Art of Elan Features Recent American Composers at the Mingei Museum

With fine playing from the Artonic Quartet, Art of Elan presented on Thursday an engaging concert of contemporary and 20th-century American music at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park.

Jing Yan Bowcott, Julia Pautz, Fiona Digney, Nathan Walhout, Abraham Martin (l. to r.) [photo (c.) Andy Hayt]

How refreshing to hear Artonic play “Lyric Quartette,” a three-movement string quartet by the important American composer from the last century William Grant Still. This recently formed ensemble of players from the San Diego Symphony bathed Still’s unabashedly Romantic harmonies in a sumptuous, warm sonority that lingered gently in the Mingei auditorium’s acoustical ambience. First violinist Jing Yan Bowcott’s articulate, dulcet figurations and cellist Nathan Walhout’s plangent bass lines underscored the elegance of Still’s melodic lines and the craft of his voicing.

I was impressed by violist Abraham Martin’s expressive interpretation of the traditional Incan theme of Still’s quiet middle movement as well as the quartet’s superb ensemble playing throughout the work. They pursued Still’s frolicking themes in the robust final movement with unfailing assurance.

It is reasonable to assert that if Still had not been African-American, his music would be as well-known today as the music of Samuel Barber or Howard Hanson, who championed Still’s music while conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic. A student of George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgar Varèse, Still wrote over 200 compositions, and his First Symphony, titled “Afro-American,” which Hanson boldly premiered in 1930, was frequently programmed by American orchestras in the mid-century. Today the music of Florence Price, another unjustly neglected African-American composer, is enjoying a modest revival. I say it’s also time for a Still revival!

When the San Diego Symphony under Music Director Rafael Payare played Carlos Simon’s “Elegy: A Cry from the Grave” in early 2021, the depth and complexity of this young American composer’s writing was unmistakable. I was delighted to hear Art of Elan Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker offer Simon’s equally challenging solo violin piece “Between Worlds.” No doubt reflecting his title, Simon alternates between sections of long, rhapsodic lines that contrast with series of short flashes of brilliant motifs. Hatmaker handled these bravura violin passages with her customary finesse and confidence.

Samuel Adams’ “Sundial,” which added percussionist Fiona Digney to the Artonic Quartet, proved the evening’s most challenging offering. Opening with shimmering high-pitched ostinatos from violinists Jing Yang Bowcott and Julia Pautz accented with feathery tones from the vibraphone, Adams then brings in the lower strings—Martin and Walhout—to add oscillating figures that help create an intense sonic cloud. Adams’ work remains harmonically static, but it engages the listener with bristling, energetic, deftly accented motifs. As the work unfolded, Digney added more forceful tones from a row of cowbells arranged in from of the vibraphone.

Stasis is a musical virtue that Olivier Messiaen established in the modernist canon almost a century ago, but Adams’ “Sundial” evoked an edge of unease that somehow did not fit the sublime propriety of a sundial. At age 36, Adams is clearly fulfilling his musical heritage, however, serving as a composer in residence for the august Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I look forward to hearing his large scale works that come from this association.

Mark Connor’s easy-listening trio “Appalachia Waltz” offered a surfeit of mellifluous tunes in gentle three-quarter time. Bowcott, Martin, and Walhout gave an elegant, thoughtful account of this modest musical endeavor.

Art of Elan presented this concert on November 3, 2022, in partnership with the the Mingei International Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

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