Perennial desert blooms sampled in Santa Fe, Part I

Perennial desert blooms sampled in Santa Fe, Part I
Joshua Smith and Kathryn McIntosh performing Bach at the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art.

It seems odd now, but my wife and I had planned a two-week vacation that centered on getting to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and while there, making sure that we attended at least one concert of the forty-third Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. And after 3,438 miles driven, ten times that amount consumed in calories of memorable food, and nearly filling our phones with photos of sights you just don’t see in the Midwest, one concert is indeed all we managed—at least of the Chamber Festival.

Full disclosure time: The entire idea for the trip came about as 2015 contained not one, but two round numbers. This was my twentieth season as co-annotator for the Festival, and I recently turned a riper age that ends in a zero. This was my foundation for persuading my patient spouse to essentially allow me to plan the excursion (next year is our twentieth wedding anniversary, and I agreed that she could act as our planner). We squeezed in as many visits and reunions with family and friends as possible—Kansas City, Fort Collins Colorado, Oklahoma and Arkansas … the only mistake we made was not spending more time in Santa Fe.

The Festival itself warrants a significant investment of time for any music lover. No fewer than forty-two concerts run the gamut from Bach to new commissioned works, has been overseen by Marc Neikrug since 1998, and this year’s artist in residence, acclaimed conductor Alan Gilbert, illumines a scintillating lineup of repertoire. Most of the performances take place in the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art, including a noon series, which is where we found ourselves on August 4.

The venue is the first surprise: The Museum appears to be a converted mission structure, and the auditorium clearly a former church sanctuary … or so it seems. Turns out that in 1916, just four years after New Mexico was granted statehood, the city fathers decided they needed to do something to keep Santa Fe from being swallowed up by a growing middle class driven by the expansion of rail access—and create a tourist destination in the process. Thus the building was modeled after the 1629 Acoma Pueblo (still standing sixty miles west of Albuquerque), and the thinking was that the auditorium should tap into the centuries-old tradition of the mission-style churches. As hoped, the Museum became the catalyst and prototype of more centrally located Santa Fe structures.

Listed capacity of the auditorium is 450, and the event was sold out with at least a dozen hopefuls getting their names on a waiting list. The draw was considerable, with the first work the Sonata in B Minor for Flute and Harpsichord by J.S. Bach, followed by the String Quartet No. 12 of Beethoven. The performers were typical Santa Fe headliners: Joshua Smith, principal flutist of the Cleveland Symphony was featured in the Bach, while the Orion String Quartet, Artist Members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, took on Beethoven.

Smith performed on a wooden flute, at least close to the kind of new “flauto traverso” that Bach wrote for in 1730. The sound was delicate beyond description, and was matched impeccably by the harpsichord playing of Kathleen McIntosh, a welcomed returnee to the Festival. Even in the lively movements, the filigree of sound made one quiet one’s breathing as one gazed upon the mural style paintings on the wall and the fine woodwork of the ceiling.

The Orion foursome was alternately whimsical, forceful and ambiguously lyrical as needed—which is the sometimes quixotic mixture finds in the late Beethoven quartets, even this first of the last six (Op. 127). Rarely have I experienced—and it has been a long time in coming—such a potent combination of superlative music making, a unique venue awe inspiring in its own right, and an audience so collectively focused and appreciative.

The Festival even offers a schedule of free open rehearsals in the St. Francis Auditorium … I was already despairing over not having the chance to hear more, as I dabbled with a delectable plate of Mexican food at the Thunderbird Grill. From second story outdoor seating overlooking the town square and the Cathedral Basilica just two blocks distant, I had only one consolation: Wednesday night would mark my first visit to the other perennial desert bloom of northern New Mexico, the Santa Fe Opera. A report and review of the new opera, Cold Mountain, follows soon …