Opening Night at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

Sunday, July 19, marked the beginning of the season for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The first half of the program was devoted to French music. The second half consisted solely of Brahms’ Piano Trio No.1 in B major.

Ralph Kirshbaum

Ralph Kirshbaum

First up was Faure’s lovely Elegy in C minor. This short piece was beautifully played by cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and pianist Marc Neikrug. The same duo followed with Debussy’s Sonata for cello and piano. Written in 1915, Debussy’s sonata is a severe test for a cellist. Kirshbaum was more than up to it. He has a great technique and a wonderful line to his playing. A virtuoso performance.

The succeeding two works were writen for narrator and instruments. They were doubtless programmed to give actress Claire Bloom something to do. Both exemplify the general rule that works for narrator and music are not for adults. If you’re paying attention to the speaker the music is like movie music. And if you’re listening to the music the speaker only a distraction. If you want words with music they should be sung.

Claire Bloom

Claire Bloom

The first of these two was Debussy’s setting of Pierre Louÿs’ hoax poems Songs of Bilitis. Madame Bloom recited only 12 of the 143. It seemed like she was going through all 143. The first half of the evening, which seemed of Wagnerian length to me, concluded with Poe’s Masque of the Red Death with incidental music by André Caplet. Here are the full details:

DEBUSSY Chansons de Bilitis
Claire Bloom, narrator; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Bart Feller, flute ; June Han, harp ; Giuseppina Ciarla, harp; Marc Neikrug, celesta
ANDRE CAPLET Conte Fantastique (Masque of the Red Death)
Claire Bloom, narrator; Johannes String Quartet: Soovin Kim, violin; Jessica Lee, violin; Choong-Jin Chang, viola; Peter Stumpf, cello; with June Han, harp

When the intermission finally arrived there was a stampede to the bathrooms reminiscent of the Oklahoma land rush. The audience was so gray that only an emergency urology consult allowed the men’s room to empty in time for the Brahms. But then Brahms and we had to wait for an award presentation the significance of which was lost on me and probably much of the audience.

But the trio was worth the delay. It’s so good that it had to be presented by itself. It would have dwarfed any of the earlier pieces had they been in closer proximity. Soovin Kim, violin; Peter Stumpf, cello; Shai Wosner, piano had the audience on their feet cheering at the end of this great piece. Brahms chamber works are in the artistic heavens with those of Haydn and Beethoven. The trio was written early in Brahms’ career and then revised near its end. No matter, it has all the beauty and complexity unique to its author. The three players found the right balance preventing the piano from taking over as often happens in piano trios or quartets. My only quibble is that the violin’s intonation was occasionally slightly off.

The Saint Francis Auditorium where this concert was held has clear and bright acoustics. If it weren’t for the very hard benches it would be an ideal location for chamber music. The series runs until August 24. Highly recommended, but bring a cushion.

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