Apollo’s Gift: the Carlsbad Music Festival

David Lang [photo (c) Peter Sterling]

David Lang [photo (c) Peter Sterling]

One weekend each fall, Carlsbad native Matt McBane treats this unremarkable seaside village to a cultural high that lingers much longer than any typical weekend bender. Now in its 11th season, the Carlsbad Music Festival opened Friday (September 19) with a concert by pipa virtuoso Wu Man and Son de San Diego, a folkloric ensemble devoted to the traditional music of Veracruz.

But the festival shifted into high gear Saturday afternoon (September 20) with a nonstop, daylong barrage of free indoor and outdoor performances in corner shops and assorted parking lots—aptly called the Village Walk—in addition to three mainstage concerts for festival ticket-holders. Although this year’s festival proclaimed no unifying theme, the presence of American composer David Lang and his compositions on mainstage programs gave these events a sense of continuity and focus.

In Saturday’s first mainstage concert at the Carlsbad Village Theatre, Donald Crockett and his USC Thornton Edge contemporary chamber ensemble followed the Biblical axiom by saving the best for the last on their program: Lang’s 2002 work “increase.” A pulsing chamber orchestra concerto, “increase” propelled searing ostinatos over a cleanly outlined trajectory that fulfilled the title’s promise of increase in the categories of dynamic expansion and emotional satisfaction. For anyone unfamiliar with Lang’s compositions—he won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music—“increase” proved an ideal introduction.

The works that led up to Lang’s opus varied in their compositional finesee and emotional impact. Andrew Norman’s “Farnsworth: Four Portraits of a House” suspended forward motion with static sonic clouds relieved only by flickers of spare, angular motifs, as austere and gleaming as Mies van der Rohe’s modernist architectural language as expressed in his celebrated Farnsworth House. Crockett’s own jaunty septet, “Whistling in the Dark” (1999) flaunted a chip-on-the-shoulder motivic panache and sleek structural design that did not fear the occasional tuneful aside. I particularly appreciated his jocular volleys between flute and bass clarinet.

Sean Friar’s extravagantly orchestrated “In the Blue”—seven winds, six strings and three percussionists—juggled minimalist ostinatos with shards of deconstructed jazz without truly engaging these distant cousins. One of USC’s newer faculty composers, his 2013 opus revealed more potential than polish. “Crispy gentlemen,” Ted Hearne’s seamless, assured 2012 essay offered a flashy piano rondo, brilliantly executed by Sarah Gibson, that navigated high-pitched clarinet wails and fog banks of eerie night music. The technical prowess and confident stage presence of this 25-member student ensemble is a tribute to the university’s highly respected music school, but most especially to Crockett, who has cultivated this group since 1984.

A much younger but equally disciplined group of performers, San Diego’s Sacra/Profana, brought an exciting choral program later on Saturday to the gymnasium of the Carlsbad Village Boys and Girls Club. If this strikes the reader as an unlikely performance venue—and it is—the high-ceilinged room’s bright, lively acoustics easily justified its choice over the dryer, duller acoustical surroundings of Carlsbad’s churches and halls.

Avoiding the cliché of the eclectic choral sampler, Sacra/Profana Director Krishan Oberoi juxtaposed contemporary, mid-20th century, and Baroque repertory that drew similar and compatible emotional responses. His shrewd alternation of movements from Giuseppe Pitoni’s Requiem Mass with Irving Fine’s mystical but secular motets from his 1949 cycle “The Hour-Glass” actually deepened the solemnity of the Requiem and gave the Fine motets a more compelling emotional context.

Lang’s sole choral work on the program, “when we were children,” took those familiar Pauline admonitions to adults to “put away childish things” and dissected these Scripture verses into short, aphoristic phrases, insistently reiterating them, treating them like a type of modern organum. A recently completed choral work by Festival Director Matt McBane repeated an utterly simple text, “On and On and,” with unexpected rests and closely structured hockets that created a hypnotic, almost mystical spell. It was the piece on a rich program I would most eagerly hear again

Singers of Sacra/Profana [photo courtesy of the Carlsbad Music Festival]

Singers of Sacra/Profana [photo courtesy of the Carlsbad Music Festival]

Ola Gjeilo’s lubricious “Unicornis Captivator” succeeded by following this young Norwegian composer’s easily identified process of harmonic manipulation, clotting mildly dissonant harmonies to an urgent dynamic climax and then instantly resolving his chords to their purest state. Gjeilo is both clever and popular with choral condcutors, but if he is not careful, he will become the next John Rutter!

Because Sacra/Profana prides itself on the breadth of its choral identities, it was particularly satisfying to hear the ensemble take on this daunting program of classical choral repertory and infuse it with such compelling vitality, polish, and emotional depth. Although Oberoi has cultivated a rich, inviting choral timbre overall, I note a significant shortcoming. By requiring such a severe, straight tone from his sopranos, the top of an otherwise vibrant choral sonority sounds blunt and constricted. Even a soupcon of vibrato would ameliorate this condition.[php snippet=2]

Between these two mainstage concerts I experienced several musical offerings on the Village Walk, including the pop-saturated indie duo Sir Henry in the shady corner of a parking lot on State Street; three solo violin “works-in-progess” by Matt McBane played by the composer at the New Village Arts Foundry, and a trio of highly charged works by Joseph Martin Waters, executed by his virtuoso ensemble Swarmius at the Giacoletti Music Center. There were more performances happening simultaneously on the Village Walk than any one listener could take in, but this extravagance and variety of the Carlsbad Music Festival is part of its genius.

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