Lis­ten Up James M. Keller re­views per­for­mances at the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val

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The Paci­fica Quar­tet, which was founded 26 years ago, gained par­tic­u­lar no­tice for un­der­tak­ing com­plete cy­cles of quartets by ma­jor com­posers, in per­for­mance as well as on record­ings. Their CDs of Men­delssohn’s six quartets and Carter’s five are vi­brant and ar­rest­ing, and their read­ings of Shostakovich’s 15 can be filed in the top drawer, the more so since each in­stall­ment pro­vides con­text by in­clud­ing an ac­com­pa­ny­ing quar­tet by such of the com­poser’s Soviet con­tem­po­raries as Myaskovsky, Wein­berg, Prokofiev, and Sch­nit­tke. The en­sem­ble has been based in the Amer­i­can Mid­west all this time, cur­rently serv­ing as quar­tet-in-res­i­dence at In­di­ana Univer­sity con­cur­rent to a long-term po­si­tion as “res­i­dent per­form­ing artist” at the Univer­sity of Chicago. It’s any­body’s guess why it has taken so long for the group to be booked at Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, but the over­sight was rec­ti­fied when the four­some made a be­lated de­but dur­ing the fes­ti­val’s open­ing week.

One wishes we might have heard one of the cy­cles for which the group is fa­mous, or at least a log­i­cal chunk of one, such as the three Op. 44 quartets of Men­delssohn or the fi­nal five of Shostakovich. That pos­si­bil­ity has prob­a­bly passed, since the group’s first vi­o­lin­ist is set to depart about a month from now and, when her suc­ces­sor is se­lected, there will be a sub­stan­tial set­tling-in pe­riod be­fore the group should feel com­fort­able at­tack­ing large-scale cy­cles again.

Beethoven was at the core of their ap­pear­ances here, which be­gan with a noon­time recital on July 19 at St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium. Be­fore they got to Beethoven, though, the Paci­fi­cas played a work that was writ­ten for them and prob­a­bly new to all of us: Glit­ter, Doom, Shards, Mem­ory (String Quar­tet No. 3), com­posed in 2012-13 by Shu­lamit Ran, an Is­raeli-Amer­i­can com­poser-col­league of theirs at the Univer­sity of Chicago. In a com­men­tary printed in the pro­gram in­sert, she ex­plained that her aim was for the piece to ex­ist as a work of “pure mu­sic” while none­the­less ef­fect­ing “an aware­ness … of mat­ters which are, to me, of great hu­man con­cern.” In this case, she ex­plained, those mat­ters in­volved the Holo­caust, the piece’s par­tic­u­lar ideas be­ing trig­gered by art­works of that era and the years lead­ing up to it. The four-move­ment work had a patch­work qual­ity in which dis­so­nant ex­panses were an­chored by con­so­nant rest­ing-points. It made ref­er­ence to tunes in a pop­u­lar style (en­tirely orig­i­nal melodies, I think), and it made ram­pant use of ex­ag­ger­ated ar­tic­u­la­tion, per­haps as a salute to Bartók or Shostakovich. At cer­tain places, the string-play­ers also whis­tled and stomped their feet, and in the third move­ment they im­i­tated a swarm of bees. It was all en­gag­ing and pleas­ant to hear. Its con­nec­tion to the Holo­caust was made more ev­i­dent by the pro­gram note than by the piece it­self.

The Paci­fica’s Beethoven in­ter­pre­ta­tions were divided be­tween that con­cert (the F-ma­jor Quar­tet, Op. 59, No. 1) and one the fol­low­ing evening (the C-mi­nor Quar­tet, Op. 18, No. 4). They gave the first of these a rugged, dra­matic work­out, gen­er­ally marked by what I think of as “Cadil­lac” play­ing, tech­ni­cally im­pres­sive if some­times more showy than sub­tle. Now and then it seemed that their Cadil­lac might have ben­e­fited from a tuneup — by which I mean lit­er­ally a tuneup, since the first vi­o­lin and cello some­times stretched their in­to­na­tion in op­po­site direc­tions. The third move­ment (Ada­gio molto e mesto) was ad­mirable. This is the mu­sic that, on one of Beethoven’s sketches, is ac­com­pa­nied by the words “A weep­ing wil­low or an aca­cia over my brother’s grave.” It’s not clear just

