Surprising Musical Premieres Courtesy of Art of Élan

Understanding that every generation of classically trained musicians is responsible for keeping the tradition alive, San Diego’s Art of Élan has consistently presented new music over its laudable eleven seasons of chamber concerts. When the San Diego Symphony played Missy Mazzoli’s “River Rouge Transfiguration” last weekend, it was because Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker has consistently featured that contemporary New York City composer’s music at Art of Élan that I had firsthand knowledge of her style.

Lei Liang [photo courtesy of the artist]

Art of Élan’s Tuesday (January 30) concert at Balboa Park’s San Diego Art Institute offered an entire program of new compositions—fresh, engaging, and thought-provoking works that made this listener exceedingly hopeful about music’s future. Lei Liang’s “Petal by Petal, Leaf by Leaf” for a trio of flute, viola, and harp revealed one of the composer’s trademark accomplishments: expressing great intensity and emotional depth in compact but highly compressed motifs.

Far from the simplistic, triadic repetition that characterized the nascent Minimalism of the 1970s, Liang’s approach can be described as a severe economy of vibrant flashes that suggest the Expressionist tension found in the later works of Anton Webern. He opened this new work with soft, discrete tones that at first seemed random, but soon pulled together, snared by rapid, short glissandos in the highest region of the harp and momentarily settling on a drawn-out, melancholic viola theme.

In his remarks to the audience before the piece began, Liang explained that in writing “Petal by Petal, Leaf by Leaf” he was inspired by an observation he paraphrased form his favorite Japanese poem: if a person becomes still enough, that person will be able to hear the plants of a garden grow. Liang’s piece grew slowly and steadily into an intense crescendo of densely layered motifs that disappeared suddenly, as if a sudden gust of wind had blown away the petals of a gorgeous flower.

In this public premiere of “Petal by Petal, Leaf by Leaf,” flutist Rose Lombardo, violist Che-Yen Chen, and harpist Julie Smith Phillips imbued every phrase with precise execution and rich emotional intention. It would be difficult to imagine a more felicitous presentation of this luminous new work.

The program’s opening half presented half a dozen shorter compositions written by young musicians mentored by Art of Élan muscians in the organization’s National CIty outreach program, the Young Artists in Harmony residency. Any momentary apprehensions I entertained concerning the caliber of these student compositions evaporated once I heard the program opening sophisticated, syncopated duo for contrabass and violin titled “Oly” by Axel Osoraio.

Vanja Rodriguez’s episodic but well-structured “WANDERER” for four strings and flute turned out to be a deftly layered fantasia that offered a crafty tango for cello, played with apt flourish by Alex Greenbaum. A trio for violin, viola and cello, appropriately titled “For the Strings” by David Rich boasted lively, driving tonal themes that developed artfully.

Diego Rodriguez’s “Walking on Air” approached a chamber concerto for flute and four strings. In a single movement, Rodriguez contained the solo concerto’s typical fast-slow-fast sectional pattern, providing ample, appealing solo elaboration for the flute to soar above a well-structured string accompaniment. Rose Lombardo gave the flute solo welcome allure.

Art of Élan presented this concert in conjunction with the San Diego Art Institute’s recently opened installation by Robert Romero-Molina, “The Language of Things.” Like the composers on this program, Romero-Molina is based here in San Diego County and works on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Although this thought-provoking installation featured important musical components, they had to be disconnected for the concert. The audience was left to make its own connections concerning these two contiguous art forms.

The program was presented by Art of Élan on January 30, 2018, at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. The organization’s next program will be given at the San Diego Museum of Art, also located in Balboa Park, on February 2, 2018.

Program of January 30, 2018

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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