Art of Elan’s ‘Balancing’ Program Dazzles at the San Diego Museum of Art

Art of Elan chamber concerts are regularly held in the spacious atrium of the San Diego Museum of Art. The musicians perform in front of the grand staircase that leads to the museum’s upstairs galleries. But because Art of Elan describes their work “in partnership with the San Diego Museum of Art,” regular patrons of this series have learned that the museum contributes more than a performance space.

(l. to r.) Rose Lombardo, Sarah Skuster, Ryan Simmons & Max Opferkuch [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Wednesday’s Balancing concert was inspired by the museum’s stainless steel sculpture Two Lines Oblique: San Diego, 1993 by George Warren Rickey that dominates the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden. The long, slender arms attached to this tall Y-shaped sculpture are mobile, and even the slightest breeze wafting through Balboa Park moves them back and forth. Although they seldom move in tandem, observing their random movement over a modest period of time can be mesmerizing, and this creates an uncanny sense of balance.

A pair of Balancing works, each requiring two musicians, mirrored this theme eloquently: Osvaldo Golijov’s 1999 Mariel for Cello and Marimba and Reena Esmail’s 2017 Nadiya for flute and viola. From Andrew Watkins’ shimmering, low-pitched marimba ostinatos Golijov’s main theme was suggested, and cellist Chia-Ling Chien quietly expanded it to open Mariel for Cello and Marimba. The two musicians confidently and eloquently pursued the composer’s ensuing solemn dialogue, originally written to commemorate a departed friend. Percussion virtuoso Steve Schick premiered the work, and I was fortunate to hear him perform it in a 2015 La Jolla SummerFest concert with cellist Ralph Kirshbaum.

(l. to r.) Chia-Ling Chien & Andrew Watkins [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail took her music degrees in the U.S. and also studied Hindustani music in India, so her music suggests a sophisticated fusion of musical cultures. From the program notes, we learn that “nadiya” means “rivers” in Hindi, and flautist Rose Lombardo and violist Chi-Yuan Chen suggested two independent, coursing streams that eventually join. These two musicians’ rich sonorities made Ismail’s virtuoso themes in Nadiya exciting and rewarding.

Another vibrant, animated work, Nahre Sol’s 2023 Crossroads for piano found an avid interpreter in Tina Chong. Her elegant, amazingly precise articulations kept the busy texture of this modal showpiece amazingly transparent.

In the second half of the last century, one could count on hearing Arthur Honegger’s clever orchestral tone poem Pacific 231 or even his oratorio King David from time to time, but the music of this once feted Parisian composer—Swiss by birth—is now rarely programmed. So it was a pleasure to hear cellist Chia-Ling Chien play his Paduana written in 1945.   Chien handled his concise, lyrical motifs elegantly, providing an array of contrasting colors that gave his dance tapestry impressive allure.

An oboist by profession, composer Alyssa Morris has richly gifted her fellow wind players with Motion, her substantial, four movement 2010 wind quartet. Her movement titles tip off her good humor that propels this quartet written in unapologetic tonal style. In the opening movement, “Bike Ride,” jaunty themes scurry along, spurred by an athletic bassoon ostinato supplied by Ryan Simmons. Max Opferkuch opened the second movement, “Stretch,” with a haunting clarinet solo joined by Sarah Skuster’s stirring oboe theme to form a procession completed with Rose Lombardo’s flute cadence.

“Tip Toe,” a humorous, syncopated scherzo engaged the quartet members in clever musical chatter, and “Strut” corralled the players with an assertive unison theme that broke off into flashy permutations, giving each quartet member a chance to show off. They did, much to the delight to the audience in the Museum of Art atrium.

This concert was presented by Art of Elan at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.

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