By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO – The world premiere of a tough-minded, intricately designed, devilishly difficult cello concerto by the American composer Jeffrey Mumford was the intriguing second course of a contemporary feast served by the San Antonio Symphony under guest conductor John Axelrod on Jan. 22 in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The indefatigable cello soloist was Christine Lamprea.
The program was the second and most venturesome of a consecutive series of four dedicated to music of “Las Américas” – mostly comfort food by U.S. composers, but with a few spicier dishes from Mexico and Argentina. The Mumford concerto was preceded by Astor Piazzolla’s Tangazo: Variations on Buenos Aires (1968-9) and followed by John Adams’ El Dorado (1991). The frothy but substantial dessert was Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento (1980).
Mumford, born in Washington, D.C., in 1955, has a penchant for poetic descriptive titles – in the present instance, of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light. Among Mumford’s teachers was Elliott Carter, to whose memory the concerto is dedicated. It is cast as a single movement that clocked in at just under 22 minutes. (I timed the second performance, Jan. 23, but not the first.)
The music takes a firm stand on Mumford’s own sui generis aesthetic. He declined to follow other composers of his generation down any of the paths of “accessibility” that dominated new music after the late 20th century’s general turn against serialism. But neither is he a strict serialist. In a 1997 New York Times article, writer K. Robert Schwarz quoted Mumford: “[Serialism] has left us with just another technique to use in our arsenal of expressive tools…. When I use a row in my work, I’m not dogmatic about it, and certainly it’s not thorough or all-pervasive.”
The demanding solo part calls for vertiginous leaps, long roller-coaster runs, an abundance of double- and triple-stops and a few quadruple-stops, frequent breaking of the general 4/4 meter into various -tuplets, and sometimes all of the above virtually at once, to say nothing of those serialistic flats and sharps requiring constant vigilance. There are two extensive cadenzas, both written out and accompanied by tuned percussion and flecks of color from harp and winds. The solo line has rhapsodic episodes, and its frenetic passages suggest burgeoning, indomitable, unruly life.
The orchestration is atmospheric and spare, a Cézanne landscape of shimmering, delicate, iridescent color sometimes overlaid by broad, bold strokes that evoke the fitful churning of the gears in a gigantic, ancient machine. If there is a fault in this concerto it is a flatness of dramatic contour. The piece doesn’t seem to have a destination in mind. But when the scenery en route is so comely, maybe that doesn’t matter.
Lamprea is a Colombian-American who spent her childhood and youth in San Antonio before going off to Juilliard and the New England Conservatory. On previous occasions she has impressed with the fearless intensity of her musicianship. For this premiere, she understandably exercised some caution; she seemed much more comfortable in the music the following night. Undiminished both evenings were the bright, limpid beauty of her tone, the gorgeousness of her vibrato, and the security of her technique. The second night brought an additional treat: For an encore, she was joined by her former teacher, principal cellist Kenneth Freudigman, in Gabriel Fauré’s lovely Morceau de lecture. Lamprea will have time to settle into the Mumford concerto: Over the next two seasons she is to perform it again with the principal orchestras of Detroit, Omaha, and Richmond, and with Ensemble 212 in New York.
Axelrod is a Houston native who has built a substantial career in European opera houses and concert halls; he currently holds principal conductor posts in Milan and Seville and has conducted the Chicago Symphony several times at the Ravinia Festival.
The orchestra responded to his clear, fluid baton with precise ensemble and crisply rendered rhythms in a program with plenty of rhythmic challenges. Axelrod brought supple but subtle shaping to the dark slow sections of Piazzolla’s Tangazo; the quick sections had ample snap but not so much sizzle. In Adams’ two-movement work, one of his most ingratiating scores, machine-tooled precision and intelligently gauged dynamics made for a highly effective first movement, in essence one long, increasingly monstrous crescendo expressive of California’s explosive, environmentally short-sighted suburbanization. The pointillist delicacy of the second movement, suggesting the purity of the natural realm, came through with admirable clarity.
Bernstein’s Divertimento, composed for the centenary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is a smartly observed portrait of Boston (and also of America) in eight witty movements. Axelrod and the orchestra delivered the full measure of the work’s brash, rollicking, streetwise charm.
Contributing immeasurably to the music was a team not mentioned in the program – the engineers from a•’ku•stiks, the Norwalk, Conn., firm that consulted on the design of the Tobin Center’s 1,700-seat H-E-B Performance Hall, which opened in September, 2014. After a few months of experimentation to find the optimum configuration, the multipurpose hall now houses the San Antonio Symphony in aural splendor with a sound that can compete with the best single-purpose concert halls of recent decades – resonant, open, and astonishingly faithful to instrumental timbres. Bravi!
Note: Numerous other musical organizations have joined with the San Antonio Symphony to expand its thematic concentration into a two-month Las Américas Music Festival, with 18 concerts and one exhibit between Jan. 5 and Feb. 22 – and one straggler on May 22.
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.