Lis­ten Up

James M. Keller ex­am­ines mul­ti­ple pro­grams put on by the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val and Per­for­mance Santa Fe’s Fes­ti­val of Song

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val: Shai Wos­ner, Aug. 2, and Inon Bar­natan, Aug. 4, St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium

Per­for­mance Santa Fe’s Fes­ti­val of Song: Daniel Okulitch and Keri Alkema, July 28; Leah Cro­cetto, Aug. 4; Joshua Hop­kins and Ben Bliss, Aug. 7, Scot­tish Rite Cen­ter

Pi­anist Shai Wos­ner came up with a clever idea for his Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val noon­time recital on Aug. 2 at St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium: an en­tire con­cert of im­promp­tus. The im­promptu is not one of mu­sic’s ma­jor gen­res, and it is hardly en­coun­tered apart from solo-pi­ano mu­sic. The name sug­gests an off-the-cuff spirit, al­though, be­ing pre­com­posed, such works are not lit­er­ally im­pro­vi­sa­tions. Some mu­si­col­o­gists are shy about go­ing even that far. In The New Grove Dic­tionary of Mu­sic and Mu­si­cians (Sec­ond Edi­tion), Mau­rice J.E. Brown writes that the im­promptu is a com­po­si­tion “the na­ture of which may oc­ca­sion­ally sug­gest im­pro­vi­sa­tion, though the name prob­a­bly de­rives from the ca­sual way in which the in­spi­ra­tion for such a piece came to the com­poser.”

Im­promp­tus ar­rived with the era of mu­si­cal Ro­man­ti­cism, the ti­tle first ap­pear­ing (so it seems) at the head of a work pub­lished in 1817 by the Czech com­poser Jan Vá­clav Vorˇ íšek. The most fa­mous of all im­promp­tus fol­lowed in the im­me­di­ately suc­ceed­ing decades: Schu­bert’s two sets of four im­promp­tus each, writ­ten in 1827, and Frédéric Chopin’s three im­promp­tus pro­duced in the span 1837 to 1842. Wos­ner in­cluded all three of Chopin’s and the four of Schu­bert’s sec­ond set (D.935). Rather than present them as self-stand­ing groups, which is how one of­ten en­coun­ters them, he sprin­kled them as in­de­pen­dent items in a playlist that also in­cluded stand­alone im­promp­tus by An­tonín Dvorˇ ák and Ge­orge Gersh­win, and two pieces that re­ally were im­pro­vi­sa­tions, short bits that Charles Ives let flow while the tape recorder was run­ning, prob­a­bly in 1938, and that were later tran­scribed (by oth­ers) for pos­ter­ity.

In the per­for­mance of such a pro­gram, one might hope for a feel­ing of evanes­cence, a sense of the fleet­ing. Wos­ner did cap­ture that in Gersh­win’s whis­per­ing, well-bred, and wryly syn­co­pated Im­promptu in Two Keys, which slips harm­lessly be­tween C ma­jor and D-flat ma­jor like a Pekingese travers­ing an ice patch. One also heard it in Ives’ Im­pro­vi­sa­tion No. 1, the recital’s penul­ti­mate piece, which hov­ered for per­haps a minute be­fore float­ing off into Schu­bert. Apart from those, Wos­ner’s play­ing tended to­ward so­lid­ity. There were a few del­i­cate touches in Schu­bert’s F-mi­nor Im­promptu (D.935, No. 1, the first of two in that key), but they were im­posed on a squar­ish in­ter­pre­ta­tion. That may be a le­git­i­mate way to play the piece, but it would im­pose cer­tain corol­lar­ies. For ex­am­ple, it would leave lit­tle wig­gle room for im­pre­ci­sion in the gen­tle six­teenth-note arpeg­gios that ac­com­pany the left hand’s cross­ings in the mid­dle sec­tion; there, the low­est note in those mur­mur­ing fig­ures was of­ten un­der-ar­tic­u­lated or even in­audi­ble, yield­ing what sounded like sep­a­rated mo­tifs of three notes each rather than a con­stant un­spool­ing of longer pat­terns. That may not sound like a big deal, but this mo­tif plays a ma­jor role in defin­ing the character of the en­tire piece. As the move­ment un­rolls, im­pre­ci­sion of this sort takes a mount­ing toll, the more so if part of a gen­er­ally lit­eral reading. Schu­bert’s Im­promptu in A-flat ma­jor also left one yearn­ing for more magic. Wos­ner played it on the fast side, prob­a­bly de­fen­si­bly within the realm of al­le­gretto, which is how Schu­bert marked it; but more im­por­tant than the tempo per se was that the piece seemed hur­ried, which is surely not what the com­poser hoped to con­vey. The Chopin im­promp­tus were firmly in hand and some­times veered to­ward the mus­cu­lar; again, they rarely sug­gested the mo­men­tary spark of creation.

