David Bruce’s Ebullient “Steampunk”

Demarre McGill & Kate Hatmaker [photo (c) Darin Fong]

Demarre McGill & Kate Hatmaker [photo (c) Darin Fong]

In the natural world, spring is the season of awakening and rebirth, but in the world of musical performance, fall is the time of year when cycles begin, and spring is the season of endings.

This past weekend, San Diego Opera offered the final performances of Aida, its last opera of the 2013 season, and Tuesday (April 30) at the San Diego Museum of Art, Art of Élan presented “Dream On,” the final concert of its current season titled “in your dreams.”

In terms of Art of Élan’s roster of performers, this was indeed a dream team, although the concert’s repertory choices did not match such an exalted standard.

After a significant absence from Art of Élan’s stage, the organization’s co-founder Demarre McGill returned with his flute and was joined by first-chair players and other members of the San Diego Symphony, as well as some of the area’s most proficient free-lancers. For a pick-up group, they played with palpable empathy and a keen sense of ensemble, especially in David Bruces’s 2011 octet “Steampunk.”

The 43-year-old Anglo-American Bruce is one of the hot “go-to” composers on today’s classical music scene. “Steampunk,” for example, is one of four of his commissions from Carnegie Hall, and the San Diego Symphony has just signed him on to write works for their upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, the China Tour, and the 2014 season.

Bruce’s style might be described as a funky retrofit of the neoclassicism that flourished in Europe during the last century between[php snippet=1] the World Wars. Yet, even when he resorts to predictable motor rhythms to keep his textures humming along, he finds distinctive, ear-catching yet idiomatic turns for each instrument. His inventive treatment of the octet’s matching quartet of strings and quartet of winds offered a quickly changing soundscape of textures and sonorities that evoked characteristic moods: the sauntering boulevardier, the wry comedian, the yearning mystic.

“Steampunk” struck me as a polished, wry chamber work that should find a wide following, especially when performed with the suave facility the Art of Élan musicians. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Lev Zhurbin’s overly modest song cycle “Songs of Bert Meyers,” which Art of Élan premiered on Tuesday. A young, exuberant Russian-American composer who played viola in Bruce’s “Steampunk” and his own work, Zhurbin’s resume boasts numerous arranging credits and film scores.

From “Songs of Bert Meyers,” his own voice is not as developed as his orchestration skills. Meyers’ ironic, abrasive poetry suggests several levels of meanings, which Zhurbin reduced to pleasant cabaret songs. His plush accompaniments—10 instruments including harp—suggested the extravagant idiom Hollywood studio composers turned out in the Depression. Vocalist Inna Barmash crooned and flailed her arms, but her efforts only confirmed the composer’s slight inspiration.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s Paris Quartet No. 4 in B Minor opened the concert, an impeccable account of rococo elegance thanks to the astute ministrations of McGill, violinist Anna Skálová, cellist Alex Greenbaum and harpsichordist Ines Irawati.

Concert Program









1 Comment

  1. Thomas on May 5, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the review, Ken. It is a pity that Zhurbin reduced the Songs of Bert Meyers to something that was perhaps more trivial than was intended. It is always difficult to balance entertainment with the need to respect the original source.

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