Celebrating Complexity, the title of Saturday evening’s (Jan. 10) 2015 soundON Festival of Modern Music performance at the La Jolla Athenaeum, succinctly described this festival’s aesthetic profile, one it has cultivated since its inception. Now in its ninth season, soundON and its resident cadre of contemporary music adepts—not accidentally called NOISE—continues to offer San Diegans a strong dose of contemporary music unsullied by the coddled cadences of minimalism in any of its ingratiating guises.
Short works by Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter on the program’s opening half not only set the tone, but payed homage to two of the most influential avatars of musical complexity in the second half of the last century. Carter’s 1985 “Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux” alternated and intertwined atonal roulades for flute and clarinet, charting a path of surprising contrasts. Demonstrating that atonality and sonic appeal are not mutually exclusive, clarinetist Robert Zelickman and flutist Lisa Cella lavished their most effulgent timbres on Carter’s gemlike duo.
It was difficult not to think of Maurice Ravel’s flare for orchestration hearing the Boulez 1984 sextet “Dérive I,” in which bightly-hued layers of sound shimmered with uncommon elegance, and to recall Bartók’s haunting “night music” soundscapes in this work’s quieter, eerie moments. An outspoken firebrand in his early career, Boulez is nonetheless indebted to his more mainstream forebears, which “Dérive I” so eloquently showed. Colin McAllister provided concise direction, and vibraphonist Morris Palter’s beautifully contoured motifs stood out among the contributions of his equally polished colleagues.
In his opening remarks, resident guest composer James Erber used the image of “cutting one’s way through a dense rainforest” to describe a serious listener’s challenge to appreciate his extended, formidable “The Ray and its Shadow” (2004) for flute, cello, clarinet and piano. Pianist Christopher Adler gave a powerful account of bright clusters bouncing up and down the keyboard, while flutist Cella, clarinetist Zelickman and cellist Franklin Cox insistently challenged the piano’s dominance with dark murmerings that grew in dynamic levels and density over the course of the work. On a single hearing, I did not discern the depth of ontological meaning—“the unity of life and death revealed”—the composer ascribed to his work, but I would certainly be willing to cut through its dense rainforest again to uncover more of it.
Mark Menzies, soundON’s resident violinist, offered his recently completed “. . .none but the lonely” as a companion to Erber’s opus. Using Erber’s instrumentation but adding vibraphone and violin, during his 25-minute tone poem Menzies traversed a more varied musical and emotional landscape than Erber chose, including a rambunctuous dance section with a virtuoso vibraphone solo. Menzies’ title alludes to the well-known melancholic Tchaikovsky song “None but the Lonely Heart,” and midway through his piece Menzies managed to deconstruct Tchaikovsky through densely chromatic piano progressions. Adding to his already eclectic sound palette, towards the climax of the piece Menzies had several players sound shrill high-pitched clusters on clay indigenous flutes, while McAllister moved offstage to pick up an electric guitar to add its gentle chords to the unexpected quiet conclusion.
Although Menzies’ piece lacked a vocal component, I kept hearing echoes of Schönberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire in Menzies’ angular lines and peripatetic progressions. Let us hope that 100 years from now some listener will be comparing another new work to Menzies’ “. . . none but the lonely.”
This soundON concert opened with the premiere of cellist Franklin Cox’s “Transcendental Etudes for Cello Solo: Etudes 5-7,” a collage of densely organized scrapings on the strings of the cello that accomplished for the sonorous repertory of unaccompanied cello music what Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings did for still life oil paintings.