Art of Élan pairs Caroline Shaw with Lee Krasner in Abstract Expressionist Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art

Friday at the San Diego Museum of Art, the musical ensemble Art of Élan offered a short program of music by contemporary American women composers in the museum’s downstairs gallery devoted to art by women Abstract Expressionists. As marimba virtuosa Fiona Digney and cellist Alex Greenbaum sailed through the exuberant, playful roulades of Caroline Shaw’s 2012 “Limestone and Felt,” Lee Krasner’s equally exuberant 1969 lithograph “Pink Stone” gazed down on the musicians.

Alex Greenbaum [photo (c.) David’s Harp Foundation Bizpod Fellows. ]

Mating musical styles with specific works in the museum’s collection has been a hallmark of the 12-year collaboration between the museum and Kate Hatmaker’s enterprising Art of Élan chamber music series, and Friday’s correlation of Krasner and Shaw struck me as strikingly congruent.

The 2013 Carlsbad Music Festival gave San Diegans their first-hand introduction to the Pulitzer Prize winning Caroline Shaw and her New York-based ensemble Room Full of Teeth as the festival’s featured resident artists. Art of Élan has proven a consistent champion of Shaw’s compositions, and at last season’s SummerFest, the Miró Quartet performed Shaw’s “Entr’acte.”

Shaw originally wrote “Limestone and Felt” for viola and cello, but her extensive use of pizzicato exchanges between the two string instruments begged for expansion, aptly supplied by the marimba, an instrument that mates deftly percussive attacks with a warmly resonant sustain that plucked strings cannot even approach. (I am assuming that the composer adapted the viola part for marimba?) “Limestone and Felt” displayed Shaw’s trademark angular, unpredictable lyricism and an intricate structure of rapidly contrasting moods.

Digney’s unfailing finesse and her voluptuously shaped phrases complemented Greenbaum’s rich but elegantly focused cello sonority. The duo’s energetic drive imbued this compact work—it lasts not even 10 ten minutes—with ingratiating appeal.

Following Shaw’s work, Greenbaum played Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2004 “The Reserved, The Reticent,” a complex solo cello etude that exhibited little of the title adjectives. Snider’s rhapsodic adventure veers from passionate, even furious arabesques to calm, almost bucolic themes. Greenbaum handled these challenges with his customary command and panache.

This performance was presented by Art of Élan on January 10, 2020, at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Upcoming performances by this ensemble at the museum are slated for February 7 and March 10, 2020.

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