New Music Easy on the Ear and Kind to the Soul

Singers of SACRA/PROFANA [photo courtesy of the performers]

Singers of SACRA/PROFANA [photo courtesy of the performers]

When Art of Élan decided to center its Tuesday (Nov. 26) program at the San Diego Museum of Art on the theme of “hope,” including a choral component was a no-brainer. When it comes to expressing higher aspirations for the human condition, the sound of combined voices is the ideal symbol.

Inviting Krishan Oberoi’s SACRA/PROFANA to do the choral heavy lifting was equally inevitable, since this expertly trained ensemble has cornered the local market for the performance of contemporary choral music. SACRA/PROFANA is what your college glee club might have been had the membership been limited to graduate students pursuing degrees in vocal performance.

SACRA/PROFANA’s assignment was American composer Michael Gandolfi’s 2011 work “Winter Light,” two movements for string quartet and mixed choir based on poems by Amy Lowell. Atmospheric and gracefully structured, each movement sensitively unpacked the text over a cushion of busy, minimalist string accompaniment. Oberoi’s singers imbued “Falling Snow” with appropriately impressionistic colors and gentle phrasing; their tight ensemble and immaculate intonation left nothing to be desired. Even more exciting was the turbulent love song “Opal,” with its insistent rhythmic iterations of the opening line “You are ice and fire.” SACRA/PROFANA amply demonstrated its dramatic chops without compromising its technical finesse.

As polished as Gandolfi’s “Winter Light” was, it was very conventional in terms of its unabashed embrace of tonality. Those of us who survived the bland, ingratiating tonal style of Randall Thompson—the dean of American choral composition in the mid-20th century—hoped that approach had made a permanent exit with the Nehru jacket.

Soprano Susan Narucki and violinist Kate Hatmaker powerfully communicated the mystical ardor of John Tavener’s “Song of the Angel,” an ethereal duet that floats over a subdued string quintet. Tavener’s string accompaniment sounded like the soft stops of an organ, which may have been intended. Before Tavener made his famous conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, he had been an organist for 14 years for a Presbyterian church in London’s Kensignton district.[php snippet=1]

Kevin Puts’ “Credo” for string quartet proved the most arresting offering on Tuesday’s program. Adventurous, rhapsodic, and tuneful in a way that is not merely retro, this elegant four-movement quartet (c. 20 minutes long) should have excellent shelf life on the touring circuit. Art of Élan’s players gave a robust yet cleanly delineated performance: violinists Anna Skálová and Kate Hatmaker, violist AJ Niles and cellist Erin Breene. Is it too much hope that these four might continue as a string quartet specializing in music of the last 100 years.? Their chemistry and technical prowess were nothing less than inspiring.

Cellist Breene gave a vigorous account of Oswaldo Golijov’s “Omaramor” for solo cello, an uneven work upon which she nevertheless lavished prodigious and detailed artistry.

Art of Élan Program

[box] This Art Élan concert was given in the Hibben Gallery of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The next program in this series, “Reflections on Loss” will be given on February 25, 2014.[/box]


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