Art of Élan’s Answered Prayers & Rustic Songs

St. Francis in Prayer in a Grotto, 1655, by Francisco Zurbarán [San Diego Museum of Art, gift of Conrad Prebys & Debbie Turner]

St. Francis in Prayer in a Grotto, 1655, by Francisco Zurbarán [San Diego Museum of Art, gift of Conrad Prebys & Debbie Turner]

Over its brief but eventful seven years, the music series Art of Élan has cultivated a strong, symbiotic relationship with its primary host, the San Diego Museum of Art. Drawing inspiration from the 17th-century painting “St. Francis at Prayer in a Grotto” by Francisco de Zurbarán—the museum’s much celebrated new acquisition—the series’ Tuesday (March 3) program was built on the theme of “Prayers and Songs.”

The prayer-themed pieces ranged from Joaquin Turina’s turbulent 1924 “La oración del torero’” to Avner Dorman’s recent (2009) “Prayer for the Innocents,” written to honor the young students killed in 2004 at a school in Beslan, Russia. Bridging these two styles was Alan Hovhaness’ mystical 1946 “Prayer of St. Anthony.”

“Prayer for the Innocents,” a 15-minute single movement work, requires a pair of string quartets, and Art of Élan was fortunate to engage both the Formosa Quartet and the Hausmann Quartet, two young, energetic ensembles that tore into the work’s rhapsodic forays with astonishing zeal. It is not surprising that strains of traditional cantillation infused the melodic vocabulary of this 39-year-old Israeli composer. Although his idiom is essentially tonal, his variety of constantly changing textures and some artful tapping on the bodies of the violins and viola kept the piece from sounding conventional.

This “Prayer” opened with an extended, demanding moto perpetuo for the first violin, brilliantly executed by Formosa’s Jasmine Lin. Formosa violist Che-Yen Chen provided soulful laments, complemented by sweetly penetrating cantillations from Hausmann’s first violin Isaac Allen.

My prayer is when some dull program planner suggests recycling Mendelssohn’s Octet fort strings for the zillionth time on a chamber music program, a sharp colleague will suggest Dorman’s “Prayer for the Innocents” instead.

Lin and her Formosa colleagues indulged Turina’s emotional and sonic extremes with a religious fervor that made Zurbarán’s St. Francis almost timid by comparison. Voluptuous is the only adjective I can find to adequately describe Lin’s melodic arcs, although cellist Ben Hong’s lines communicated equal intensity with more restrained body language.

Trumpeter Jonah Levy joined the Formosa Quartet in Hovhaness’ “Prayer of St. Gregory,” another single-movement gem whose apparent harmonic simplicity suggests heightened spiritual ecstacy. Levy’s limpid, resonant solo conjured the Middle Eastern instrumental timbres Hovhaness’ Armenian forebears would have recognized. Although Hovhaness was looked down upon by the “sophisticated” modernist American composers of his generation, he would have fit in quite well with today’s Minimalist crowd.

Hearing Benjamin Britten’s eloquent but singular setting of English prosody always reminds me that

John Russell [photo courtesy of the performer]

John Russell [photo courtesy of the performer]

the language most Americans speak is only distantly related to the English speech of Britain. Tenor John Russell’s account of Britten’s “Eight Folk Song Arrangements” took the linguistic peculiarities of these rustic songs in stride, giving them a vocal polish that took them from their country lanes and village pubs to the posh surroundings of tony drawing rooms.

Having heard Russell give stellar renditions of ornate arias by Handel and J. S. Bach, I felt he was holding back a bit, so that the more robust vocal colors at his disposal would not overpower these folk songs. Nevertheless, his buoyant lyric tenor and impeccable technique allowed him to give ample character and insight to these singular glimpses of human experience. Harpist Julie Smith Phillips interpreted the composer’s fussy but telling accompaniments with flare and sensitivity. Instrumentalist and singer could not have been more excellently matched.

Although this song cycle was one of Britten’s last compositions, it brought to mind one of his earliest, the popular “Ceremony of Carols,” with its astounding solo harp instrumental score.

Members of the Formosa Quartet: violinists Jasmine Lin and Wayne Lee; violist Che-Yen Chen, and cellist Ben Hong.

Members of the Hausmann Quartet: violinists Isaac Allen and Melody Chang; violist Angela Choong, and cellist Alex Greenbaum.

Art of Élan’s final program of the 2014-15 season will be given Tuesday, April 28, at 7:00 p.m. in the James S. Copley Auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Art.

Art of Élan Program

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