Severall Friends and Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra
Severall Friends San Miguel Chapel, Jan. 26 Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra Lensic Performing Arts Center, Jan. 28
The historic San Miguel Chapel has served as a concert venue for the past several years but has mostly attracted smallish audiences. It appears that word has finally started to sink in about Severall Friends, and last Friday night the chapel was full to capacity, with about 140 music lovers responding enthusiastically to an elegantly rendered evening of trio sonatas from the 17th and 18th centuries. This consortium of colleagues shape shifts depending on the repertoire being addressed, which can embrace medieval, Renaissance, or — as in this concert — Baroque music. Four fine musicians were involved, all of whom reside locally at least part-time and are admired nationally or even internationally in period-instrument circles: violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Stephen Redfield, viola da gambist Mary Springfels, and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh.
On the docket were trio sonatas, instrumental works in which two “melody instruments” — in this case violins — weave in counterpoint above a bass part that was here rendered by harpsichord and viola da gamba. A bit of textural variety arrived by way of a devilishly difficult suite for gamba and harpsichord by Marin Marais and a solo harpsichord suite by Henry Purcell; but apart from those, trio sonatas were front and center, casting their ingratiating spell through pieces that, as Blumenstock observed in her program notes, “offer a more conversational, playful, and interactive dynamic” than one might encounter in coeval solo sonatas.
The program started its geographical tour in 17thcentury Hamburg through a piece by the little-known Dietrich Becker. From there, it continued in France with music by Marais, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and Jean-Marie Leclair; touched down in England for several pieces by Purcell and a trio sonata Handel probably wrote a few years after he moved to London; and wended its way back to Germany for an appealing composition formerly attributed to Bach but more likely written by his pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Highlights were many: the accentuation Springfels brought to the bass line in the ciaccona that concludes the Becker; a ravishing account of a characterful, dramatic chaconne by Leclair (poor soul — found murdered in his little Parisian home in 1764, probably by his nephew); Purcell’s doleful Pavan in A major, in which the players achieved depth and poignancy; and Handel’s superb F-major Trio Sonata (HWV 392), in which the violins’ singing lines joined in irresistible contours, often punctuated by sudden diminuendos on the final note or two. A delight of the trio sonata as a genre is the democracy it brings to its parts. The two violinists offered contrast through their distinct timbres, with Blumenstock projecting a relatively bright, penetrating tone and Redfield countering with a slightly huskier sound, though one that was still clearly delineated.
One sensed that this was a watershed performance for Severall Friends, with people crowding around the reception desk afterward to sign up for the ensemble’s mailing list. That being the case, it is probably not too early to reserve tickets for the group’s next concert, on April 28. Instead of the refinement of Baroque salons, it will feature lusty popular music — jigs, catches, and ballads — from 17th-century England, performed by countertenor Ryland Angel, fiddler Shira Kammen, cittern player Mark Rimple, and Springfels (again on the gamba).
Last weekend, pianist Conrad Tao appeared with the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra, conducted by Thomas O’Connor, as soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Pro Musica has brought Tao to town regularly through the past 10 years, ever since he was turning heads as a child prodigy, and it has been heartening to watch him grow into a twentyfour-year-old professional of wide-ranging musical interests. Previous exposure had not prepared me for his onslaught on Schumann, which I found baffling and disagreeable. It cannot be said that Tao lacked a clearly articulated point of view. He defined his hyperathletic approach right from his opening salvo, in which he ignored the rhythms Schumann wrote out so carefully and rendered everything as a thunderous crash. For a while, I allowed myself to think of his pianism as displaying “a powerful tone,” but by the end I could not avoid acknowledging the unpleasant truth: He banged his way through a concerto that, in other readings, can be one of the most poetic in the repertoire. He had all the notes firmly in hand, but his harsh, flashy interpretation was one I will be happy to never encounter again.
That he is capable of more subtle attack and voicing was evident in his admirable encore: a transcription of Art Tatum’s finger-twisting take on Ray Noble’s tune “Cherokee.” The orchestra’s program began with a solid account of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 and Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance, an episodic, somewhat aimless piece from 2006 that afforded many opportunities to spotlight principal players but ultimately is not one of Tower’s stronger accomplishments.