what that sig­ni­fies, but it does sug­gest the tragic mien of these pages, which the en­sem­ble al­lowed to pour forth with full vi­brato. When a Slavic-sound­ing tune passes through in the mid­dle, the four­some en­riched it with melan­cholic swag­ger. The vig­or­ous fi­nale em­ploys an au­then­tic Rus­sian folk tune as a bow to the work’s Rus­sian pa­tron. Per­haps its most sur­pris­ing turn comes prac­ti­cally at the end, when the mu­sic takes a pen­sive turn and the first vi­o­lin in­tones the melody on high. I wished the Paci­fi­cas had in­vested this ada­gio pas­sage with a more be­atific sound, which could have been mag­i­cal; but they seemed to be ath­letes at heart.

In the early C-mi­nor Quar­tet, played the next evening, in­to­na­tion again stretched out of bounds here and there; I no­ticed it at the ex­tremes of high and low, although near the end of the Trio sec­tion of the Menuetto a spread-out chord was fright­fully out of tune by gen­eral con­sent. Some­times the first vi­o­lin’s tone was in­ten­si­fied to a point that sac­ri­ficed lus­ter at the al­tar of ex­pres­sive ef­fect, a trade-off that is not to my per­sonal taste. On the whole, the work’s phrases pro­ceeded with com­fort­able flow and en­ergy, and one es­pe­cially ad­mired the tip­toe­ing en­sem­ble fi­nesse in the sec­ond move­ment.

On July 24 and 25 (I heard the lat­ter), the Paci­fica teamed up with the Jo­hannes String Quar­tet for Men­delssohn’s ever­green Octet, with the two four­somes more or less fac­ing each other rather than com­min­gled. This fes­ti­val stan­dard is pretty much a fool­proof piece as long as all hands just play their notes, of which there are very many. The play­ers didn’t im­pose much in­ter­pre­ta­tion on it. It seemed sur­pris­ingly gen­teel at the out­set, se­date in at­ti­tude if not in tempo, but it came more alive as the first move­ment un­rolled. The Scherzo was a trans­par­ent de­light. Although I pre­fer to hear the sec­ond cello play­ing dis­cernible notes rather than just mak­ing per­cus­sive bow at­tacks at the start of the fi­nale (the lat­ter seems to be the norm nowa­days), the fi­nale ended up bustling hap­pily, and a good time was had by all.

The Jo­hannes had opened that con­cert with Ho­muncu­lus, com­posed for them in 2007 by Esa-Pekka Salo­nen. The com­poser re­ported that he was in­spired by a con­cept about male re­pro­duc­tive fluid pop­u­lar in the 17th cen­tury — “that the sperm was in fact a ‘lit­tle man’ (ho­muncu­lus) that was placed in­side a woman for growth into a child” and that “if the sperm was a ho­muncu­lus, iden­ti­cal in all but size to an adult, then the ho­muncu­lus may have sperm of its own,” and so on to “an end­less chain of ho­mun­culi.” I’m not sure that we ought to re­fer to this as one of the com­poser’s sem­i­nal works, but let’s do it any­way. Salo­nen’s mu­sic is never less than en­ter­tain­ing, and this is no ex­cep­tion, sport­ing a nicely paced suc­ces­sion of con­trast­ing episodes. Slower sec­tions some­times ex­ude a hov­er­ing woozi­ness, and a su­per­im­posed melody — say, from the warm-voiced cello — may make lis­ten­ers feel they are in two uni­verses at once. The piece’s mu­si­cal an­ces­try seems at least partly hy­bridized out of Bartók and Bernard Her­rmann, but one also notes in­put from the Min­i­mal­ists in the rep­e­ti­tions of sweep­ing bow-strokes and in buzzing pul­sa­tions born of Terry Ri­ley or recre­ational pharmaceuticals, to the ex­tent that those dif­fer.

