick suc­ces­sion, also mak­ing ef­fec­tive use of flut­ter-tongu­ing. Ce­les­tial Hymns (2000, for clar­inet, vi­o­lin, vi­ola, cello, and pi­ano) is cut from some of the same cloth as Higdon’s most fa­mous piece,

blue cathe­dral, but it has a bit more of a Broad­way feel, maybe like Sond­heim in­fused with Bar­ber, Ravel, or even a touch of Vaughan Wil­liams.

Else­where on the new-mu­sic front, on Aug. 6, the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val pre­sented at the St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium a work it had com­mis­sioned from Sean Shep­herd, his String Quar­tet No. 2. The FLUX Quar­tet, which played it with de­vo­tion and vir­tu­os­ity, had given the world pre­miere the previous night in Al­bu­querque. The work is a re­com­po­si­tion of Shep­herd’s First String Quar­tet, which his pro­gram note im­plies was a 32-minute piece from 2005 that in­cluded ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink and was never per­formed. “I’m now glad I missed hear­ing that piece,” he writes. “It made it much eas­ier to cut the wild hedges back to the one move­ment, the 11 min­utes that I’ve let re­main.” I can­not ex­plain how that squares with the fact that the printed pro­gram gives it as a two-move­ment work, which is in fact how it was pre­sented by the FLUX Quar­tet. In any case, it came across as a com­pact com­po­si­tion in which rel­a­tively short mu­si­cal cells have ap­pre­hen­si­ble char­ac­ters and de­signs, and are some­times brought back to give lis­ten­ers a way to hang onto the larger struc­ture. You might think of these as rec­og­niz­able win­dows that dot a wall of ar­chi­tec­ture, or sen­tences that re­cur in a long para­graph of writ­ing. Shep­herd em­ploys a com­plex mu­si­cal lan­guage that in­cludes, among other things, twin­kling, bell-like sonori­ties; sus­tained, richly voiced, atonal chords; and minutely molded com­bi­na­tions of at­tack, tim­bre, and en­sem­ble voic­ing. At the end, the vi­ola and cello grad­u­ally re­lin­quish their claim on the mu­sic, leav­ing the two vi­o­lins to lead the piece to its close, rather af­ter the guise of Haydn’s Farewell Sym­phony.

Quinn Kelsey

Mar­jorie Owens

Jen­nifer Higdon

Sean Shep­herd

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