A prob­lem­atic is­sue in this recital was that the fes­ti­val likes to keep the au­di­to­rium lights off en­tirely dur­ing per­for­mances. That’s just fine in most pro­grams; but in this one, a suc­ces­sion of 11 pieces that shifted con­stantly from com­poser to com­poser, many au­di­ence mem­bers must have felt adrift. For lis­ten­ers happy to sim­ply set­tle back and en­joy an hour of pi­ano-play­ing, it would be un­ob­jec­tion­able. But many afi­ciona­dos of clas­si­cal mu­sic like to know what they’re hear­ing at any point. Since the fes­ti­val pro­vides a printed pro­gram, it might want to en­sure that the lights are dimmed only to a level that still al­lows a bit of vis­i­bil­ity, at least in a var­ie­gated pro­gram such as this.

Two noons later, pi­anist Inon Bar­natan proved him­self an ad­mirable Brahm­sian, al­though he waited un­til his recital’s fi­nal piece to ham­mer the point home. It was that com­poser’s mon­u­men­tal Vari­a­tions and Fugue on a Theme by Han­del that did it, in an in­ter­pre­ta­tion that re­spected the com­poser’s in­her­ent grav­i­tas with­out short­chang­ing other as­pects of the work’s broad ex­pres­sive range. Triplets took a tran­quil stroll in the clearly voiced two-again­st­three rhythms of the Sec­ond Vari­a­tion, the Third had a charm­ing twin­kle in its eye, and the Fifth com­mu­ni­cated gen­uine mourn­ful­ness. The canon of the Sixth was shrouded in mys­tery, the Thir­teenth was proudly dig­ni­fied in its Mag­yar swag­ger, the Four­teenth sug­gested car­ni­val jol­lity … and so on un­til Bar­natan ad­dressed the mon­strously dif­fi­cult fugue with un­shak­able aplomb. Re­serves of power, col­or­ful tone, and a singing but clear legato marked his pi­anism.

The first half of his recital had not reached the same level. He did not yet sound set­tled in for Brahms’ left-hand tran­scrip­tion of Bach’s D-mi­nor Cha­conne, where heavy ped­al­ing did not con­ceal some im­pre­ci­sion in the fin­ger-work. Ligeti’s Mu­sica

Gersh­win’s whis­per­ing, well-bred, and wryly syn­co­pated Im­promptu in Two Keys slips harm­lessly be­tween C ma­jor and D-flat ma­jor like a Pekingese travers­ing an ice patch.

