James M. Keller reviews performances by the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra and Mark Morris Dance Group’s Music Ensemble
Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra Lensic Performing Arts Center, Nov. 8
Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble Lensic Performing Arts Center, Oct. 27
It was strings to the fore when Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra presented a satisfying concert of music for string orchestra last weekend at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The 26 players — eight first violins, seven seconds, five violas, four cellos, two double basses — evinced great pleasure in their work. It must have brought them delight to spend several days immersed in rehearsing and performing works for just their own musical family, an idea that will most likely pay continuing benefits for Pro Musica’s overall ensemble skills as the season unfolds. Conductor Thomas O’Connor brought thorough attention to the interpretation of the repertoire and was obviously abetted by detailed middle-management support from the five section principals, who all deserve a special shout-out: concertmaster Stephen Redfield, second violinist Karen Clarke, violist Kim Fredenburgh, cellist James Holland, and double bassist Aaro Heinonen.
O’Connor assembled an imaginative program of music from the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. First up was Bach’s familiar Concerto in D minor for Two Violins (BWV 1043), in which Redfield took the first solo part and Cármelo de los Santos played the second. The parts are essentially equal, the second often parrying the thrusts of the first in bravura counterpoint. The two soloists made an odd couple. Redfield favored a restrained approach, his chaste tone emphasized by minimizing vibrato, his expressivity derived from pointed niceties of articulation, after the manner of historically informed performance. De los Santos, who performed with his accustomed elegance, adhered to a more traditional approach, sporting a voluptuous timbre and wider moment-to-moment dynamic inflection. There is not a right or wrong way to balance the solo parts in a work such as this. It is more common for the soloists to mirror each other as much as possible, but advantages also attach to an interpretation such as this, in which the players are set off by their striking differences. Listeners who closed their eyes would have had no difficulty identifying which violinist was which at any moment.
Anna Clyne composed Prince of Clouds in 2012 through a commission generated by the violinist Jennifer Koh, who was seeking a double violin concerto to program along with Bach’s. Here, the soloists switched parts, with de los Santos playing the top line and Redfield the lower. Much of the piece strikes an elegiac tone, probably intended to recall the supernal middle movement of the Bach concerto. When it does not, however, it goes to the other extreme, with the soloists and the orchestral strings inflicting vehement, dissonant slashes, here rendered with incisive precision. The piece occupies a single movement of about 15 minutes, and the elegiac ethos inhabits enough of that span to lend a cloying atmosphere overall. Even in the more ferocious parts, the music tends toward harmonic stasis, anchored by either a tonic tone or a passacaglia-like bass progression. Against these, the accented crashes, pizzicatos, and punchy permutations of melodic cells seemed not really integral to the piece. The shortcomings lay with the work rather than the performance. When all is said and done, its feet remained stuck in the mud, and it seemed all too eager to conclude in keening Barberisms.
Elgar’s Serenade for Strings received a full-throated, rich-toned interpretation, reaching its summit in the warmly burnished, viola-flavored tenderness of the middle movement. To conclude, the group offered Shostakovich’s so-called Chamber Symphony for Strings (Op.118a), which is actually a composer-endorsed string-orchestra arrangement by violist Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10 of 1964. It’s easy enough to upscale a string quartet by just having orchestral sections play what were originally solo lines and then instruct the double basses to support the cello part an octave lower. That is essentially what Barshai did, but he also incorporated a few effective touches like giving the basses moments of their own and including passages where solo players emerge from the larger texture. O’Connor captured the work’s unoptimistic mood: the emotional frigidity of its muted first movement, the violence of its second, the lugubrious brooding of the third, the grim laughter-through-tears of the fourth. Unfortunately, it also cast Clyne’s piece in an unflattering light. Shostakovich, too, employs all the special effects, but they enhance a musical core that Clyne’s concerto seemed to lack.
Such a treat it was to experience the Mark Morris Dance Group back on Oct. 27, also at the Lensic. This lavish evening, sponsored by Performance Santa Fe, brought in a troupe comprising 17 dancers. That is in itself substantial for a touring company, but Morris’ dancers always perform to music played or sung live by members of the company’s music ensemble, which is directed by pianist Colin Fowler. The Oct. 27 performance exemplified how closely these elements of dance and music were interlocked even while occupying separate planes. To be sure, it
The Oct. 27 performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group exemplified how closely the elements of dance and music were interlocked even while occupying separate planes.
is impossible — and pointless — to listen to the music-making without lending considerable attention to the dancing, and vice versa. But the musical performances were so carefully turned as to merit some critical accolades all their own.
The third and fourth movements of Lou Harrison’s 1990 Piano Trio provided the sonic canvas for the dance titled Pacific. Harrison described the third movement as “a little suite of solos for the three musicians,” and in his score he marked those solos “Dance,” “Rhapsody,” and “Song.” From a musical point of view, it was a gentle, elegant way to work into the evening, with violinist Georgy Valtchev infusing the modal melodies of “Dance” with lilting nonchalance, Fowler dispatching “Rhapsody” with unbuttoned fervor, and cellist Andrew Janss bringing languid melancholy to “Song,” the tender accompaniment to a pas de deux. All three players joined for the finale, a piece suggestive of Chinese music; here, the piano’s tintinnabulation led to a climax that epitomized Harrison’s signature blend of childlike simplicity and heartfelt sincerity.
THE was danced to Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, not in its familiar orchestral setting but rather in the version for piano four-hands crafted in 1904-1905 by Max Reger. Fowler and fellow pianist Yegor Shevtsov rendered it with precise articulation and abundant good spirits, often instilling the phrase endings with a lift that propelled the dancing onward. They placed the timbral center of gravity mostly in the tenor range (though they somehow endowed the Trio II of the Menuetto with high-pitched nasality that evoked Bach’s original oboes), and they sometimes drew out bits of inner-voice counterpoint that tend to go unnoticed in orchestral renditions. Morris reversed the order of Bach’s last two movements, which meant the piece ended not with the multipart Menuetto but rather with the boisterous Allegro that usually precedes it — an alteration that made good theatrical sense.
The fifth of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s seven piano trios, in E major (from 1819), is a sly and subtle work that gave rise to Morris’ Festival
Dance. The musicians played straight man to the choreographic commentary, as when, in the first movement, a deceptive cadence accompanied a dancer’s gesture of foreboding or when the stage was suddenly filled with dancers at the point where that movement’s development section reached its moment of densest texture. Valtchev and Janss emphasized contrasts of vibrato to intensify expressivity in the slow movement, and Shevtsov hung on for dear life through the high-velocity warbling of the piano part in the alla polacca finale.
Thomas O’Connor conducting Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra
Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group in Pacific