Concerts from Santa Fe Pro Musica and Santa Fe Symphony
Orchestra season got up and running during the past two weekends as Santa Fe Pro Musica, led by Thomas O’Connor, gave its first concerts of 2016-2017 on Sept. 17 and 18 (we caught the latter), and the Santa Fe Symphony, with guest conductor Roderick Cox, did the same on Sept. 25, in both cases at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. About a fifth of the players overlap between the two groups, which in part reflects the available talent pool. The shared personnel are most prominent in the strings, and within that family, especially in the violins. In fact, the biggest challenge for orchestral programming hereabouts must be to select repertoire that is within reasonably firm grasp of the violins — not just the chairs toward the front but throughout the depth of the sections. Winds and percussion present less of a personnel challenge. An orchestra requires far fewer representatives of each of those instrumental groups, and there are usually plenty of adept practitioners to fill an ensemble’s needs. This is the area from which the two orchestras derive most of their distinct sonic profiles, displaying relative strengths in this or that wind department. Speaking of overlap, should you go to a concert of the New Mexico Philharmonic in Albuquerque, you would find that half of that orchestra consists of faces familiar from one or the other (or both) of these Santa Fe orchestras.
O’Connor met the string challenge head-on in his Pro Musica concert by including three short movements for strings alone by Jennifer Higdon, the much-played American composer whose opera
was premiered here a summer ago. Of those three items, the most appealing was the middle one,
a placid piece in which she gave free rein to her Barberesque propensities. The musicians achieved luxurious tone borne on rich, dense harmonies, while an expanse spotlighting the principal players was laudable in its precision and transparency. The program note suggested that the opening piece of the triptych, had some connection to the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan that inspired Debussy. Britten or Bloch crossed my mind instead of Debussy or gamelan; and in any case, this perky fugato struck me as a rather pro-forma piece in which Higdon unspooled her music in rote-like fashion. The third piece, came off as a simplistic composition, a neo-modernist effort that wended its way to a folksy jig. It involved much trading-off of lines among the string instruments, which was accomplished with finesse, and it challenged the violins by goosing them way up into their high range.
The concert began with an enjoyable rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, one of the composer’s finest achievements in the field of comedy. The fast movements bustled along genially. The slow movement was on the quick side, too, or so it felt; in fact, it may have been less a matter of the tempo per se than of spirit, which did not really seem attuned to the idea of an One always looks forward to the beginning of the recapitulation in the last movement. There, where one would expect the full orchestra to pound out the main theme, Beethoven instead gives the tune to just a solo bassoon, chortling along merrily (and marked — sweetly — which I think was perhaps a wicked taunt from the composer). Bassoonist Crawford Best did well by it.
Higdon had offered us premonitions of Barber. The second half was given over to Barber himself, which is, on the whole, to be preferred. Joshua Roman was the charismatic soloist in the composer’s Cello Concerto, which is not quite so winning an achievement as Barber’s Violin Concerto but does not fall far short of it. Roman’s interpretations of contemporary music have been attracting a good deal of attention, but he also proved a magnetic player in this more classic work from 1945. One wants considerable mellowness from a cello, and this Roman possessed; but his tone was also characterized by the slightest bit of grit at the periphery, the tiniest measure of huskiness, which gave his playing an expressive edge that surpassed mere prettiness. His performance grew downright gripping in the first-movement cadenza, where the emotive canvas is enlarged still further through the extensive use of harmonics. Barber’s concerto reaches its height in the slow movement, where oboist Kevin Vigneau admirably delivered an obbligato part so extensive as to qualify him almost as a co-soloist. O’Connor controlled the orchestra carefully throughout, never allowing it to swamp the cellist (which can happen so easily in performances of cello concertos) yet affording it plenty of bite in the more threatening passages of the finale. The piece concludes suddenly — Barber had perennial trouble with endings — but not before Roman impressed with more thrills in another cadenza.