Although the loyal audience of Art of Élan knows it can typically find this trendsetting musical performance organization at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, it is also true that Art of Élan does get around.Exactly one year ago, Art of Élan presented the Chicago-based Kontras Quartet with guest soloist Branford Marsalis at the Music Box in San Diego’s Little Italy. Tuesday, April 16, Art of Élan presented the New York City-based Brooklyn Rider with guest soloist Kinan Azmeh at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center’s JAI in downtown La Jolla.
Although donors and invited guests of the La Jolla Music Society experienced The Conrad’s more intimate, cabaret style JAI performance space over the Society’s gala opening weekend at the beginning of April, Art of Élan’s program gave the general public their first glimpse of this striking new hall.
The program devised by Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker was vintage Art of Élan, and it did not disappoint: electric recent works by several younger composers and a bit of early music for balance. Early twentieth-century music, that is: Erwin Schulhoff’s sparkling Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Contrabass.
Brooklyn Rider opened with Caroline Shaw’s “Schisma,” a 2018 piece that employed cleverly juxtaposed contrasting textures—bowed strings, strummed strings, vibrant pizzicatos, tapping on the body of the instrument—the way classical era composers used contrasting melodies to flesh out the sonata form. If the name Caroline Shaw rings a bell, it should: the Pulitzer Prize winning composer and her ensemble Room Full of Teeth were featured in the 2013 Carlsbad Music Festival.Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen unveiled his commissioned clarinet quintet “Starlighter,” an exciting piece in which tightly coiled solo flourishes from individual players spark animated responses from the ensemble. Kinan Azmeh’s command of his clarinet made even the highest fortissimo trills and humorous, curious gurgling in its lowest register appealing. Rigorously structured and tonal without being easily predictable, Jacobsen’s fourteen-minute quintet drove with unerring determination to a furious finale. Both Art of Élan and the La Jolla Music Society commissioned this work.
Jacobsen’s 2010 “Ascending Bird,” based on a traditional Iranian tune and legend transmitted by fellow composer and santur virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, opens with a low-pitched clarinet incantation completely free of vibrato wafting over a cello drone but quickly expands into a vivacious dance that sounds as if it came straight out of Appalachia. Notable moments in this rousing piece included Johnny Gandelsman’s lightning violin figurations. Gandelsman gave an astounding solo performance of all of J. S. Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin at last summer’s Carlsbad Music Festival (http://www.sandiegostory.com/sunday-in-the-park-with-the-carlsbad-music-festival/). In addition to violinists Jacobsen and Gandelsman, Brooklyn Ryder includes violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas.
When I attend an Art of Élan concert, I expect to encounter at least one unfamiliar composer, and Tuesday’s mystery composer turned out to be Huang Ruo. Jing Yan Bowcott took us on a thrill-a-minute journey through this Chinese composer’s arresting, virtuoso “Four Fragments for solo violin” from 2006. Unfolding long, expansive, continuous melodies, Huang reveals a remarkable fusion of Asian and western musical approaches. Just when my ear thought it detected a curiously structured pentatonic theme, Huang would fling it on a shimmering glissando that would explode in a flash of technical swagger worthy of Paganini. Jing’s prowess navigated every challenge with apparent ease, and the beauty of her tone was never compromised by difficulty of execution.
If I had read Tuesday’s edition of the New York Times carefully, of course, I would have encountered senior music critic Anthony Tommasini’s review of Huang Ruo’s most recent opera staged in New York—and Huang would not have been my mystery composer.
Once a promising popular Czech composer in the 1920s, Erwin Schulhoff did not survive the Nazi occupation of his country, and after the end of World War II his music was rarely performed. Thanks to groups such as Art of Élan, Schulhoff’s chamber music has enjoyed a rightful revival in the 21st century, and his 1925 Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Contrabass graced this program. To characterize this beautifully wrought chamber work as a charming neoclassical exercise—he asks the flutist to switch to piccolo in the fast movements—would be to overlook its serious, darker contrapuntal forays. Rose Lombardo’s opulent flute timbre and her fleet articulation of the piccolo parts were complemented by Chi-Yuan Chen’s crisply executed viola and Susan Wulff’s sprightly contrabass pizzicatos.
Compared to the sumptuous acoustics of The Conrad’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Nagata Acoustics has made The JAI purposely somewhat drier to accommodate performances of amplified music. For acoustic chamber music, however, this smaller room proved surprisingly hospitable, although it sounded more flattering to the winds than to the strings. Its high—almost 28 feet tall—ceiling is a major asset, giving this room’s modest floor plan an unusually spacious feel. A flexible space with a full bar at the back, it was set up Tuesday with tables along the sides and rows of chairs through the center of the room. The huge window behind the stage looks out on the traffic of Fay Ave., a questionable aesthetic virtue.
This concert was presented by Art of Élan at The Conrad’s JAI Hall on April 16, 2019. Later this week, Brooklyn Rider will perform at San Diego State University’s Campanile Festival.