2023 NWEAMO Festival Goes Acoustic at S.D.S.U.

Now celebrating its 25th year, San Diego State University’s annual NWEAMO new music festival took a surprising turn. Thursday’s concert in the Music Department’s Rhapsody Hall featured a quartet of guest musicians from Poland performing exclusively acoustic music. No speakers, no computers, no digital manipulation—just four musicians performing unaided on their instruments.

(l. to r.) Antonina Styczeń, Iwo Jedynecki & Pola Benke [photo courtesy of NWEAMO festival]

The West Coast premiere of festival director Joseph Martin Waters’ chamber work Kyev, however, gave the program political relevance. Composed last year in response to the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, Waters wrote in his program note, “Kyev is a call to arms and action, an illustration of bravery, courage; the need to reach out, to lay ourselves on the line.”

Scored for flute, cello , and accordion, Kyev opens with a mellow flute solo that wafts overs cello pizzicato ostinatos and short, muted accordion motifs. Its confident modal texture quickly grows more complex, and agitated themes suggest conflict played out in active angular counterpoint. Flutist Antonina Styczeń brought urgency and tonal allure to her lines, while cellist Pola Benke and accordion virtuoso Iwo Jedynecki gave polished, articulate direction to their themes.

I should note that the contemporary accordion used in this concert is a more complex, distant cousin to the popular instrument encountered in 1950s television variety shows, where an earnest young performer would proudly belt out his arrangement of “Lady of Spain.” Not only is the instrument Iwo Jedynecki plays more tonally sophisticated than the popular accordion of the last century, but as a sensitive chamber musician, he shaped his themes and dynamics to his those of his fellow players. In this context, the accordion proved a supple instrumental component.

Violinist Karolina Mikołajczyk joined Jedynecki in the Sonata for Violin and Accordion Night Full of Sins by Marcin Błaźewicz, a Polish composer who flourished in the second half of the last century. His dark, serious style reminded me of works by Grażnya Bacewicz, a mid-20th-century Polish composer whose orchestral works are more frequently played in North America. Constructed in the typical three-moment form of a concerto, I was impressed by the Sonata’s mysterious center movement—Grave semplice—in which the violin suspends a very high-pitched, quiet theme over terse, insistent muted accordion chords that suggest an eerie march. When the violin theme becomes more dramatic and declamatory, the texture expands accordingly until the quiet opening theme returns. With rugged counterpoint and passionate themes defining the sonata’s outer movements, the performers made a winning case for a Polish composer little known in North America.

The guest musicians proved more than mere ambassadors for Polish music. Their program included three animated Persian Folk Songs by the Iranian-American composer Reza Vali and the contemporary Africa-American composer Kevin Day’s Ecstatic Samba, arranged from his Piano Trio No. 3. The Vali songs for flute and cello also sported the delicate percussive accents of gently malleted crystal glasses, although those sounds did not carry well in the spacious Rhapsody Hall.

Proving their lighter side, Mikołajczyk and Jedynecki offered a movement from Wojciech Kostrzewa’s The Hollywood Fantasy, a clever collage of motion picture theme songs from American films released between 1940 and 1972, each song quickly quoted and deftly deconstructed. We heard the gamut from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to “Moon River,” but I particularly enjoyed “Singing in the Rain” as a kinky Two-part Invention. Even J. S. Bach might have smiled.

This concert was presented by the NWEAMO Festival at San Diego State University in the Music Department’s Rhapsody Hall on Thursday, March 23, 2023.

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