I was in a church, so I kept quiet. So many contemporary chamber-music concerts get a bad rap for being relegated to hushed, isolated spaces that keep them distant and irrelevant. Not so for the Cactus Pear Music Festival, now in its 12th season. After completing the first movement on the program, Artistic Director Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio set down her violin, adjusted her formal gown and said, “Should I turn the A/C on? What’s your vote?”
Last Thursday’s “Wanderlust & the Hot German Romantics” (the hotties being Mendelssohn, Goetz, and Brahms) at the downtown Travis Park Methodist Church was anything but stuffy. Sounds of city traffic came through the walls and mixed with remarkable emotion and articulation from the players inside. “Wanderlust” allowed us to let down our hair while enjoying two stellar pieces, the only low point being a lukewarm composition between two greats.
Starting with the good: I hadn’t heard the “Viola Quintet in A major, Op. 18,” so I didn’t know to stifle a giddy laugh when the violins broke into a definite bluegrass riff during the Scherzo. Felix Mendelssohn is known as a precocious Romantic master, and I’m sure that legacy is due in part to contemporary musicians pulling nuggets of his complex harmonies for their own use. Musical jokes like this one (imagine how crazy bluegrass would have sounded in 1826) along with sweeping melodies that screamed film soundtrack demanded quick wits and aerobic efforts from the five string players. Their product was clean, engaging, and a ton of hot, German Romantic fun.
Another way the Cactus Pear Music Festival is keepin’ it real is by looking past the traditional canon for forgotten performers. Before we heard Hermann Goetz’s “Quintet in C minor, Op. 16,” Sant’Ambrogio asked us to decide whether this composer, whose following died with him, belongs in history or on today’s stage. It’s like scouring a London record shop for another Nick Drake — but in Goetz’s case, I don’t think they uncovered the right genius.
It may have been that Goetz paled only because he was sandwiched between two of the Romantic period’s greatest masters. It’s certainly no reflection on the players — they gave a brilliant performance of a not-as-brilliant piece. Whereas each voice in Mendelssohn’s quintet tells a riveting, even startling story, Goetz relies on call and response for much of his effect, which after four movements isn’t so novel. He also organizes his voices in groups of unison, the crayon to Mendelssohn’s charcoals.
This lull was redeemed with Johannes Brahms’ beautiful and wrenching “Quintet in B minor, Op. 115.” The players did an exceptional job of relating the piece’s most apparent puzzle: our eyes read B minor, but we hear plenty of major expressions in the first passage. Consider the boat rocked.
Ilya Shterenberg joined the strings on clarinet and gave us an effortless, gorgeous soundscape. He executed Brahms’ demanding melody dreamily while the ensemble played heartbreaking harmonies beneath. Introduced as perhaps the world’s greatest chamber piece, Shterenberg does justice to that legacy. Brahms came out of hibernation and wrote this piece after hearing a phenomenal clarinetist. If he sounded anything like Shterenberg did on opening night, I can see why Brahms was compelled to act.
Upcoming 2008 Cactus Pear concerts mix old and new works with the same humor and vigor as “Wanderlust,” with a tango, an invention, and contemporary pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis and local composer David Heuser to name a few. Personally, I can’t wait to hear modern transcriptions of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by Jascha Heifetz during “The All-Americans … the ‘A’ team of composers” on July 17. And if you’re not sold already, after each performance you’ll be treated to a lavish reception catered by Whole Foods, Twin Sisters, Piatti, and more. •
Cactus Pear Music Festival 2008
The All-Americans … the ‘A’ Team of Composers
Boerne: 7pm, Jul 16
San Antonio: 7:30pm, Jul 17
The Golden Ax … & Other Striking Pieces
San Antonio: 7:30pm, Jul 19
Boerne: 2pm, Jul 20
San Antonio venue:
Travis Park Methodist Church
230 E. Travis
First United Methodist Church
205 James St.
For Fredericksburg performance info, visit cpmf.us