San Diego’s Next Wave: Collaboration

Angel Mannion [photo courtesy of Folklore Guild]

Angel Mannion [photo courtesy of Folklore Guild]

I have been covering classical music in San Diego since the late 1970s, and recently I have sensed something new: a level of genuine collaboration among performance groups that has been largely absent in San Diego County. Traditionally, each local arts organization has displayed a distinctly Lone Ranger approach to its mission and programming.

A few seasons ago, the La Jolla Music Society signaled an important change of direction, mounting a comprehensive two-year Chopin Bicentennial performance series that involved several other performing groups, but they appeared to be along for the ride while Music Society Artistic Director Christopher Beach and his staff did all the heavy lifting.

From the edgy chamber series Art of Elan and the choral ensemble Sacra/Profana I sensed real collaboration as they participated in this year’s Carlsbad Music Festival, with each group giving a full concert during the three-day September festival of contemporary music.

Artistic Director Krishan Oberoi’s Sacra/Profana has displayed laudable versatility appearing on an Art of Elan program last November and then singing with the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops in July. And the La Jolla Playhouse is about to open Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Sacra/Profana providing the requisite chorus for this new musical’s daunting eight-performance-per-week run.

Sunday (October 19) at La Mesa’s St. Martin of Tours Church, the recently formed choral group Folklore Guild shared a

Joseph Waters leads Swarmius [photo courtesy of R, Ramos]

Joseph Waters leads Swarmius [photo courtesy of R. Ramos]

program with Joseph Martin Waters’ avant-garde ensemble Swarmius. From one point of view, these two groups have radically different profiles. Swarmius fuses highly virtuosic acoustic instrumentalists with dense computer driven sounds in an eclectic contemporary style that embraces jazz, lounge music, and heady minimalism, while Artistic Director Angel Mannion’s Folklore is an a cappella choral ensemble with a sweet tooth for lofty Edwardian motets and ballads.

Yet the two groups have a common ground: they each aim to attract audiences that do not normally follow classical music. Folklore opened the concert with an arrangement of “Madd World” by the English new wave band Tears for Fears, a piece featured in the 2001 cult movie Donnie Darko. The well-balanced collegiate sound of the 30-voice Folklore Guild gently floated the pastel harmonies of “Madd World” while hinting at the darker, existential dread of the text.

Folklore joined Swarmius in Waters’ probing ballad “Things,” a work premiered in the 2014 NWEAMO Festival as a solo song, here expanded with choral voices. The solo voice at NWEAMO communicated more of the poignance of Waters’ text, which is actually about “life’s last things” rather than merely “things in general,” than did this choral version. But perhaps the antiphonal placement of the choristers on either side of Swarmius, rather than directly behind the instrumentalists, compromised the choir’s communication.

For choral music devotees, an Eric Whitacre selection is always a highlight, and Mannion gave his “Sleep” all the effulgent crescendos and dynamic contrasts it required. Maybe even a few extra for good measure. I found Robert Pearsall’s “Lay a Garland,” a dulcet Romantic reinvention of a Renaissance madrigal, an unexpected delight. Guest conductor Juan Carlos Acosta gave a compelling, deft account of this obscure gem.

Waters frequently describes his idiom as music equally at home at a rave or a concert hall. “Icicles in Starlight” and “Snowflakes in Starlight” each displayed the sonic sheen and sculpted lines that chamber music audiences expect in the concert hall, while “M8ntain” and “Cali Karsilama” exploded with asymmetrical dance rhythms that would have exhilarated any rave worthy of the name.

I hope San Diego’s newly discovered spirit of collaboration will continue to evliven and refresh our music stages. We live in an era where headphones and ear buds are becoming sadly normative ways to experience music.

Folklore and Swarmius Program

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