ricer­cata, writ­ten from 1951 to 1953, is an in­ter­est­ing com­po­si­tion, each of its 11 move­ments em­ploy­ing a spe­cific group of pitches, from just two in the first move­ment to the com­plete chro­matic palette of 12 in the eleventh. The pieces are re­ward­ing for anal­y­sis, but I have never heard them make a great effect in per­for­mance, at least not in their 25-minute en­tirety. Bar­natan did much good work along the way, even as his per­for­mance fell short of pris­tine. He ren­dered the fourth-move­ment waltz as both tipsy and somber (how Si­belius must have of­ten felt, for ex­am­ple). The sev­enth move­ment is a bug­bear, with the right hand singing a spa­cious melody against a con­stantly re­peat­ing high-ve­loc­ity fig­u­ra­tion in the left, which the com­poser in­di­cates “is to be played very evenly, with­out any ac­cent and in­de­pen­dent of the right hand’s rhythm”; there was still work to be done on that left-hand even­ness. Again, shed­ding a glim­mer of light on the printed pro­gram might have helped the au­di­ence spot Ligeti’s ref­er­ences to more fa­mil­iar reper­toire through move­ments that are marked as homages to Bartók and Frescobaldi. All in all, the first half may have left some lis­ten­ers fa­tigued, which was not the per­fect set up to Brahms’ de­mand­ing Han­del Vari­a­tions.

Per­for­mance Santa Fe opened its an­nual Fes­ti­val of Song series on July 28 at the Scot­tish Rite Cen­ter with a joint recital by bass-bari­tone Daniel Okulitch and so­prano Keri Alkema. They are ap­pear­ing as con­flict­ing char­ac­ters at Santa Fe Opera this sum­mer — he as phi­lan­der­ing Don Gio­vanni, she as Donna Elvira, a for­mer con­quest he would like to leave in his past. Nearly all of their pro­gram was given over to songs by Glen Roven, who shared pi­ano duty with Joseph Il­lick, PSF’s artis­tic di­rec­tor. Roven’s Six An­cient Chi­nese Po­ems mostly me­an­dered in the neo-ro­man­tic ar­ioso style that cur­rently dom­i­nates Amer­i­can art song. I was not won over by Alkema’s voice; pos­si­bly spot-on sus­tained pitches and a tone less de­fined by flut­ter would have en­abled her to be a more com­pelling cham­pion of these pieces.

Okulitch made a stronger case for Roven’s Santa Fe Songs, a group of eight pieces writ­ten to texts by po­ets as­so­ci­ated with our city: Jimmy San­ti­ago Baca, Jane Lin, N. Scott Mo­ma­day, Va­lerie Martínez, Christo­pher Buck­ley, and Thomas Fox Aver­ill (the last two be­ing rep­re­sented by two po­ems each). Among the set’s more strik­ing move­ments were “Signs and Por­tents” (poem by Lin), which sported de­pic­tive writ­ing against a sim­ple ac­com­pa­ni­ment; “Boy Sol­dier” (Mo­ma­day), which con­veyed the tragic im­age of a felled fighter through bro­ken turns of melody; and es­pe­cially “Bowl” (Martínez), a poem of con­tem­pla­tion ren­dered ac­tive through repet­i­tive fig­u­ra­tion and se­quences. Okulitch pre­sented a voice of caramel com­plex­ity, vi­brant and finely honed at all vol­umes and reg­is­ters, and he in­fused ex­cite­ment into many of the lit­er­ary de­tails.

On Aug. 4, so­prano Leah Cro­cetto, this sum­mer’s Donna Anna, joined with pi­anist Tamara Sanikidze for a pro­gram of songs and arias. Pi­ano-ac­com­pa­nied opera ex­cerpts very of­ten sound awk­ward, and pos­si­bly their ren­di­tion of “Bel rag­gio lus­inghier,” from Rossini’s Semi­ramide, would have seemed less so if Sanikidze had mas­tered her part in ad­vance. Cro­cetto up­held her side of the bar­gain cred­itably, her large voice dis­play­ing the req­ui­site power and agility. She some­times sit­u­ated her pitches just a touch on the low side; com­bined with her vi­brato, it was not enough to sound flat, yet it added warmth to her sound. A short set of very fa­mil­iar Strauss songs did lit­tle to equal­ize the dis­parate bal­ance of the two per­form­ers. One wants time to stand still in the pi­ano in­tro­duc­tion to “Mor­gen!” but here the in­tro­duc­tion was noth­ing more than the con­sti­pated push­ing out of slow notes beat by beat. It was hard to imag­ine the same pi­anist was play­ing in the en­su­ing group of Rach­mani­noff songs, ren­dered pas­sion­ately by both par­ties. Still, the ear­lier trou­bles may have been haunt­ing Cro­cetto, who, in one of three Liszt set­tings of Pe­trarch son­nets, brought the mu­sic to a halt not once but twice. Even apart from that, she seemed fo­cused dur­ing that set on vo­cal pro­duc­tion rather than on putting across the phrases and ideas of the poem; one won­dered if her lapses may have in­di­cated that she was think­ing notes rather than think­ing text. She was back on track to in­vest heart­felt sen­ti­ment into the beloved aria “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” from Carlisle Floyd’s Su­san­nah, and then of­fered what she called a group of jazz selections, hark­ing back to her jour­ney­man years as a singing wait­ress. One re­ally was a jazz ren­di­tion — Duke Elling­ton’s “In a Sen­ti­men­tal Mood,” in­ter­preted with flu­ent sen­si­bil­ity, far more note-cen­tered than word-cen­tered, rich in flat­ted quar­ter-tones. The oth­ers were agree­able con­cert-style per­for­mances of Broad­way num­bers: “A Quiet Thing,” from Flora the

