Hitting the Right Note: The San Miguel International Music Festival Comes into Its Own
By Fredric Dannen
No one who takes part in the thriving classical concert scene around the world can doubt that statement. There is a new generation of young musicians performing both standard and modern repertoire with all the aplomb of their predecessors. New works are commissioned every day, and eager audiences gather to hear them. The only time classical music comes off as dead and embalmed is when the cultural institutions presenting the music are too timid and unadventurous, too intent on playing it safe, and too untrusting of their audience.
The San Miguel International Music Festival, now in its 38th year, might once have been accused of timidity, but no one can level that criticism any longer. The program for the upcoming season, which runs from July 28 through August 27 at the Teatro Ángela Peralta, listed on www.festivalsanmiguel.com, is striking for its diversity. It is perhaps the broadest range of genres, instruments, and repertoire, from classic to contemporary, in the festival’s history.
“We’re not breaking with our tradition. We’re building on it,” says the festival’s creative director, Dirk Bakker. “In my mind, our tradition is to hear what is presented on the leading concert stages around the world, throw out our net, and get the best of it on our stage.”
On Friday, August 19, Jeremy Denk, one of America’s foremost pianists —an artist, the New York Times says, “you want to hear no matter what he performs”—gives a recital, charting the history of Western music, from Medieval and Renaissance (Machaut, Couperin, Frescobaldi) all the way to modern (Cage, Ligeti, Adams). The following evening, Denk teams up with star violinist Stefan Jackiw to perform the four violin sonatas of Charles Ives.
Or consider the festival’s opening weekend, Friday, July 29, and Saturday, July 30. The highlight of Friday’s concert will be the noted Japanese composer Jun Nagao’s mind-blowing re-imagining of Holst’s The Planets, for saxophone quartet and piano. Nagao’s Planets, which thrilled audiences in Tokyo, will receive its Western Hemisphere concert premiere in San Miguel. The Saturday concert, a program of contemporary music performed by the cutting-edge ONIX Ensemble, will include two new works written for ONIX, with the composer of one of those works, Don Freund, in attendance.
Vocal music will be another highlight of the season. On Wednesday, August 10, opera stars Michael Sylvester and Jane Dutton will present an art song recital, including Schumann’s magnificent song cycle Dichterliebe, along with works by Ravel and Wagner, and settings of American folk tunes by Steven Mark Kohn. On Wednesday, August 3, soprano Verónica Murúa and Mexican guitarra séptima virtuoso Arturo Ramírez will perform Mexican songs of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the two types of chamber ensembles that have been mainstays of the festival—the string quartet and the piano trio—will be exceptionally well represented this season, by two of the finest such ensembles in the world. The Hermitage Piano Trio, the sensation of last year’s festival, will perform on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and 6, and then return a week later, on August 12 and 13, with two select guest musicians. And the Shanghai Quartet, making its San Miguel debut, will give concerts on the closing weekend of Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27.
Bakker sums up the 2016 season as follows: “Works you will have heard on that stage before, but also many works you have never heard on that stage before. And in some cases, works no one has heard before. And what a privilege that is.”