Art of Élan’s Tuesday (January12) concert at the San Diego Museum of Art started out in its predictable eclectic mode. After the choral group SACRA/PROFANA offered a pair of assertive, well-prepared contemporary pieces by American composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Dominick Argento, a string quartet played the Russian Louis Gruenberg’s 1930 “Four Diversions for String Quartet,” an animated, elegant trifle whose primary virtue—brevity—ensured that it did not overstay its welcome.
But when violinist Anna Skálová launched into Nico Muhly’s 2002 “Honest Music” for solo violin and pre-recorded audio, she immediately focused my attention and reminded me why this series is so important to San Diego’s concert life.
A rhapsodic and engagingly unpredictable work, “Honest Music” created pulsing, dramatic tension that resolved in languid, double-stop violin phrases that Skálová floated with her opulent, gleaming sonority. The program notes for “Honest Music” explained that the violinist is given some freedom to choose the order and pace of the notated phrases in order to interact with the composer’s recorded component, “sputtering harp and percussion,” according to the program.
Because this was the first time I heard “Honest Music,” Skálová’s well-proportioned, emotionally rich account has whetted my appetite to hear other versions of Muhly’s score, but only played by violinists of Skálová’s technical prowess and discernment.
The intensity and drama of “Honest Music” proved the perfect foil for “Tabula Rasa,” one of Arvo Pärt’s early (1977) minimalist works that suspends time for 30 minutes in a frosty, magical cloud of tiny string iterations. A chamber concerto for two violins accompanied by string ensemble and prepared piano, “Tabula Rasa” has become the Estonian composer’s virtual icon of hypnotic stasis, a touchstone of late 20th-century minimalism that still holds powerful sway among some contemporary composers.
Skálová and Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu imbued the solo violin parts with an elegant sheen and sweet articulation that proved both mesmerizing and engaging. Ines Irawati’s deft arpeggios and muted echoes from the prepared piano added to the otherworldly quality of the work.
Hearing this transcendent performance of “Tabula Rasa” brought to mind Yahweh’s command to Moses when he encountered the burning bush on Mount Horeb: “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”
With the music of Arvo Pärt, Art of Élan turned the lobby of the San Diego Museum of Art into holy ground.