Outside of university music departments’ supportive penumbra, new music in San Diego has tended toflourish in pretty small spaces. The La Jolla Athenaeum and Bread and Salt in Barrio Logan come immediately to mind.
Over the last eight years, Art of Élan, the creative new music umbrella group based at Baboa Park’s San Diego Museum of Art, has cultivated a bankable, growing audience for its regular offerings. For Tuesday’s (April 28) season-completing program, Art of Élan moved from its customary “garrett” in the upstairs Hibben Gallery down to the museum’s more spacious James S. Copley Auditorium, where a full house of 220 doubled the typical audience able to fit in the upstairs gallery.
Among the reasons for this organization’s success at audience building, offering only the best local performers and bringing in highly skilled players from across the country stands at the top of the list. But right below that virtue, I would place cautious programming that does not push the envelope or seriously challenge this audience’s notion of comfortable chamber music.
Take Chris Brubeck’s “Zen of the River,” the 2015 piece co-commissioned by Art of Élan (with the Muir String Quartet) and given its San Diego premiere at the center of Tuesday’s program. Written for clarinet and string quartet, the work is not only beautifully crafted, but thoughtfully structured and paced throughout its single-movement span of 23 minutes. A facile melodist, Brubeck was able to spin out long, sculpted lines that oozed appeal and wove them together with harmonic felicity. Maybe too much felicity, because from time to time I thought we were hearing some long lost chamber work by Samuel Barber, the great American neo-Romantic voice of the mid-20th century. It certainly prompted in my mind a Zen-inspired question, “When is a new piece not a new piece?”
On the other hand, Missy Mazzoli’s 2005 “In spite of all this,” another chamber work featuring the clarinet, displayed a more original, inventive voice. Her astringent themes merged into gently changing textures that moved from jazzy syncopations to minimalist stasis, abetted by her colorful instrumentation that also included piano, vibraphone, electric guitar and drum kit.
Giya Kancheli, the Georgian composer who managed to keep his musical soul in tact during the Soviet era’s doctrinaire limitations—the drab requirements of Socialist Realism—and flourish anew in post-Soviet times, was represented on the program with “A Little Daneliade,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Georgian film-maker Giorgi Danelia, for whom Kancheli wrote film scores in the 1980s. This 15-minute string sextet with piano and percussion from the year 2000 ambled casually with wry humor, allowing plenty of space between quiet, discrete musical gestures that may have been based on deconstructed folk or cabaret tunes. Discrete whispered asides by the instrumentalists made the whole process seam cleverly conspiratorial, and I cannot wait to hear this piece again.
English composer Gavin Bryars’ short “Epilogue from Wonderlawn” struck me as a dreamy ballad featuring melancholy solos by viola, intently played by Adam Neeley. The unusual accompaniment of three cellos and contrabass was less dense than one might easily assume.
”Clearing, Dawn, Dance” by Brooklyn composer Judd Greenstein (I trust at lest a few readers can remember a time when “Brooklyn composer” would have been considered more oxymoronic than “gourmet hot dog”) ended the concert on a rush of energy. Stacking and extending nervous, oscillating motifs in the three strings and giving the three winds curt, preening themes spit out in edgy clusters made for a saucy finale. No doubt we will be hearing more inspiration from Brooklyn in the near future.
Allow me to shout out several players in the large, excellent ensemble assembled by Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker (all their names can be found in the program below). Jing Yan’s fleet violin solos gave the Kancheli the sophisticated panache it needed, and all of Bill Kalinkos’ clarinet work proved polished and ardent. Cellist Alex Greenstein’s lively but tastefully shaped bass lines animated or elegantly supported each piece—he was indispensable. On electric guitar, Alec Berlin exhibited a sophisticated technique and appeared quite at home in the company of classical musicians.
For Art of Élan’s next season I would hope for more daring choice’s of new music. Hatmaker and her colleague Demarre McGill have been astute in complementing new music with just the right pieces from standard repertory—frequently overlooked gems—a trait I hope will continue. But leave the comfort food for the trendy new urban restaurants.