Santa Fe Symphony Lensic Performing Arts Center, March 20
Following the usual speeches, last weekend’s Santa Fe Symphony concert got off to a very slow start with a static rendition of the Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, written in 1977, the year after Britten’s death, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Though he was in his forties, Pärt had not yet achieved the adulation in Western Europe or America that would eventually come his way. This was one of the pieces that helped establish the “tintinnabuli” style that would make him recognizable: bell-like resonances (sometimes played by bells, sometimes by other instruments or by voices) that articulate the notes of a tonic triad while a melody part proceeds in slow, stepwise motion, the relationship between the parts being governed by a theoretical pattern of interaction devised by the composer. The program advised listeners that “there is no form in this music” — an astonishing assertion if not a bona fide impossibility. In this case, the form is defined principally by layers of descending scale fragments begun sequentially by the various string sections at different pitch levels and proportionally slower tempos. The violins had trouble playing in rhythmic unison at this creeping pace, and the effect was unhappier than even the composer can have intended. Oriol Sans, auditioning to be the orchestra’s next principal conductor, led the piece with exuberant gestures that seemed to have nothing to do with the piece and that the musicians largely ignored.
A long five minutes later, all energy having been drained from the hall, there was a break to rearrange the stage for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. As with all of Stravinsky’s neoclassical pieces, this one relies on rhythmic point and textural translucence, neither of which was much on display. The woodwind choir repeatedly garbled its moments in the spotlight, and often the players simply gave up on their phrase ends. The Serenata movement was so slow it seemed to be sleepwalking, rendered yet more enervated by leaden downbeats. No overriding conception of the piece seemed to have been worked out in rehearsal, and Sans’ rudimentary conducting technique generated little inspiration in the moment.
Brahms’ Serenade No. 1, from 1857-1860, was a stopping- off point along his long path to his First Symphony, which he would not manage to complete for yet another 16 years. It’s a pleasant piece, meandering sometimes distractedly through its six movements. The orchestra played far better here than it had in the concert’s first half, and Sans led a comfortable, breezy reading of the opening Allegro molto, working up to considerable vitality as the movement progressed; and the second of the two Scherzos was infused with vigor that recalled the corresponding section of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The slow movement ( Adagio
non troppo) presents the biggest challenge to an interpreter, and it did rather drag the piece down in this concert. As in the Stravinsky, rhythms seemed inert. A horn melody that appears repeatedly and is then taken up by other winds involves a briefly syncopated rhythm that might add buoyancy or perhaps push forward in expectation. Here, it reminded a listener of a beginning pianist sight reading “Hello! Ma Baby”: no direction, no mystery — just a rhythm sounded out. Even this oddly conceived program offered many possibilities for a conductor to show some imagination, but Sans availed himself of few of those opportunities.
Let us not take leave of the Santa Fe Symphony without congratulating the organization on its revamped website. It looks good, it is forthright to navigate, and it projects a level of professionalism one hopes will be demanded by whoever is named the group’s principal conductor.
— James M. Keller