The Jo­hannes also gave them­selves over to Beethoven for the sec­ond half of a noon recital on July 26, but they opened that pro­gram with Mozart’s D-mi­nor Quar­tet (K.421/417b). Again with the re­pro­duc­tion; this is the piece Mozart com­posed — on June 17, 1783 — while his wife was giving birth to their first child in the next room. (The baby died two months later.) It is an out­stand­ing mas­ter­piece, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from this lack­lus­ter read­ing. It sounded like the play­ers had just rolled out of bed and weren’t yet ready to go to work. Mu­si­cal ideas pass­ing from one in­stru­ment to an­other lacked con­sis­tency, phras­ing was mis­aligned, and noth­ing added up to much. The mu­si­cians kept nick­ing strings they didn’t mean to, which is the quar­tet equiv­a­lent to hav­ing a bad hair day — not a mark of flawed char­ac­ter, but not at­trac­tive ei­ther. All the po­ten­tial “aha!” mo­ments achieved only “ho-hum,” and even the yo­del­ing trio re­mained earth­bound.

Maybe the four­some downed espres­sos when they left the stage, be­cause they seemed more alert when they re­turned to play Beethoven’s Quar­tet in E mi­nor (Op. 59, No. 2). Their per­for­mance of the sec­ond move­ment, the Molto ada­gio, was es­pe­cially grat­i­fy­ing, some­times evok­ing the time­less qual­ity that in­hab­its its core. On the whole, though, this was not a very imag­i­na­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and on the few oc­ca­sions when the play­ers did pro­pose dis­tinc­tive con­cepts, they weren’t nec­es­sar­ily good ones. At one point they de­cided to in­fuse the folk-tune in the third move­ment (again, for the Rus­sian pa­tron) with a heavy dose of vul­gar­ity; but was this re­ally a good idea, since the choice, at least as re­al­ized here, yielded only ug­li­ness rather than hu­mor? The score at that pas­sage reads just for­tis­simo and sem­pre stac­cato (al­ways with short notes) — not “coarse.” Baf­fling to me, in the same move­ment, was the sec­ond vi­o­lin’s choos­ing to per­pet­u­ally ac­cent an off beat in a fre­quently re­cur­ring mo­tif, which the oth­ers picked up on only spo­rad­i­cally, if at all — an in­con­sis­tency that grew in­creas­ingly an­noy­ing. There’s no over­look­ing that these are fine mu­si­cians, although af­ter re­peated ex­po­sure — they are fes­ti­val reg­u­lars — I am not sure that the four are op­ti­mally matched in mu­si­cal terms. Each has a dis­tin­guished ca­reer apart from the en­sem­ble. But they get to­gether on a part-time ba­sis, and one hears it. In these per­for­mances, the Jo­hannes String Quar­tet did not dis­play the au­to­matic, or­ganic sense of una­nim­ity one hears in the most pol­ished en­sem­bles.

Some of the pieces I have men­tioned ap­peared on grab-bag pro­grams with un­re­lated reper­toire: on July 20, Dvoˇrák’s Pi­ano Trio in F mi­nor (Op. 65), played by vi­o­lin­ist Kyoko Takezawa, cel­list Keith Robin­son, and pi­anist Orion Weiss; on July 25, Beethoven’s Pi­ano Trio in E-flat ma­jor (Op. 70, No. 2), with Takezawa and Weiss but with Ni­cholas Canel­lakis as cel­list. Both were hon­or­able per­for­mances, about as well crafted as one dare ex­pect from an in­ci­den­tal en­sem­ble of mu­si­cians — in­deed, ex­cel­lent ones — who don’t play cham­ber mu­sic to­gether as a mat­ter of course. The Dvorˇ ák Trio has some things to rec­om­mend it, but it al­ways sounds padded to me, and it in­vari­ably over­stays its wel­come. Here we en­coun­tered a few pas­sages in which ev­ery­one seemed busily oc­cu­pied, their noses buried in their over­stuffed parts, not pay­ing much at­ten­tion to one an­other. I am not a fan of these mix-and-match pro­grams that skip from one per­form­ing group to an­other. This one be­gan with Frank Bridge’s Lament for Two Vi­o­las, a dispir­it­ing piece I think only two vi­o­lists could love. It was played by Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Che-Yen Chen. The work is pro­grammed quite a bit, and I sup­pose it is modestly in­ter­est­ing as a study in vi­ola tim­bre; but it tries the pa­tience, and it is the wrong piece to put on the same pro­gram as Dvorˇ ák’s F-mi­nor Pi­ano Trio, which does the same.

