In previous years, the adventurous Carlsbad Music Festival brought in headline performers from New York such as the choral ensemble Room Full of Teeth or the Los Angeles based Calder Quartet. This season the festival focused on collaborations within San Diego County, and Sunday (September 21) at the Carlsbad Village Theatre presented musicians from San Diego’s cutting edge contemporary chamber series Art of Élan in their Carlsbad Festival debut.
Art of Élan Artistic Director Kate Hatmaker built her canny program around two striking David Lang works—Lang has been the Carlsbad Festival’s resident composer this season—and composers who either influenced or were influenced by Lang.
In the generously defined canon of musical Minimalism, at least one thing is universally acclaimed: Steve Reich is its Genesis, chapter one, verse one, so Hatmaker opened with Reich’s “Nagoya Marimba,” a mesmerizing, flashy piece for two marimbists. Presiding over this intricate score were Andrew Watkins and Justin DeHart, who translated its incessant, subtly varied iterations with the cool composure of a traditional gamelan ensemble.
The story behind Lang’s “ark luggage” for string quartet and vocalist is almost as fascinating as the piece itself. After several
successful collaborations with the renowned but eccentric British director Peter Greenaway, Lang requested a sacred text from Greenaway that could be set to music, and Greenaway responded with a decidedly quirky list of 92 suitcases containing various personal items that Noah took on the ark, but which were “too mundane” to be listed in sacred Scripture. Soprano Susan Narucki gracefully intoned this list—which included useful but ahistorical items such as sharpened pencils and champagne—over pleasant, neutral undulations from the strings, while cellist Erin Breene meticulously counted off each suitcase while playing her part of the instrumental score.
As the work progressed, Narucki’s vocal line moved from simple declamation to more impassioned flourishes. Perhaps it was this soprano’s plush, compelling vocal line that kindled in my memory the aria “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” from Carlyle Floyd’s opera Susannah. While these works are stylistically disparate, I would contend that unlike some of the more academic contemporary composers, Lang clearly aims for acute emotional engagement. And bravo for that.[php snippet=2]
A second Lang offering, “wed” for string quartet, also stirred deep emotions. Written to memorialize a friend whose nuptual joy was compromised by her concurrent battle with cancer, “wed” fused pathos and elation into an exceptionally moving violin cantilena, played with ardent eloquence by Anna Skálová. I know this piece from a recording of Lang’s solo piano version of “wed,” which sounds less elegaic than the string quartet version. The piano seems to balance the two conflicting emotional states more successfully than the strings, although it is a luxury to have both versions from the composer.
Matt McBane’s “Dust and Groove,” a pair of contrasting etudes for two violins, proved less rhythmically arresting than his new choral work “On and On and” sung the previous day by Sacra/Profana. The optimistically titled “At the End of a Really Great Day” gave Judd Greenstein occasion to fashion a sunny, sweetly tonal tone poem, which he scored for flute, violin, cello and clarinet. A more cynical writer than I might call it a contemporary repsonse to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Kudos to flutist Rose Lombardo for her exceptionally mellifluous, graceful playing in Greenstein’s work.
Carlsbad Music Festival Director Matt McBane ended three days of music making with a secular Vesper service, David Lang’s hour-long “darker” for 12 strings, conducted by Steven Schick. A kind of Minimalist passacaglia without variation, “darker” represented the medieval three-tiered universe in musical terms. In the celestial realm, seven violins repeated an incessant garland of praise for the Eternal; the pairs of violas and cellos represented the dogged, long-phrased striving of earthly life, and the sole contrabass rumbled the yawning gape of the underworld. The order of the universe was restored.