Moving forward with Santa Fe’s longest-running performing arts organization
THE RISK PROFILE
“I suppose in some ways I’m always trying to achieve the impossible.” Jonathan Winkle, the newly appointed director of Performance Santa Fe ignores his coffee while enthusiastically explaining how he books the perfect season roster. “I want a balance between artistically risky programs which might get us bloodied a little financially and high-level programs that have good probabilities of full houses.” Reconciling aesthetics and business is the first of many responsibilities that Winkle confronts in his position at the head of Santa Fe’s oldest performing arts organization. When I spoke with him last month at a downtown bakery, he had just finalized the upcoming eighty-second season’s bill. The lineup features music, dance, and theater from many different traditions and disciplines, presenting a broad scope of what’s possible on stage. The acts range from conservative to experimental and expand the purview of what has historically been seen as a classical music series.
The confluence of tradition and innovation in PSF’s revamped programming is perhaps best encapsulated by the final show of the upcoming run, the last composition of Orlando di Lasso (1530-1594) performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “Di Lasso brought vocal polyphony to its zenith, a lot like Bach did 150 years later with baroque music,” Winkle explains, giving needed context for Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of Saint Peter), which probably seems like an obscure selection to all but the most fanatical concertgoers. This uncommon inclusion is made even more atypical by the fact that it will be performed with choreography by Peter Sellars, the notoriously experimental contemporary theater director whose stripped-down 2011 staging of Vivaldi’s Griselda at the Santa Fe Opera provoked a mixed reaction of chin scratching and eye rolling. For Lagrime di San Pietro, Sellars has choreographed and directed a chorus of twenty-one professional singers to be in movement for the entirety of the performance. Like Sellars’s previous work, this collaboration is sure to get people talking. “It’s not dance. It’s not theater,” Winkle explains. “Whatever it is, it’s an incredibly moving, transformational experience.”
As Winkle sees it, offering unexpected and inventive programming is a risky financial proposition but also an intrinsic part of Performance Santa Fe’s non-profit mission. “Quality and popularity are not the same thing,” Winkle says. The organization’s educational mandate uncouples booking decisions from the tyranny of the bottom line, allowing Winkle the freedom to take chances on artists that he thinks deserve the stage. “There’s a reason why people can donate money to PSF and get a tax deduction. We’re not trying to achieve a profit. Our reason for existence is to present these musicians, dancers, and actors on stage. Seeing video of someone is one thing. You have to experience a live performance to know the impact that a performer can have.”
Quality and popularity are not the same thing
Another fresh but risky performance on the program is A Celebration of Harold Pinter, a one-man show by British actor Julian Sands (The Killing Fields, A Room with a View) presenting the lesser-known poetic works of Pinter, known best as a playwright, screenwriter, and actor. The piece is directed by John Malkovich. “People know Pinter’s other work. They don’t know his poetry,” Winkle says. “It’s going to be at the Scottish Rite, so it will be a smaller, more intimate space with no bells and whistles, just directed stagecraft.” Like Lagrime di San Pietro, this performance leans on star power to attract interest in source material that might otherwise be overlooked. It will be the only performance in the series without musical accompaniment.
Winkle’s program takes its biggest gamble in his selection for the winter holidays, a time of year in which bankable works by Tchaikovsky and Handel are expected. Instead of predictable fare, Winkle selected a piece of contemporary theater titled All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. The piece presents a true story that took place during the First World War, in which opposing armies stopped fighting for one day to celebrate the holiday together by singing carols and exchanging gifts before resuming battle. “These are traditional Christmas carols from Germany, France, and England that the actual soldiers would have been sharing with each other,” Winkle says. “There are also excerpts from actual letters that are recited by the actors. It’s very powerful.” The general mood of the piece—“serious, but not a downer”—is a departure from typical holiday cheer, but All Is Calm delivers a message of peace and togetherness that is sorely needed in times of conflict. “With the level of political strife we have currently in our country, it’s an appropriate pick,” Winkle says. “We’ll see if it sells.”
A LINEAGE OF TALENT
In an organization with such a long history, Winkle’s more adventurous programming decisions must be delicately balanced with homage to the precedent that his predecessors have set. This is a task he has tactfully taken on in the current 2017–2018 season, his inaugural season as PSF’s executive. His decisions reflect an understanding of the importance of lineage. “There’s a romantic element to the history of a long-running series like this,” he says while discussing the number of great performers who have played in Santa Fe over the years.
