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Diamond season off to a brilliant start

Soprano Susanna Phillips opened the new season of the Santa Fe Concert Association. (Photo Courtesy Ken Howard)
Soprano Susanna Phillips opened the new season of the Santa Fe Concert Association. (Photo Courtesy Ken Howard)
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The Santa Fe Concert Association commenced its 75th anniversary season in grand style, bringing to the stage of the Lensic Performing Arts Center soprano Susanna Phillips among others.

Phillips, seen in August on public television’s Mozart concert, is quickly and rightfully becoming one of the most celebrated singers in the country. A veteran of three Mozart leads at the Santa Fe Opera, she sings two primary roles at the Metropolitan Opera this season.

Conducted by Joseph Illick, she opened the program with the “Four Last Songs” by Strauss. Somber songs about death are not exactly the most festive work to begin a gala opening concert, but from a performance of such radiant beauty there were anything but objections. With long, warm phrasing she gave heartfelt meaning to each of the poems. Illick carefully gauged the tempos of the predominantly string sonority to allow her a maximum of expression.

Phillips then returned for selections from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang,” which includes chorus, soprano and mezzo-soprano. Here in contrast to the introspective Strauss, she let loose the full power and luster of her voice and shone brilliantly above the orchestral textures.

Linda Raney’s chorus too sang with an unbridled optimism, creating a “joyful noise” most appropriate to the occasion.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sang two small roles with the Santa Fe Opera this summer, both, unfortunately, too short to give us anything but a glimpse of her outstanding talent. Here too, frustratingly, we heard only one or two short solo passages other than the voice in duet with Phillips. I, for one, hope to hear more of her rich, hearty mezzo in future.

Illick, who never seems to be without an enthusiastic smile, led the work in his own infectiously animated manner, his unbounded exuberance translating abundantly into the sound of the orchestra and chorus.

Not to be outdone, the second half of the program featured 18-year-old violinist Caroline Goulding in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Already a seasoned performer with a long list of performances and awards to her credit, Goulding gave an exhibition of a thoroughly mature professional.

As she began with a very slender dynamic in the opening phrase, one began to wonder if Illick’s extroverted style might overpower her. But a happy medium was quickly reached — powerful orchestral tutti balanced by an accompaniment transparent enough to allow Goulding delicate pianissimos.

One minor mishap: In the final movement the peg holding the D-string on her violin slipped suddenly and the string lost tension and went out of tune. In the flash of an eye, she swapped instruments with concertmaster Richard Rood, and continued as though nothing had happened, playing some of the most treacherously difficult material on a strange violin. This was as exciting a rendering of the Tchaikovsky as one is likely to hear. Keep an eye out for this phenomenal young player.

Appreciative congratulations to the SFCA in this most auspicious 75th season. 1937 had to be a good year. It heralded, as the program notes reminded, the introduction of Spam.

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