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