Santa Fe Pro Musica’s opening weekend
Santa Fe Pro Musica Opening Weekend
Lensic Performing Arts Center, Sept. 18 & 20
Santa Fe Pro Musica launched its season last week by spotlighting the members of the piano quartet Opus One as a self-standing chamber ensemble (on Sept. 18) and as concerto soloists (on Sept. 19 and 20). Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, WoO 36 (WoO meaning “Werke ohne Opuszahl,” or “Work without opus number”), which stood at the top of the printed program, is a rarely encountered curiosity, one of three piano quartets the budding composer produced at the age of fourteen. But here an appreciation of WoO 36 was foiled by the fact that Opus One did not play it. The group played a different Beethoven Piano Quartet in E-flat major, his Op. 16, using the alternative instrumentation the composer sanctioned for the piece much more commonly heard in its preferred version as his Quintet for Piano and Winds. One can easily imagine the miscommunication that led to the mix-up in the advance publicity and the printed program; and it seems probable that the musicians hadn’t glanced at the printed program beforehand and therefore didn’t realize that a correction needed to be announced. No harm was done, but it falls to us to assure audience members that the piece they heard was the work of a composer who was twenty-five rather than fourteen.
Opus One’s interpretations hewed to a lofty standard throughout. The players invested the Beethoven Quartet with subtle detail, particularly telling in the unerringly coordinated transitions from section to section. They proceeded on to Lowell Liebermann’s Piano Quartet, a work already discussed at length in these columns in reviews of its 2010 premiere at Music From Angel Fire and its 2011 inclusion at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Last week’s performance again confirmed my enthusiasm for its Shostakovichian contours, which move from lonely delicacy at the opening — sparkling snow might be an accurate image — to escalating panic (the composer’s rage over BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill informed the piece as he was writing it) and back again. It seems set to become a classic.
To close, Opus One gave a masterly reading of Brahms’ C-minor Piano Quartet, very dramatic in the first and fourth movements (with Anne-Marie McDermott’s pianism surging powerfully in the finale without ever obliterating the strings), ferocious and immaculately articulated in the Scherzo. The Andante can verge on the maudlin, but here it moved along at a flowing pace, with Peter Wiley’s cello, Steven Tenenbom’s viola, and Ida Kavafian’s violin providing plenty of loveliness without allowing entry to the bathetic. By the way, this is among the pieces the composer/“musical animator” Stephen Malinowski has enlivened with a respectful visual accompaniment. He gained his widest audience through computer visualizations for the pop star Björk, but classical-music lovers would also find his graphic translations enlightening. You can find his visual accompaniments to all four of this work’s movements on YouTube, but I’d start with the Andante movement, which really is one of the sacred achievements of chamber music. (Visit www.youtube.com/ watch?v=hrE7NS2zxkg.) If the definition of “counterpoint” as “the interaction of musical lines” has always left you unsteady, this video will be just the trick.
Thomas O’Connor conducted the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra adeptly in the symphonic concerts, beginning with a solid reading of Mendelssohn’s
Italian Symphony. From the perspective of my seat, upper lines had trouble escaping from the stage. The texture accordingly seemed more intense than fleetfooted, but this had the advantage of highlighting unusually well-executed details of phrasing from the horns and bassoons working in tandem in the Trio of the third movement.
Opus One then took to the stage for Short Order ,a work the late Douglas Lowry (dean at the Eastman School of Music) wrote to provide the foursome with something that would feature them with an orchestra. The quartet’s players are in the spotlight almost throughout the nine-minute piece, a fair amount of which explores the separation of piano and strings. McDermott’s dramatic incisiveness in the pianoforward portions made one regret that she dropped the planned Prokofiev sonata from her recital at St. Francis Auditorium a month earlier. (More kudos to her, by the way: She has just been named to the jury for the next Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in 2017.)
The pièce de résistance was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano (Op. 60), with three-quarters of Opus One front and center. It is an odd piece, unremitting in its Apollonian grandeur. The cello comes off as primus inter pares in the solo group. Beethoven scales the work around the luxurious aspect of that instrument, which he seems intent on emphasizing, and that means the piano and violin are adapted to an attitude that sounds less idiomatic than in his solo concertos for those instruments. The piece is often encountered as an all-star tournament in which high-budget soloists intersect on the same stage for a gala performance, a strategy that can lead to vulgarity of the “Anything you can do, I can do better” variety. What a treat it was to hear the featured parts rendered with the corporate concern of fine chamber playing, making it a concerto for piano trio rather than for three individual soloists. — James M. Keller
Opus One, with Anne-Marie McDermott