The Beethoven Trio is a far bet­ter piece, an un­usual one in the com­poser’s canon. Here is a work writ­ten in 1808 — un­ques­tion­ably “mid­dle Beethoven” — that draws much of its sub­stance from his lan­guage of a decade ear­lier, rather as if an ar­chi­tect were con­struct­ing an up-to-date build­ing while re­cy­cling rec­og­niz­able ma­te­ri­als from a de­mol­ished ed­i­fice. That is an in­ter­est­ing com­po­si­tional chal­lenge, and the re­sult is fas­ci­nat­ing. One greatly ad­mired the at­ten­tion Weiss lav­ished on de­tails of the pi­ano part while wor­ry­ing that the crisp­ness of his ar­tic­u­la­tion might verge on the man­nered. I don’t think he quite crossed the line, though, and he also struck the tone just right in the un­speak­ably weird, chro­mat­i­cally al­tered four-note scale frag­ments that de­scend from who knows where in the third move­ment. In those pas­sages, Beethoven looks to the fu­ture as well as to the past.

Orion Weiss also had oc­ca­sion to shine on his own, at a noon­time solo recital on July 21. Such an in­ter­est­ing playlist it was: Brahms’ Six Pi­ano Pieces (Op. 118); Schoen­berg’s Six Lit­tle Pi­ano Pieces (Op. 19); and Shostakovich’s Pi­ano Sonata No. 2. The Brahms set is the most fa­mil­iar in this lineup, and it was frankly dis­ap­point­ing. Even in the sec­ond move­ment, the most fa­mous ex­panse in the set, Weiss seemed dis­in­clined to­ward the sheer love­li­ness the piece pro­claims; it was a mostly un-Ro­man­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ne plus ul­tra of Ro­man­tic exquisite­ness. In the fifth piece, ac­tu­ally ti­tled Ro­mance, one yearned for more fan­tasy, more dis­tin­guish­ing of the in­ner line through the thumbs’ dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing their tone from the sur­round­ing tex­ture. The Schoen­berg set, in com­par­i­son, was marvelous, wrapped in mys­tery and bursts of in­sight. Weiss did not let the set’s last notes die be­fore he launched into the Shostakovich sonata, a work that is mostly the do­main of Rus­sian pi­anists and is rarely pro­grammed on these shores. Com­posed dur­ing World War II, the piece is re­puted to be somber, but it did not seem un­remit­tingly so in this vi­tal in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Weiss de­liv­ered a clearly etched read­ing of the toc­cata­like first move­ment; in the sec­ond move­ment he seemed to run through rem­i­nis­cences of the Brahms and Schoen­berg pieces that had come be­fore; and he in­tro­duced the third-move­ment vari­a­tions with a com­bi­na­tion of in­no­cence and des­o­la­tion be­fore sam­pling an en­tire en­cy­clo­pe­dia of tonal shad­ings, par­tic­u­larly in the tre­ble range. Be­yond be­ing smart and in­ter­est­ing, his pro­gram­ming was sup­ported by an in­ter­pre­ta­tion that un­der­scored a dis­tinct point of view.

Above, Pacifi a Quar­tet, top, a ho­muncu­lus, as pic­tured in Ni­co­laas Hart­soeker’s Es­say de diop­trique, 1694

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