Timo Andres’ Impressive Piano Trio at La Jolla SummerFest

Composer David Lang returned to the La Jolla SummerFest stage Sunday, August 18, to introduce his second installment of fresh contemporary music for this year’s festival. Like Lang’s last Sunday presentation, The Conrad’s JAI theater was filled with a convivial crowd that responded enthusiastically to his four contrasting musical offerings.

Timo Andres [photo (c.) Michael Wilson]

Timo Andres’ Piano Trio, with the composer at the piano, made a strong impression. Composed last year, it is a substantial, tightly constructed three-movement contemporary incarnation of this traditional chamber music format that Andres has filled with potent musical ideas and sumptuous textures. In this work, Andres explores two highly contrasting approaches: (1) while the piano provides rippling but understated support, the strings craft austerely beguiling themes individually and together; (2) using dense, muscular chords, the piano boldly drives the ensemble with unabashed domination.

Unlike many of his contemporaries—and a couple of generations of recent avant-gardists—the 34-year-old Brooklyn-based composer is not afraid of actually crafting a melody, the Original Sin of composition since the era of 12-tone hegemony. Of course, Andres’ themes would never be mistaken for those of Brahms or Debussy, and he appears to be quite above the facile confections of the noodling minimalists.

Andres accomplished the keyboard heavy lifting at last Sunday’s new music program, and we heard his scintillating Janáček set on Thursday’s encounter at the JAI, so his prowess at the piano came as no surprise. In his Piano Trio, he was ably partnered by the fleet violinist Alyssa Park and sonorous cellist Annie Jacobs-Perkins of Trio Clara.

Sunday’s audience lapped up Julia Wolfe’s “With a Blue Dress On” from 2014, an exhilarating homage to bluegrass fiddling scored for five violins. Cleverly staged with soloist Liza Ferschtman elevated above her colleagues and clad in a billowing gown, the violinists bowed wildly, hummed at times, and occasionally intoned mezza voce lyrics from the bluegrass song “A Pretty Girl with a Blue Dress On.” Although Wolfe, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2015 and a MacArthur “Genius” grant the following year, extended the modest bluegrass tune to a 15-minute fantasia, upon reflection I am uncertain if her work salutes this genre of traditional American music or simply exploits it.

Nina Young’s piano quartet “Spero lucem” had Timo Andres plucking a variety of sounds from the interior of the piano when he was not playing decorative ornaments to the strings’ intermittent clouds of sustained clusters. Violinist Jun Iwasaki, violist Eva Kennedy, and cellist Hannah Moses created appealing waves of sounds that did not compensate, in my opinion, for a paucity of ideas in this 10-minute essay.

From his title “For the Love of Charles Mingus,” Ted Hearne clearly wants us to know he is offering tribute to an American jazz legend. The airy texture of his 2016 study for six violins with its rocking theme fragments both bowed and scraped reminded me of Joan Miro’s abstract expressionist paintings with their stars, moons, and stick figures floating on the canvas. Liza Ferschtman’s athletic violin cadenza that climaxed Hearne’s piece could be interpreted as a salute to Mingus’ noted virtuosity as an improviser.

This concert was presented on August 18, 2019, by the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2019 in the JAI at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla. The festival continues at The Conrad through August 23, 2019.

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