SANTA FE PRO MUSICA STRING SERIES
With Anne-Marie McDermott and the Dover Quartet
Auditorium Saint-François, October 17
Santa Fe Pro Musica’s hiring of pianist Anne-Marie McDermott as artistic director has already resulted in an unlikely local plum – the world premiere in October of a major new work, Chris Rogerson Dream sequence for string quartet and piano at the St. Francis Auditorium. It was ordered by Bravo! Vail Music Festival, where McDermott is also artistic director, and was scheduled for the band’s 2020 summer season. Rather, the debut took place here, in a program performed heavily alongside string quartets by William Grant Still and Felix Mendelssohn.
Rogerson, 33, wrote Dream sequence in response to the pandemic and the extraordinarily vivid dreams (and nightmares) it has generated in so many of us. He grew during the writing process because the composer had more time available. The result: it lasted about 40 minutes in its first performance. It’s the kind of substantial new work that we don’t often hear in the traditional concert season, so kudos to Pro Musica for their lineup.
It was performed with assured commitment by McDermott and the Dover Quartet, although they received revisions a few days before the concert. (“I’m that boring songwriter,” Rogerson confessed at a pre-performance conference.) I found Dream sequence fascinating and captivating for most of its length, although the final movement (“Afterword”) seemed to outlast its musical material. The composer himself may have identified the problem in his program note, which points out that “Afterword” is an “extended version” of an earlier work for two violins and piano.
Rogerson works in a predominantly tonal idiom, featuring melodies with frequent spiky harmonies and unusual tones, many of which are derived from extended playing techniques. Dream sequence started with “Introduction” in which the strings play loud but with practice mutes, packing the sound, each member playing a different melodic material that recurs throughout the piece but not in rhythmic alignment with each other. (“It’s like walking in the middle of someone else’s dream,” McDermott says.)
After several granite chords from the piano, the musicians converge to present two lullabies – one of Rogerson’s favorite forms, which here manages to be both soothing and dissonant – each followed by a nightmare, the first one quivering and tense, the second more explosive and disturbing. , with devilishly fast scalar passages in the strings and some glissando harmonics that sound bad. In short, it was a very convincing evocation of sleep in the era of the pandemic.
The friends that William Grant Still portrays in his Musical portrait of three friends, which opened the program, are “The Sentimental One”, “The Quiet One” and “The Jovial One”. Although their exact identities are not known, they are surrounded by well-crafted music that suggests Aaron Copland’s Americana. The Dover Quartet delivered the attractive 14-minute piece with conviction. Their playing was particularly notable for the ideal balance that allowed the second violin and viola to be heard as equal voices on first violin and cello.
Still was one of the most important and successful black composers of the 20th century, the first to have a symphony performed by a large American orchestra (African-American Symphony by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931), the first to have an opera staged by a major American company (Troubled island by the New York City Opera in 1949), and the first to have an opera broadcast on national television (A legend of the bayou on PBS in 1981).
Felix Mendelssohn was a talented conductor as well as a composer. His appointment as musical director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the oldest and most refined ensembles in Europe, began a working relationship with his first violin Ferdinand David, a violin virtuoso who also conducted a string quartet of players from the Leipzig Orchestra.
Mendelssohn wrote his Opus 44, subtitled “Three Great Quartets”, in 1837 and 1838 for David’s group, and his Quartet No. 1 in D major closes the program. It is a jovial work, especially in its dizzying opening and closing movements, marked respectively “Very fast and lively” and “Very fast, with fire”. The Dover Quartet delved into the emotional content of each movement, emphasizing their contrasts and taking the last at a breathtaking and almost reckless pace that never faltered or collapsed.
The elegant second movement, marked “Minuet, somewhat fast,” gave first violin Joel Link the opportunity to display his virtuosity above the chords held by other players. It was a touch that was clearly inspired by the skills of first violinist David, who later gave the world premiere of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.