Two contrasting festivals and what they say about standards today
Santa Fe, N.M., and New York — The domestic festival scene - winding to a close as summer wanes - is one which even in these economically questionable times keeps growing, as do the audiences who wish to attend them.
I caught up with two utterly different festivals this summer - the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary and the big-city Mostly Mozart Festival in New York.
Music has to compete with landscape and clouds in Santa Fe. The spot is one of the prettiest in the country. And, of course, there is a famous opera company here. But there is chamber music as well, though that operation has been almost more visible for the ubiquitous series of Georgia O'Keeffe posters than its actual musical contributions.
But all that is changing. A week in both La Jolla, Calif., and Seattle this year got this festival out into the ''real world.'' In Santa Fe, the audience is large and loyal.
This summer, the theme was a celebration of American music. Part of that celebration involved an elaborate series of symposiums with critics and composers flown in specially for the occasion. There was more American music heard here in 10 days than many festivals perform in a season, though this did not prevent one colleague from twice taking the festival to task for not offering more.
In an ideal world, an American festival will devote itself exclusively to American music. Meanwhile, this proved a commendable compromise, particularly considering that three new pieces were being heard: the world premiere of John Harbison's gorgeous Trio for Violin, Piano, and Clarinet and the Santa Fe premieres of Ned Rorem's ''Winter Pages'' for sextet and George Rochberg's Quintet for Cello and Strings.
Harbison's piece was the outstanding contribution. His particular gift lies in giving music an inner logic, while exploring the sonoric potentials of the instruments. His language is basically tonal; he respects his instruments and does not ask them to sound like electronic machines. At every moment one listened expectantly for what would come next, for what mood would be captured, for how the composer would sustain the musical argument musically and rhythmically. This first listening makes one yearn to know the music intimately.
Rorem's piece had its moments of pretty, faded wistfulness, though it did tend to go on too long for its own good. In comparison to the Rochberg Quintet, Rorem was the height of inspiration and invention. I intend to devote a column to Rochberg - he is too complex and interesting a subject to even touch on here. Suffice it to say that Rochberg seems to have been musically drained by the composition of his opera. This ''aside,'' written before he began orchestrating ''The Confidence Man,'' has little to recommend it.
What about standards in the Santa Fe chamber music? In the new music heard here, most of the performers were guests. Only the Rorem was performed by representative Santa Fe chamber personnel. The festival has just been represented by its first recording, a sizzling ''Verklarte Nacht,'' by Schonberg , in its original sextet version. The players - Ani Kavafian and Yuuko Shiokawa, violins, Walter Trampler and Heiichiro Ohyama, violas, and Ralph Kirshbaum and Timothy Eddy, cellos - perform with commitment, imagination, and fire. On the flip side, violinist Daniel Philips joins Trampler and Eddy in a convincing account of the same composer's rarely heard Trio Op. 45. (D - 79028).
In the standard repertoire, there was a noticeable lack of imagination in the performances. In some cases, there were even technical shortcomings.
The personnel are much the same as has been heard at the Charleston Spoleto Festival, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, and other chamber organizations. It's as if a new institution is emerging - the school of friendly American chamber playing - high on getting through a piece without flaw, low on risk, and just average on its collective ability to give audiences a tangible, deep sense of what the score in question really means to each and all involved.
This is not Santa Fe's fault, but the festival bears the burden of the problem so long as it relies so heavily on this group without demanding of the players a genuine exploration of each one's fullest potential. A matter of categories
Standards overall seem high at New York's Mostly Mozart series this season, but it seems to be relying on two distinct categories for its conductors these days. On one side, there is the dedicated musician, making the solid if undistinguished orchestra sound both well and interested. On the other side is the widely celebrated soloist who thinks it's worthwhile to get up in front of a band and, by waving a stick, merely get them to play together. In the four concerts I heard, Charles Dutoit and Christopher Hogwood fell in the former category, and Pinchas Zukerman into the latter.
Dutoit is a marvel. Music seems to be an effortless emanation from the core of his being. He gets this orchestra to play handsomely, and what they play has the style and wit sought by the composers in and around Mozart's time.
Mr. Hogwood, noted for his original-instruments recordings of Mozart with the Academy of Ancient Music in London, is less elegant in front of a modern ensemble, though he rightly insisted on dividing the strings as they were in those days. Zukerman has little effect on the orchestra except in matters of tempo, which are sometimes nicely chosen.
The level of soloist was uncommonly high. Top honors to those I heard must go to Lillian Kallir for a limpid, sparkling, technically superb account of the Mozart K. 467 (No. 21) to Zukerman's faceless accompaniment. Heinz Holliger astounded his audience with his pyrotechnics and musicianship in Le Brun's Oboe Concerto - a New York first. Barry Tuckwell continues to astound with the simplicity of his playing on that most fiendish of instruments, the horn. He played felicitously a Haydn Concerto, one that offers plenty of pitfalls, all of which Mr. Tuckwell evaded seamlessly, fearlessly.
Pianist Youri Egorov showed real imagination and delicacy in his rendition of Mozart's K. 466 (No. 20 in D minor), though it took him a while to settle into the piece. Andras Schiff chose to play the piano even during the purely orchestral sections of the K. 456 (No. 18 in B-flat), which is odd, considering how Mozart's audiences waited attentively to hear how he would bring the piano into the concerto ''this time around.''
Mr. Schiff also seemed to be coming to Mozart from Liszt - propulsive, percussive playing, pounded octaves in the cadenza, a mannered, surface account of a delectable concerto. Yefim Bronfman controlled his percussive technique in Mozart's K. 482 (No. 22 in E-flat), but brought little to the music.
This year, Gerard Schwarz became the music advisor. It will be interesting to see how he moulds the orchestra and the programming, which this year already looked somewhat more imaginative. Predictably, most houses were sold out throughout the summer.