Expressionist Revival at La Jolla’s soundON Festival

Alice Teyssier [phto courtesy of Camarada]

Alice Teyssier [photo courtesy of Camarada]

 All music–even the most overplayed orchestral warhorse–was new once. And often as not a new piece was received with raised eyebrows and some resistance. Works as disparate as Beethoven’s late string quartets, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, and Bizet’s opera Carmen fall into this latter category.

Listening to Saturday’s (Jan. 11) soundON Festival concert at the La Jolla Athenaeum brought this observation to mind as we listened to three new, edgy works—composed within the last dozen years—juxtaposed with Arnold Schoenberg’s now classic Expressionist gem “Pierrot Lunaire.” It is likely that the 1912 German audience that first heard “Pierrot Lunaire” experienced similar reactions of apprehension, excitement, and discomfort that rippled through the La Jolla audience experiencing works by Adam Greene, Christopher Adler and Nathan Brock.

Greene’s “Flame,” an evanescent soundscape for flute, cello and guitar, opened the concert with a barrage of slithering riffs and extended instrumental techniques that sounded like they could have originated in Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme workshop. True to the work’s title, ideas flickered and vanished, both individually and deftly layered. Lisa Cella coaxed a wide variety of timbres from her bass flute, although the composer’s estimation of an audience’s interest in the mere clicking of keys on a silent flute is overblown. For this inaugural performance of “Flame,” cellist Franklin Cox and guitarist Colin McAllister also navigated their assignments with nimble precision.

Nathan Brock’s haunting guitar duo “epigrammatical” from 2002 encased an entire catalogue of extended techniques for that instrument in the amber of eight miniature movements. Affectionately and meticulously rendered by McAllister and colleague Derek Keller, “epigrammatical” provided an island of Zen concentration in a program of outsized emotions.

A more whimsical title title for Christopher Adler’s solo percussion offering “Plenum Vortices” (2009) might be “Shaker Loops Meets Drum Kit.” Drummer Morris Palter’s ardent discipline brought this thunderous but cleanly wrought minimalist tribute to life to the great approval of the Athenaeum audience.

Although historians heap praise on the revolutionary edge and quintessentially Expressionist angst of “Pierrot Lunaire,” chamber musicians have never made it a staple of the repertory like the Bartók string quartets. So I salute the soundON Festival for not only mounting this piece but also giving it such a splendid incarnation. Soprano Alice Teyssier’s dramatic virtusosity illuminated every one of the 21 movements with passionate vocal finesse, shifting with confidence from full voice, to Sprechstimme, to chilling stage whispers. She encompassed the irony, the humor and the grotesque qualities of both poet and composer.

Under the baton of McAllister, the instrumental quintet ably matched Teyssier’s performance virtues, supplying panache and precision upon demand. Cella and Cox returned to play flute and cello, assisted by clarinetist Robert Zelickman, violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer, and pianist Christopher Adler.

[box] San Diego New Music presented its annual sound ON new music festival January 9 – 12, 2014, at the La Jolla Athenaeum. [/box]

Program: soundON 2014

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