Performance Santa Fe was founded in 1937 as the Santa Fe Community Concert Series, later renamed Santa Fe Concert Association, beating out the Santa Fe Opera (founded 1956) and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (founded 1972) for the title of oldest performing arts organization in town. When the Concert Association was founded, Santa Fe was a small city with a population around that of present-day Española. Winkle lists a few of the many luminaries who played in those early years: the names of Ukranian-American violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967) and mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens (1913-2013) are on the tip of his tongue. “Today, only geeks like me are going to know who they were,” Winkle says, “but in their day, they would have been huge stars.”
For most of its existence, the Concert Association was best known for hosting touring classical musicians, although Winkle is quick to point out that the series also presented dance and theater from a very early date. The organization officially changed its name in 2014 to better reflect the range of performances that the series was offering. “It hasn’t been classical music exclusively for a very long time,” he says. “That drove the decision to use the name Performance Santa Fe, because it captures the complete array of performance.”
Performance Santa Fe has accumulated lore from its past eras. “There’s a through line to the story,” Winkle says. “There’s a lineage.” As an example, he tells me about a specific 1690 Stradivarius violin, played by Vadim Gluzman at an event earlier this year, which was previously owned by the Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer (1845-1930), who taught Mischa Elman. “I find the historical connections interesting,” Winkle says. “One of the chief reasons I was interested in this job is the length of the history and the quality of the artists who have been presented here.”
In this case, the same line of teacher-protégé relationships that informs a performance on stage also connects with students in Santa Fe’s public schools through PSF’s non-profit educational programs. Many of the touring artists are also booked for these classes, where current students can learn from the accumulated mastery of a working professional. David Parsons, whose dance company appeared earlier this year, also taught master classes in schools, bringing expertise from the center of the world of modern dance with him. “David danced with Paul Taylor, who danced for Martha Graham (1894-1991), who is one of the progenitors of American modern dance,” Winkle says, tracing a genetic history of Parsons’s style. For the local students who attended his class, Parsons represents an opportunity to learn from that knowledge and technique to produce a new generation of performers in the same tradition.
Whether in music, dance, or theater, virtuosity is the common denominator in PSF’s lineup. Winkle underscores the talent of Emanuel Ax, who will perform in solo recital. “He is one of the greatest classical musicians in the world,” Winkle boasts. He regards Ax as the prototype of the classical musician, a person with the discipline and passion to excel. “I think we should celebrate excellence and mastery. Those things are hard won,” Winkle says. “These musicians are at the elite end of human achievement, because they put in the time rehearsing. I’ve worked with many truly world-class musicians over the years, and they all have a work ethic like you wouldn’t believe.”
Other classical performers appearing in PSF’s eighty-second season include chamber music by the Emerson Quartet, forgotten masterpieces by the Venice Baroque Orchestra, dance from Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet, and Scottish violin star Nicola Benedetti.
AMERICAN’S CLASSICAL MUSIC
The most noticeable change that Winkle has introduced to Performance Santa Fe’s programming is a more robust representation of jazz and world music, which make up about a third of the program in the next season. “In the past, there would occasionally be a jazz artist booked, but it was never a substantive part of the series,” he says. As a brass musician who plays professionally in addition to his work with PSF, Winkle has an obvious admiration for the performers in this category. “I did something in January I’ve never done previously,” he tells me, describing a showcase performance at which he was scouting talent. “This young jazz singer named Veronica Smith came on, and before she was finished singing the first song, I was sending a text to her agent. I’m usually not that impulsive, but she floored me.” Veronica, a twenty-three- year-old prodigy, will appear in the series with decorated musicians like Delfeayo Marsalis, Catherine Russell, John Pizzarelli, and the SFJAZZ collective.
“Jazz is America’s classical music,” Winkle says of his decision to include more of it on the schedule. “It’s an art form that originated in this country. In terms of sophistication of musicality, harmony, and rhythm, jazz is comparable to classical music. I frankly feel a responsibility to protect it, preserve it, and promote it.” A test of Winkle’s programming philosophy is currently underway at the box office. Season subscriptions with special benefits for subscribers are already on sale. Single tickets go on sale June 4.
Many of the acts appearing in Performance Santa Fe’s eighty-second season are not mentioned in this article. Please find the complete program at performancesantafe.org.