Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Santa Fe Symphony starts the new year with something new | Music


Santa Fe Symphony, The Lensic Performing Arts Center, January 16

The Santa Fe Symphony opened the 2022 concert year with a program that included a Mozart symphony, a Haydn concerto, an overture that is an orchestral showpiece, and a co-commissioned premiere that had very unusual but most welcome aspects.

Mozart’s last symphony, No. 41, the so-called “Jupiter”, had something of a dual personality problem. Addressing the audience, conductor Guillermo Figueroa described it as the epitome of classicism, with a first movement “made of marble” and overall having a “climax of Enlightenment rationality”.

During the performance, Figueroa’s musical approach seemed to derive more from the long-standing traditions of the Romantic era than from current thinking about the music of the classical era, with larger strings, slower tempos and thicker orchestral textures than are often heard today. The first movement, marked ‘very fast’ (Allegro vivace), was played at a tempo that I would describe as dignified and ultimately unriveting. There was beautiful playing of the flutes and oboes but also a lack of unity in the first violins in some challenging exposed passages.

Mozart wanted the slower second movement to have a song-like quality that worked well in performance, with the muted violins adding a sense of mystery and some tension. The third movement has the qualities of a Viennese Ländler, a folk dance that was a forerunner of the waltz. It was heavily inflected here, but lacked forward momentum.

Not so the amazing fourth movement, one of Mozart’s most complex and daring orchestral pieces, with six distinct themes manipulated to dazzling variety. The tempo required here is ‘very fast’, and Figueroa and the orchestra nailed it, creating a convincing conclusion. Special credit goes to flutists Jesse Tatum and Jennifer Lau, oboists Elaine Heltman and Rebecca Ray, and bassoonists Elizabeth VanArsdel and Leslie Shultis for their impressive playing throughout the woodwind work’s many passages.

Female composers are thankfully not as rare in the classical music world as they used to be, although there is still a lot of room for improvement. However, female trumpet soloists are really rare and you could probably count on your thumb the number of trumpet concertos by female composers written for female soloists.

The Santa Fe Symphony co-commissioned a performance by Canadian-Cambodian composer Vivian Fung for soloist Mary Elizabeth Bowden, and its local premiere was one of the highlights of the concert. It is a substantial piece, some 16 minutes long, performed in one continuous movement, and Fung manages to “broaden the imagination of what is possible with the instrument,” as she describes one of her goals.

The concerto requires virtuosic playing almost throughout, showing Bowden’s deftness in fast passages, register extremes and unusual techniques such as fluttering tongues, the trumpeter’s equivalent of a rolled letter R. It begins backwards in relation to the standard concerto form, beginning with what amounts to an extended cadence, then moving on full orchestra and soloists.

For most of the piece, Bowden’s musical line hovers over the accompaniment, in which short, repetitive themes are passed between sections. However, thanks to Fung’s dynamic and sometimes explosive style, it’s not minimalism.

There are recognizable sections within the concerto, including a gleeful, off-balance march that takes an ominous turn; a slower and more lyrical passage in which Bowden plays the flugelhorn, a softer trumpet with a deeper tone; and a hip-hop inspired section leading into the raucous finale. Bowden’s versatility and the orchestra’s dedicated playing deservedly garnered the biggest ovation of the concert.

Bowden and the orchestra also tried Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, with slightly less glorious results. In the first movement in particular, there was more puffed notes than Bowden would have liked, and something that seemed like a certain shortness of breath in sustained passages, a not uncommon phenomenon for guest artists acclimating to the pitch.

The orchestra used a smaller string section than that used for the Jupiter Symphony, with a marked improvement in ensemble tightness and tonal beauty. In fairness, Haydn is easier to play than Mozart, but it made me want to hear the symphony again with a smaller string section.

With his operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mikhail Glinka created a recognizable national style for Russian classical music. The latter was an epic fairy tale, derived from a poem by Alexander Pushkin, with a text cobbled together by a team of authors.

The opera itself is a hit-and-miss affair due to issues with its plot, pacing and dramaturgy, but no such doubts surround the overture. It’s a striking and immediately engaging piece, given a suitably extroverted reading here, with Figueroa setting a blistering tempo. It pushed the orchestra to the limits of its possibilities with exciting results that attracted the audience.

At the end of the program, the overture felt more like an encore than a prelude. At the request of the soloist, the concert was performed in reverse order to that printed in the program book. There’s nothing wrong with making the change, but it was not mentioned to the audience by either Figueroa or Executive Director Emma Scherer in their pre-performance comments from the stage, an unfortunate oversight that confused many in attendance.

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