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Arts : Stringing us along 

But we don’t mind when it’s Cactus Pear’s prickly version of classical

Cactus Pear Music Festival started out as a damn-fine, roaming summer concert series, providing chamber music in the off-season for San Antonio, South Texas, and the Hill Country. Now in its 10th season under founding Artistic Director Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, CPMF has added a fourth program to its five-city tour, moved to a bigger venue to accommodate burgeoning San Antonio audiences, and established a significant educational program. Most important, it continues to showcase some of the nation’s top chamber musicians with diverse repertoire and excellent performances. At this point it’s fair to say CPMF has developed into a nationally recognized, regionally significant music festival that has won the hearts and support of many a Texas music lover.

Cactus Pear Music Festival in San Antonio
“The Best Odds”
7:30pm Thu, Jul 13

“Made in the U.S.A.”
7:30pm Sat, Jul 15
$22 adult; $10 student
Travis Park United Methodist Church
230 E. Travis
For a complete schedule, visit

The 10th Cactus Pear Music Festival opened July 6 with the first of four San Antonio programs at Travis Park United Methodist Church, an excellent 800-seat venue with good acoustics and unimpeded sight lines from just about every seat. With more people buying season tickets online and relatively high attendance in the first week of the festival, Executive Director Reneé Davis is pleased to report, “We may very well have record attendance by the end of next week.”

Yet despite the growing scale of the festival, it maintains an intimate, personable atmosphere, which is the whole point of chamber music. Because Cactus Pear’s format brings together 19 accomplished musicians who may never have played with one another previously, there’s a palpable sense of creative exchange on the stage. Among the diverse repertoire on Thursday’s San Antonio program, one of the surprising highlights was an exquisite rendering of the Vivaldi “Concerto in D” for guitar & strings. The familiar, formalized, potentially “stuffy” Baroque piece came to life with precise intonation and phrasing, a wistful lyricism, and a bit of playful, extra-musical pomp. The performers’ friendly rapport carried the piece forward with body language and eye contact as much as musical interpretation.

This intimate exchange is also evident in rough spots that get worked out over the course of a piece. The second movement of the Beethoven “String Quintet in C, Op. 29” seemed a bit forced. Nobody was out of tune, exactly — they just weren’t in tune with each other. By the third, more playful movement everyone relaxed, and by the fourth, everyone was right on target, each phrase leading into the next, the different voices answering each other and ending in precise, emphatic cadences. On Saturday’s program, they expertly handled the Dvorák “String Sextet in A Major,” and if there were minor flaws in the details of Brahms’ “Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34,” a wonderful monster of a piece, no one was going to fault them for lack of intensity, focus, or overall beauty of execution. Considering that these musicians have only a few days of rehearsal to align their individual interpretive visions, and that most musicians of this caliber have fairly strong personalities, it gives a whole new meaning to ensemble playing.

Cactus Pear also cultivates young artists and audiences through free Young Person’s Concerts during the festival and Kinder Konzerts throughout the year. Most impressive is the Young Artist Program (YAP). Five extraordinarily gifted music students are selected through a rigorous audition process to participate in the festival. This year’s YAP Fellows, ages 15 to 19, are coached 8 hours a day by Education Director Kenneth Freudigman and festival musicians, and will perform as an ensemble July 14-16. If last year’s stunning YAP performance was any indication, audiences are in for yet another musical treat.

The festival continues through July 16 with performances in San Antonio, Boerne, Kerrville, and Georgetown. Audience members at the San Antonio concerts can also bid on violins in Curated Curves: the Art of the Violin, enhanced by artists such as Robert Tatum and Colleen Sorenson Frost, Henry Stein, and Cathy Cunningham. Proceeds benefit Cactus Pear.

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