Flourish Of Music Writ Small, Under Banner Of Variety

Łukasz Kuropaczewski plays with a subtle expressivity that leans toward understatement. (Photo by Kamil Strudzinski)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

SANTA FE, N.M. – In the midst of a July week centered on grand productions at the Santa Fe Opera, music critics from across North America, who had convened for their annual convention, took an afternoon break – a busman’s holiday. You might say they all piled into a mini-bus: the intimate space of St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art. The occasion was a chamber music program, and its marvelously mixed content offered a pointed reminder of what is perennially quite special about the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Chamber music suits the intimate space of Santa Fe’s St. Francis Auditorium.
(New Mexico Museum of Art)

This ever-beguiling flourish of music writ small, under the general shepherding of Steven Ovitsky and the artistic direction of Marc Neikrug, does not pursue themes. It plays out – this summer from middle July to Aug. 21– under the proud banner of Variety. It is a perpetually renewing grab-bag of surprises, delivered by top-flight musicians from, well, everywhere. The splendid example in this hour-long noon-day program combined a Mozart string quintet – when does one ever hear the masterful quintets? – with a solo flight by the Polish classical guitarist Łukasz Kuropaczewski, a poetic and wizardly musician, and guitarist par excellence.

Kuropaczewski played works by Llobet and Paganini. (Strudzinski)

Kuropaczewski was a revelation. A product of the Peabody Institute, where he studied with the celebrated Manuel Barrueco, the 35-year-old guitarist played for perhaps half an hour; but what I heard sent me scurrying to Youtube for more, and I must have listened to every one of the wide-ranging videos, some going back a decade, that I found there. I also came across an engaging interview in which Kuropaczewski displayed both an easy affability and an admirable command of English.

Six Catalan Folk Songs by Miguel Llobet, arranged by Barrueco, instantly revealed the grace of Kuropaczewski’s playing, and a subtle expressivity that leans toward understatement. He’s the kind of musician who draws you in with a combination of elegance and warmth. The guitarist’s rock-solid technique might have been easily overlooked in these seemingly simple songs, though in reality it was Kuropaczewski’s clean, sure mechanics that set free the pieces’ tumbling lyricism. Think of the deceptive transparency of Mozart’s piano sonatas – famously characterized as too easy for children and too hard for adults – and you have a picture of how Kuropaczewski transfigured these almost aphoristic Catalan songs.

Title page of a Paganini guitar sonata with violin obbligato. (Petrucci Music Library)

Two short-form Paganini sonatas, originally for violin and guitar, afforded a more overt display of the guitarist’s virtuosity. Again, Kuropaczewski was working from arrangements by his mentor Barrueco. The sonatas – Op. 3, No. 1 in A and Op. 3, No. 6 in E minor — might more accurately be called sonatinas. Each unfolds in two movements, a lingering slow episode followed by a brilliant finale demanding great technical facility. Kuropaczewski made invitingly personal work of them both, ruminating on the slow movements and dispatching the high-wire finishes as if he were merely amusing himself.

The festival’s ad hoc spirit of chamber music-making was on parade with the concise program’s second half: Mozart’s String Quintet in D, K. 593. A stellar cast included violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Daniel Hope, violists Paul Neubauer and Carla Maria Rodrigues and cellist Clive Greensmith. (The previous night in St. Francis Auditorium and the next in Albuquerque, the musicians reshuffled in a typically off-beat festival mix of Giuliani’s Duo Concertante for violin and guitar, Dvořák’s Terzetto for two violins and viola, and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1. You cannot step twice into the same festival river!)

Like any all-star team, the five Mozart players brought a great deal of individual flash to their performance of the D major Quintet, along with what really must be acknowledged as a festive ensemble spirit. If the work’s introductory Larghetto wanted finer focus, the Allegro that ensued showed an irresistible vitality that also buoyed the later minuet and headlong finale. It was essentially great fun, and certainly a treat. In their fifth-wheel form, Mozart’s string quintets are not so readily brought to the stage as the routinely encountered quartets.

David Daniels (Robert Recker)

But that’s the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. In a post-concert chat on the street, executive director Steven Ovitsky said the free-wheeling musical fare – a sort of pop-up scheme of programming – is what the festival’s patrons have come to expect.

Eye-catching mélanges still ahead this summer:

  • Countertenor David Daniels in a three-concert residency beginning Aug. 13 with  songs of 20th-century French composer Reynaldo Hahn; continuing Aug. 16 with soulful arrangements by Steven Mark Kohn of four American folk songs: “Ten Thousand Miles Away,” “On the Other Shore,” “Wanderin’,” and “The Farmer’s Curst Wife”; and concluding Aug. 19 with Vivaldi’s emotional setting of the Stabat Mater and the sorrowful “Voi che udite il lamento” from Handel’s 1709 opera Agrippina.
  • Wallace Shawn (Ed Lederman, Wiki)

    Poulenc’s Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone (Jennifer Montone, Caleb Hudson, and Achilles Liarmakopoulos), Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra with soloist-conductor John Storgårds, and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 on Aug. 14.

  • A festival co-commission, the sextet by William Bolcom for violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, bassoon, and piano, on Aug. 16.
  • Actor Wallace Shawn narrating a new staging by director Doug Fitch of Stravinsky’s musical theater piece L’histoire du soldat on Aug. 17.

It all makes for quite a stimulating change of pace from the grand opera up the highway.

Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.