Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Big things in small packages

August 10, 2008

Bad, blurry photo of Andrew Russo and Relix Fan of Real Quiet with Huang Ruo
Photo : mine 2008

My trip to Santa Fe wasn’t all about opera. In fact there was more than enough time to catch some music from the other end of the spectrum via the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s programs at the St. Francis Auditorium. The Festival has consistently programmed a wide variety of works with some of the most accomplished musicians around and this year was no different. The festival usually stretches over a number of weeks and involves a confluence of artists in Santa Fe during August for the opera season and other events. The three concerts I caught on August 6, 7 , and 8 covered everything from Beethoven and Schumann to three world premieres including one from Kaija Saariaho, who was also in town for the U.S. premiere of her opera Adriana Mater (which you can read more about here.)

All three of these concerts were top notch chamber shows, and I count myself fortunate to have timed my visit in conjunction with a string of appearances of one of America’s finest chamber ensembles, Real Quiet. A trio consisting of cellist Felix Fan, keyboardist Andrew Russo, and percussionist David Cossin, the ensemble has made a reputation based mostly on their performance of new and late 20th century music. They started Tuesday’s program with Phil Kline’s The Last Buffalo, a melodic and contemplative work that compares favorably to the later works of John Adams. Woeful but also warm, the piece sounded majestic with the group's clear-minded performance. But the best was yet to come.

On Wednesday night they performed two world premieres. First was Kaija Saariaho’s Serenatas consisting of five short movements which the composer leaves to the performers to play in whatever order they see fit. Filled with darkness and light, Saariaho’s music is surprisingly as expansive with a small ensemble as it is with a large orchestra. This was another intriguing and inspiring work from one of the world’s greatest living composers. The other world premiere that evening was from 30-year-old Chinese composer Huang Ruo entitled Real Loud and was specifically commissioned for the trio. Ruo’s three-movement piece does trade heavily in Asian influences and involves wide swings in dynamics on a variety of cymbals, gongs, and bass drum. The second movement ends with all three players blowing into various jugs and bottles for a mysterious wind effect. The contrasts hung together here in a convincing whole for a young composer I’d certainly like to hear more from based on this small sample.

The members of Real Quiet had more to offer, though, as Felix Fan and Andrew Russo returned on Thursday for completely captivating performances of Elliott Carter’s Cello Sonata and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano. Both were insightful and motivated readings that the audience responded to wholeheartedly. It’s great that the festival, like the local opera company, continues to have such a big commitment to contemporary music and it’s players. Plus, these shorter, often 90 minute programs are some of the best deals in town with top ticket prices often little more than 15 or 20 dollars. What a deal.


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