A Little Night Music from Art of Élan at the San Diego Museum of Art

Art of Élan’s bracing outdoor chamber concert last week offered yet another option for live performance under pandemic restrictions. Performing outdoors in the San Diego Museum of Art’s May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden, the masked musicians could be placed in closer proximity to each other than indoor performances currently allow—but there was still no audience in front of the musicians. We took in music by Terry Riley, John Luther Adams, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Hannah Lash streamed to our home computers.

Left to right: Erin Downey, Rose Lombardo, Wesley Precourt, Alex Greenbaum, and Julie Smith Phillips [photo courtesy of Art of Élan]

Of course, the museum’s bold contemporary sculptures of Henry Moore, David Smith, and Alexander Calder provided apt visual counterpoint to the new music the ensemble performed with such conviction. San Diego’s Hausmann Quartet–Isaac Allen and Bram Goldstein, violins; Angela Choong, viola, and Alex Greenbaum, cello–opened the program with two persuasive string quartets: Terry Riley’s 1980 “G Song” and Jonathan Bailey Holland’s 2016 “Forged Sanctuaries.” Hausmann’s warm, comfortably integrated sonority cradled Riley’s undulating triadic themes that opened his work and provided welcome gravitas to the denser textures that unfolded in this well-shaped single movement opus.

A couple of generations younger than the minimalist pioneer Riley, Holland demands more from his listeners. His “Forged Sanctuaries” comes into focus slowly as each string player tests lithe, discrete tones that eventually form astringent chords. Rather than pursuing thematic development, Holland juxtaposes textures formed by constantly varying string colors: some pure and shining, others edgy and even abrasive. But his undergirding structure proves as compelling as one might expect from the head of composition at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music. Perhaps Holland’s sensitivity to instrumental color was nurtured by his Harvard mentor Bernard Rands, who graced our local musical scene with his brilliant multi-hued compositions when he served on the UC San Diego music faculty.

John Luther Adams’ five-movement “Make Prayers to the Raven” may be full of allusions to nature, but his lyrical idiom is so fresh and inventive that it quickly transcends predictable descriptive cliches. His instrumental quintet—two strings, flute, harp, and percussion—suggests orchestral breath, and Adams’ adroit instrumentation quickly seduces the listener. For example, in the opening movement titled “In the Forest,” violinist Wesley Precourt’s supple, gently arched themes floated over shimmering ostinatos supplied by Erin Downey’s vibraphone and Julie Smith Phillips’ harp. In “Long Ago,” Flutist Rose Lombardo’s haunting incantation emerged from Phillips’ suave harp prelude, and in “Night,” Alex Greenbaum’s deep, sustained cello line offered comforting benediction to the accompaniment of discrete, falling vibraphone motifs.

Although none of Adams’ movements approaches the drive of a buoyant allegro tempo, he easily conveys a confident sense of direction and deftly understated propulsion.

Art of Élan’s program also offered a single movement from Hannah Lash’s “Tree Suite” for harp solo, a work commissioned by the company and premiered on its January 10, 2017, concert.

The concert was first streamed on Tuesday, March 16, 2021, from the San Diego Museum of Art in San Diego’s Balboa Park.


Leave a Comment