Art of Elan Serves Up New Music with Panache

Thursday Art of Elan returned to the performance hall of Balboa Park’s Mingei International Museum to present a concert of contemporary chamber music, including several premieres.

Kate Hatmaker and Lei Liang introduce “Journey” at the Mingei [Photo (c.) Gary Payne]

I was impressed with the ensemble’s opening salvo, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “O Sweet and Beloved Mother,” an engaging instrumental tribute to the music of Hildegard von Bingen. The historical trajectory of this prolific 12th-century composer, easily the first known female composer in the tradition of western music, is nothing less than astounding. After centuries of complete neglect, over the last few decades her music has enjoyed a significant, albeit long overdue revival.

Now Sarah Kirkland Snider is writing an opera about Hildegard von Bingen, and her “O Sweet and Beloved Mother” is a study for this highly anticipated project. Her octet for strings, winds, and piano references themes from two Hildegard antiphons written in praise of the Virgin Mary. Snider’s chant-like themes are given to solo winds and strings and float through this delicately scored meditation. A filigree of roulades from the piano’s highest range surrounds them like an aureole in a sacred icon, evoking mystical visions appropriate to the music’s sources.

Violinist Kate Hatmaker played the premiere of Lei Liang’s recently commissioned “Journey,” a single movement tribute to the life of San Diego music patron Joani Nelson, and the composer, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Music at UC San Diego, introduced his work to the Mingei audience.  Hatmaker gently crafted the work’s main theme, a broad, inviting cantilena that suggested some ancient folk song, then filled its energetic, soaring development with gregarious drive. Following the traditional ternary form, Liang brought the final section back to the reflective lyricism of the work’s beginning.

Iranian composer Kian Ravaei’s “Family Photos,” a three-movement string quartet, charts the composer’s personal journey from the spirited carnivals of his youth, to visits to Tehran, his family’s ancestral home, to his balmy current residence in Southern California. “At the Carnival,” the opening movement, splashes playful themes among the players and ends in a kind of light-hearted dance. “On the Tehran Tower” opens with a cello solo, played with apt reverence by Xian Zhou, that evokes a muezzin’s traditional call to prayer, while the last movement, “In Arcadia,” paints a glowing, serene tableau, which the composer’s program note claims to link the Arcadia of Greek mythology to the similarly named Los Angeles suburb. The other members of the Artonic Quartet: violinists Jing Yan Bowcott and Julia Pautzm and violist Hanah Stuart.

Harpist Julie Smith Phillips offered the program’s second world premiere, Michi Wiancko’s “Xerxes Blue,” a boldly mellifluous five-movement suite for solo harp. This tribute to an extinct species of butterfly—the Xerxes Blue—provided a non-stop profusion of major mode cantillation that verged on the danger of that proverbial “too much of a good thing.” Nevertheless, the performer’s virtuosity proved breathtaking.

Zhou Tian’s clever 2006 “Duo” gave violinist Jing Yan Bowcott and violist Hanah Stuart a chance to play the musical game “Anything you can play, I can play faster!” Each musician displayed dramatic flair and adroit technical precision in this short, bravura etude.

This concert, titled ‘Songs of Hope,’ was presented by Art of Elan at Balboa Park’s Mingei International Museum on Thursday, April 25, 2024.

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