Cactus Pear Fest Popular Balm In San Antonio Heat

Cactus Pear's second program closed with Aaron Copland's 'Appalachian Spring.' (Renée Davis)
Cactus Pear’s second program closed with Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring.’ (Renée Davis)
By Mike Greenberg

SAN ANTONIO — It seemed a quixotic adventure, 19 years ago, to launch a chamber music festival in San Antonio in mid-July, when the very streets melt and brains fry and life pretty much comes to a stop until mid-September. But Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, then the concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony, figured the traditional summer hiatus left an unmet demand for classical music. She recruited musician friends from around the country, and the Cactus Pear Music Festival was born.

Festival name honors edible fruit of prickly pear cactus.
Festival name honors edible fruit of prickly pear cactus.

Cactus Pear was an immediate hit, owing to Sant’Ambrogio’s personal and musical charisma, eclectic programming, and choice of colleagues, most of whom matched her vivacity and intensity. Door prizes and post-concert receptions gave the festival a casual, friendly vibe. The initial season’s three programs grew to four and then five, and from the beginning the festival went on the road to nearby towns. In San Antonio, Cactus Pear quickly outgrew its first venue, a near-downtown church, and eventually landed at the suburban Coker United Methodist Church. Sant’Ambrogio left the local orchestra in 2007 to join the faculty at the University of Nevada at Reno, but she remained artistic director of the festival she’d founded in San Antonio. Cactus Pear always surprises with some new or unusual repertoire. This season’s first two programs abounded in welcome sojourns to the unfamiliar.

Sticking most firmly in memory from the July 10 concert was American composer Shawn Jaeger’s “In Old Virginny” (2007), for soprano and double-bass. The text, from the alternating viewpoints of two former lovers, comes from an anthology of Appalachian folk songs, but Jaeger’s music is new. While the soprano line is a cousin to the Appalachian folk tradition (down to the pitch inflections and slightly nasal projection), the double-bass flies off into spiky modernism or carries the song into harmonic territories distant from the implied harmony of the melody. The music admirably suits the disturbed mood of the text. Jaeger composed the work for the extraordinary soprano Mary Bonhag and her husband, the electrifying double-bassist Evan Premo, who reprised it here in an engrossing performance.

Soprano Mary Bonhag performed with Evan Premo. (Renée Davis)
Soprano Mary Bonhag performed with Evan Premo. (Renée Davis)

Bonhag’s bright, pure, absurdly accurate instrument also was heard to fine effect in Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,” (“Der Hirt auf dem Felsen”) the soprano’s timbre eerily matching that of clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg; and in a remarkable set of three popular songs by the Mexican singer-composer (and jeweler) Antonio Salazar Arroyo, arranged for soprano, clarinet, and piano (Lo-An Lin) by Antonio Taño. The second of these, a jazzy ballad called “Inspiración,” particularly indicated a composer of substance.

The July 11 concert was devoted to music by Jewish (more or less) composers, ranging from the familiar (Bloch, Mendelssohn, Copland) to the obscure. Somewhere in between was Erwin Schulhoff, whose music fell into neglect after he died in a German concentration camp in 1942 and whose rediscovery is now well advanced. His Concertino for flute/piccolo (Joanna Martin Berg), viola (Bruce Williams), and double-bass proved to be a handsomely crafted work, especially notable for the serpentine melodies and protean rhythms of the jazz-influenced opening movement.

Suburban San Antonio church is Cactus Pear's venue.
Suburban San Antonio church is Cactus Pear’s venue.

The youngest composer on the bill was the American Judd Greenstein (born 1979), represented by his Summer Dances  for clarinet, viola, and double-bass. The three short pieces were the fluidly syncopated “Catskill Creek,” the very embodiment of torpor  in “In Praise of Summer Heat,” and a klezmerish dance in the alarmingly titled “No-Slip Moyl.”

An intriguing find was Irving Schlein (1905-86), who had a successful career as an arranger and music director on Broadway, but whose large classical oeuvre (including nine symphonies) is just now gaining notice. His Sonata for Flute and Piano (1966) impressed with effervescent outer movements and a languid middle movement that recalled the feeling of Satie’s Gymnopédies.

Both concerts closed with large-ensemble works played without a conductor — on July 10, Haydn’s “London” Symphony in J. P. Salomon’s arrangement for flute, strings, and piano; and on July 11, Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite in a version for nine players. The performances were fresh and vigorous, well-prepared but leaving ample room for individual expression.

Young artists aid Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio in   door-prize drawing.
Young artists aid Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio in door-prize drawing.

One of the distinct pleasures of Cactus Pear stems from Sant’Ambrogio’s frequent practice of ceding the first-violin part in ensembles to a guest — this year the splendid Israeli-American violinist Carmit Zori, who had a strong solo showcase in Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem Suite.  In the second-violin part in Haydn and Copland (and its equivalent second-soprano line in Mozart’s Quartet in D for flute, violin, viola, and cello) Sant’Ambrogio’s irrepressible presence and gorgeous low register threatened to turn “second fiddle” into a prized honorific.

For the past dozen years Cactus Pear has operated a Young Artist Program. This season seven students ranging in age from 13 to 17 were coached by local professionals and given a busy schedule of performances around the city. Two of the students, Brian Kang (violin) and Gretchen Noble (piano) appeared on the July 11 concert to give a pleasing and graceful account of Fritz Kreisler’s “Schön Rosmarin.”

The festival’s second and final weekend holds music by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (July 16 in New Braunfels and July 17 in San Antonio); and Hugo Wolf, Verdi and Tchaikovsky (July 18 in San Antonio). View the full calendar here.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.