Avant-Garde and Traditional Cohabit Comfortably at La Jolla Symphony and Chorus Concert

Living up to its reputation as a citadel of the avant-garde, the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus under the direction of Steven Schick closed its 2017-18 season Sunday (June 10) with two substantial new works. Rand Steiger’s ”Template for Improvising Trumpeter and Orchestra” reinvents the traditional solo concerto by freeing improvisation from the narrow confines of the occasional cadenza and making it the motivating drive for the entire piece.

Steven Schick [photo courtesy of the performer]

Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard” plunges the staid oratorio genre into contemporary social politics, using the tragic demise of Sandra Bland as its clarion call for justice for African-Americans. In 2015, Bland, a 29-year-old African American woman, was stopped in rural Texas by a white state trooper for a minor traffic offense, thrown in jail, and two days later was found dead in her jail cell. Sharan Strange’s exalted yet brutally frank poetry has captured Bland’s dignity as well as the community’s rage over the injustice of her death; Bryan’s music ably communicates that emotional gamut of grief to hope that accompanies this tragic history.

Both of these new works relied on a virtuoso soloist to make their intended impact: Steiger’s “Template” required trumpeter Peter Evans’ astounding virtuoso trumpet technique and musical imagination, and Bryan’s “Yet Unheard” required the wide vocal range and compelling interpretation of soprano Helga Davis. Like the choir in Bach’s passions, the portions of Bryan’s work sung by the Chorus offered somber reflection that interpreted the agony of Bland’s ordeal, while Davis infused her vocal testimony with ardent, forceful command.

Steiger had originally written “Template” for trumpeter Evans and percussionist Schick to play as soloists with New York City’s esteemed chamber group the International Contemporary Ensemble, and this new version for full orchestra is based on that earlier incarnation. Although Schick conducted “Template,” at one point about two-thirds of the way through the score, he turned around and executed a smart percussion solo from a tray of high-pitched percussion instruments mounted at the rear of the conductor’s podium. With the work’s digital signal processing adapting strands of the orchestra and solo parts and dispersing them through overhead speakers in the hall, this radical concerto enveloped the listeners in a compelling rush of surround sound.

Asher Tobin Chodos arranged the late Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” for Davis and Evans to perform together, assisted by bassist Kyle Moti and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. With the full orchestra and this strong quartet, I felt Chodos had weighed down Coleman’s haunting, oblique melodic genius, although the soloists worked diligently to evoke the composer’s unique ethos.

Gabriel Fauré’s universally admired Requiem aptly balanced the turmoil of the first half of this concert. Fauré’s Requiem reached its final full orchestra form at the turn of the last century, and I thought the orchestra captured and expressed its dreamy and occasionally effusive late Romantic ethos. David Chase came out of retirement to train the Chorus for the Requiem, and, although its disciplined performance offered a respectable account of the score, it remained sadly neutral and earthbound. Much of this problem resulted from the Chorus members singing at softer dynamic levels—with which this Requiem abounds—with inadequate support.

Soprano Priti Gandhi [photo (c) Arielle Doneson]

Only when soprano Priti Gandhi sang her exquisite solo “Pie Jesu” did Fauré’s spiritual radiance flood the hall and reveal the heart of this Requiem. Gandhi has recently accepted an important art administrator’s post with Minnesota Opera, so I hope San Diego performing organizations will continue to tap her vocal artistry and bring her back to San Diego often!

Baritone Jonathan Nussman essayed his solos bravely, although Fauré’s supple melodic style seamed foreign to him, and he experienced some pitch problems. Like many younger singers, he approached liturgical Latin as so many adjacent syllables rather than actual words with accent and shape related to their melodic setting.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus in UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium June 9 & 10, 2018. The June 10 performance was heard for this review.

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