The Santa Fe Symphony opened its season on Sept. 25 with music from the heart of late Romanticism.
Led by guest conductor Roderick Cox from the Minnesota Orchestra, the ensemble gave stunning performances of works by Wagner, Brahms and Dvorák.
The Brahms Violin Concerto brought to the stage of the Lensic Performing Arts Center violinist Alexi Kenney, recipient of a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Any number of excerpts from Wagner’s monumental “Ring of the Nibelungen” have been arranged for the concert stage. The “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” comprises the final moments of “Das Rheingold,” the first of the four theatrical works that constitute the epic based on Norse and Teutonic legends.
One might say it represents the entry of opera into symphony as, with it, Wagner took opera to a new level of composition that he called music drama.
Cox led the orchestra, with the brass section often brilliantly in the foreground, deftly through the tapestry of nature motives, including that of the Rhine and the Rhinegold, leading toward the majestic conclusion.
Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto in the same period and in the same key as his second symphony, and its moods are closely related. That the work is the fruit of the composer’s life-long friendship with violinist Joseph Joachim is not difficult to accept.
The concerto requires not only exceptional bravura technique from the player, but also solid musicianship. Simply to play the notes, as difficult as that may be, is never enough.
Kenney, a young player, gave a more than respectable performance, with the music always the primary focus. His double stops, which so characterize the work, were marked with precision and dexterity.
The Adagio had a glowing tone and a spacious simplicity of design ornamented with gorgeous arabesques. A conspicuous tip of the cap must be given to Elaine Heltman (as well as the wind section generally) for a superb oboe solo leading off the movement. The light-hearted nature of the final section of the Allegro giocoso helped mitigate the often moody and dark character of the work generally.
After receiving a vigorous standing ovation, Kenney returned to the stage to play the Saraband from Bach’s “Partita in D minor for solo violin.”
The last and most famous of Dvorák’s symphonies he fully entitled “Impressions and greetings from the New World.” Fragments of American folk song mix seamlessly with an essentially Bohemian work in which every movement is forever memorable.
Cox led a joyous-sounding opening Adagio. The music here has always seemed to me to depict a wooden ship sailing across the open ocean, sometimes in calm, sometimes in storm. The famous Largo, from which the popular song “Goin’ Home” was fashioned, featured guest oboist Kevin Vigneau here playing the English horn in the primary melody.
A stormy introduction led to the emphatic theme of the final movement as again we hear the melodies of the Largo and Scherzo returning with ever more significance. Some fuzziness in the first violin section did nothing to mar the grand effect.