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Cactus Pear Music Festival

Speed's the thing in new works by Timothy Kramer and Colin Sorgi

July 18, 2010

In its 14th season the Cactus Pear Music Festival unveiled two new works by San Antonio composers, along with its usual blend of standard and less-familiar repertoire from the past three centuries.

The festival also moved to a new venue in the suburbs, Coker United Methodist Church, for its four San Antonio concerts. (Raging allergies and a schedule conflict kept me from the first two.)

Timothy Kramer’s “Three Pairs” Suite for a mixed sextet was the memorable centerpiece of the July 15 concert and also, alas, a valedictory to the composer’s 19-year sojourn at Trinity University. This fall he begins a new post as professor and chair of the music department at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill.

Illinois is getting a gem. We have heard quite a lot (but not nearly enough) of Kramer’s music during his time here, and all of it has been superbly crafted and intriguingly complex. “Three Pairs” is one of his strongest pieces.

The title refers to the pairwise instrumentation -- violin (Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio) and cello (Fred Edelen), flute (Stephanie Jutt) and clarinet (Ilya Shterenberg), piano (James Winn) and percussion (Sherry Rubins). The title also alludes homonymically to the name of the festival, which commissioned it. In spoken remarks before the performance, Kramer said the festival’s eponymous succulent suggested to him a musical style that would be a summery balance of sweet and prickly.

In the hearing, the prickly predominated in Kramer’s highly active rhythms and his dense, richly colored harmonies from the outskirts of the tonal tradition. The first and last of its six movements build to wild, frenzied rides -- this is not a summer of hammock naps in leafy glades but of hurricane winds and sun-crazed brains. The third movement opens with scattered staccato notes that coalesce into an obsessive clockwork pattern, which becomes progressively addled and finally morphs into something like the galloping of a runaway horse. The second movement’s title (”Nocturne") and slow tempo suggest untroubled calm, but the music is more like an elegy than a nocturne, and complex textures roil below the calm surface.

Despite its casual name, “Three Pairs” is a work of high ambition and serious purpose, but it is also directly appealing. The all-star ensemble gave it a top-drawer performance.

Kramer’s piece was aptly, uh, paired on the first half with Erik Satie’s bipolar “Pieces (3) in the Form of a Pear” for piano four hands. Though Satie rejected traditional thematic development and the Romantic weightiness that it enabled, the simplicity, clarity and jocularity of his music mask a deeper seriousness and complexity. Both aspects were well represented in the performance by Winn and Judith Lynn Stillman.

The concert closed with a well-paced and beautifully played account of Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87. The players were Stillman, Sant’Ambrogio, Edelen and violist Dmitri Pogorelov.

Cactus Pear’s other new piece was presented during the otherwise-baroque closing concert of July 17. Composer Colin Sorgi, a graduate student at Indiana University’s music school, won a juried competition for a work to be played by the festival’s eight young artists, an unusual ensemble of violins, violas and cellos in pairs (of course) plus flute and clarinet. The event turned out to be a reunion of sorts: Sorgi, son of festival education director Craig Sorgi, had been recruited in 2008 to write a piece for that year’s group of young artists, two of whom (violinist Eric Bowser and violist Julian Tello Jr.) returned for the 2010 roster.

Sorgi’s “Velocity” lasts about five minutes and would make an ideal soundtrack for a brisk (but not breakneck) morning run along the beach. The harmonies are tonal and rather sweet, and the intricate, patterned textures suggest the influence of John Adams -- but also possibly of the baroque style. It’s an attractive work, challenging to play. It was very ably performed by Teresa Villalobos (flute), Louis Coy (clarinet), Bowser and Lauren Logan (violin), Tello and Nathan Dowling (viola), and Jonathan Willing and Sydney ZumMallen (cello).

The main part of the program included luxuriously played works by JS Bach (the famous Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3) and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. Most interesting were Francois Couperin’s “L’Apothéose de Corelli,” in which two violins and basso continuo portray very fancifully composer Arcangelo Corelli’s ascent to Heaven; and Corelli’s own Sonata in D Minor for flute and basso continuo, a set of variations on the traditional tune “La Folia,” so we could hear why Couperin made such a fuss about him. 
Jutt displayed impressive speed and dexterity in Corelli’s variations, and rich tone in everything she played. In the Couperin, Pogorelov, switching to violin, neatly complemented Sant’Ambrogio’s warmth and intensity with his narrower, cooler tone; both had a fine feel for the baroque style. Harpsichordist Christina Edelen, playing a French-style double-manual instrument by Gerald Self, was masterful and enterprising as always throughout the evening. Fred Edelen’s work on cello was consistently agile and gorgeous.
Mike Greenberg