Reflections on the 2015 Carlsbad Music Festival

Unusually hot, muggy weather did not discourage Saturday’s (August 29) crowds from sampling that cornucopia of musical possibilities offered at the annual Carlsbad Music Festival. Now in its 12th season, the festival opened with two programs on Friday (August 28) evening, but Saturday’s day-long calendar bulged with multiple simultaneous offerings in venues spread across downtown Carlsbad.

SWARMIUS: (l. to r.) Todd Rewoldt, Andrew Kreysa & Michael Couper

SWARMIUS: (l. to r.) Todd Rewoldt, Andrew Kreysa & Michael Couper [photo courtesy of SanDiegoStory]

Although contemporary music appears in numerous styles and approaches, two Saturday programs struck me as polar opposites on one significant continuum: simplicity to complexity. In her solo recital at the Carlsbad Community Church, pianist Vicki Ray set out the minimalist aesthetic in masterful accounts of works by Steve Reich, Somei Satoh and Donnacha Dennehy. In the open-air stage at State and Grand, composer Joseph Waters and his Swarmius Ensemble played ten of Waters’ intensely layered, ruggedly contrapuntal and fiendishly virtuosic works.

To be clear, I am not implying for a moment that Ray’s pieces for piano and recorded or digitally manipulated sound sources were simple or that they did not require a highly sophisticated technique to perform. On the contrary, the Reich “Piano Counterpoint,” for example, required precise ostinato patterns to be repeated for great expanses of time, and Dennehy’s “Stainless Staining” worked dynamic and textural crescendos into his even denser iterations over longer stretches. Ray’s control and stamina throughout was amazing, and for the high degree of precision these minimalist works required, I never sensed a mechanical or purely metronomic approach to her passionate performance.

If these minimalist icons value stasis, or subtle variation within the clear boundaries of a stable soundscape, Waters’ approach values the constant development and extension of athletic, hyperkinetic themes. His “Dragon” and “Orpheus is a Tip-toed Steam Horse” seem at times to be overlapping cadenzas for the alto and soprano saxophones and the vibraphone, with the computer synthesized continuo egging them on.

Ray’s pieces suggested Zen meditation, while Waters’ work suggested spirit-possessed Pentacostal exultation. If these two approaches could be compared to 20th century painting, Ray’s minimalism might be a dark Mark Rothko and Waters’ exuberance a swirling surrealist Joan Miró.

Ray’s performance of  Japanese composer Somei Satoh’s “Incarnation II” proved the most Zen-like, relying on the quick alternation of close tones in the middle of the piano keyboard being repeated by one-second delay through the speakers. This wall of sound suggested the drone of a squadron of propellor-driven aircraft flying high above the landscape.

Swarmius introduced two premieres for the Carlsbad Festival audience, “St. Francis,” an ode to living in harmony with creation, as espoused by Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudato Si’,“ and “Pacific 565 Fugue Remix,” a recasting of a J. S. Bach Fugue (the one attached to the famous D Minor Organ Toccata) as an extroverted Cuban dance. For those who know the organ fugue, it was fun hearing its contrapuntal themes weave in an out of this boisterous choreography.

Kudos to the Swarmius virtuosi: alto saxophone Todd Rewoldt, soprano sax Michael Couper and vibraphone/percussion maestro Andrew Kreysa. Neither the heat of mid-afternoon nor the wail of the Amtrak trains that roared behind them (the State and Grand corner is but a block from the Carlsbad Amtrak and Coaster station) interfered with their concentration and adroit realization of Waters’ demanding scores.

Fans of minimalism and contemporary piano performance take note. In Ray’s verbal program notes explaining how Reich’s “Piano Counterpoint,” which was originally scored for six pianos, was transformed into the version she performed, she said that the pianist Vicky Chow had recorded four of the six piano parts on the track that came through the speakers, and the other two piano parts were combined into the solo score Ray realized. Vicky Chow will appear in concert at Dizzy’s on October 29, 2015, as part of this fall’s Fresh Sound series.

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Under Founder and Artistic Director Matt McBane, the Twelfth annual Carlsbad Music Festival filled Carlsbad Village with music from August 28-30, 2015.


Vicki Ray Program


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