Red Men­ace (by John Kan­der and Fred Ebb), “All the Things You Are” from Very Warm for May (by Jerome Kern and Os­car Ham­mer­stein II), and, as an en­core, “My Heart is So Full of You” from The Most Happy

Fella (by Frank Loesser). The series con­cluded on Aug. 7 with an en­joy­able per­for­mance shared by bari­tone Joshua Hop­kins and tenor Ben Bliss, with Il­lick at the pi­ano. At the Opera this sum­mer, they are ri­vals for the hand of the Count­ess in Capric­cio. In this con­cert, they teamed up for an­other num­ber in which they also por­tray ro­man­tic ri­vals — the in­evitable but al­ways lovely duet “Au fond du tem­ple saint,” from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de per­les — and, less pre­dictably, “Agony,” from Sond­heim’s Into the Woods, in which two broth­ers com­pare their re­spec­tive un­ob­tain­able loves. Hop­kins opened the recital with Vaughan Wil­liams’ Songs of

Travel. His rich tim­bre, leav­ened with the bright­ness of over­tones, com­bines with a quick vi­brato to boost clar­ity of dic­tion. One no­ticed a propen­sity to pull back on the high­est notes prac­ti­cally to mezza

voce. Per­haps he wanted to prevent those Es and Fs from over­pow­er­ing their phrases, but it seemed as if he might have han­dled that is­sue as ef­fec­tively at fuller voice with less dis­rup­tion to the mu­si­cal line. Or per­haps it was just a de­ci­sion of the mo­ment in what were sat­is­fy­ing and dra­matic ren­di­tions. Bliss pos­sesses a voice of smaller scale, but his tone is al­ways at­trac­tive, his technique is se­cure, and his tran­si­tions to head voice are well-nigh per­fect. If Hop­kins tended to­ward grav­ity in his de­liv­ery, Bliss some­times skated along the sur­face with­out dig­ging very deeply into his songs. That was most no­tice­able in mélodies by Du­parc, Chaus­son, and Hahn; pos­si­bly a more con­cen­trated im­mer­sion in French pho­net­ics would pay div­i­dends in that re­gard. It was a de­light to lis­ten to him in these songs all the same, but he made greater im­pact when singing in English. His voice proved sweet and sup­ple in a group of Brit­ten set­tings. He forged an es­pe­cially a strong con­nec­tion with the au­di­ence in that com­poser’s “Sally in our Al­ley” and in Kern’s al­ways re­mark­able “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It was, in all, a plea­sur­able recital that mixed dark­ness and light and that brought to­gether two artists of com­ple­men­tary voices and styles.

Ben Bliss pos­sesses a voice of smaller scale, but his tone is al­ways at­trac­tive, his technique is se­cure, and his tran­si­tions to head voice are well-nigh per­fect.

Shai Wos­ner

Inon Bar­natan; photo Marco Borggreve

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