Art of Élan’s March 12 chamber concert at the San Diego Museum of Art—titled “Fateful Encounters”—unfolded in front of Jusepe de Ribera’s luminous early 17th-century oil painting “Susannah and the Elders.” Those who know this biblical story, which Carlisle Floyd made into his first and most famous opera, know that Susannah’s encounter with the lascivious elders was indeed devastating.
Although nothing dangerous or fateful occurred in Art of Élan’s sleekly delivered concert, Executive Director Kate Hatmaker did select an unusually amazing musical repast, starting with Georg Phillipp Telemann’s Gulliver’s Travels Suite for two violins. For two accomplished violinists, Telemann crafted an unusual five-movement dance suite, giving each movement the character of one of Jonathan Swift’s satirical races invented for his widely read novel.
For the “Lilliputsche Chaconne,” Telemann engaged short, agitated, high-pitched phrases in sonic battle to represent the six-inch tall Lilliputians, and grand, full-bodied phrases to depict the giants of Brobdingnag in the “Brobdingnagische Gigue.” In the Andante, stately reveries interrupted by loud dissonances described the artsy clan of Laputans awakening from their dreamy state. And his concluding Louré explodes in a canonic duel between Swift’s cultured Houyhnhnms and despicable Yahoos.
When you consider that Telemann wrote this clever work in 1728, a mere two years after Swift’s novel was first published in London, the Hamburg music master must have been exceptionally well-read and au courant, especially compared to his Leipzig compatriot J. S. What’s-his-name.
In any case, violinists Kate Hatmaker and Edmund Stein gave a polished, even vibrant account of this clever duo. And about those naïve music appreciation textbooks that try to sell students the notion that program music began with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony . . .
For blending four ostensibly mismatched instruments, harp, trombone, viola, and marimba, into a sumptuous quartet filled with luminous clouds of sustained chords and lyrical themes bubbling up to the surface, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Shiner” deserves a trophy. Or two.
Eric Starr provided burnished, cantabile trombone melodies, while harpist Julie Smith Phillips and marimba virtuoso James Beauton collaborated to create undulating, hypnotic sonic allure. Violist Hanah Stuart’s assertive pizzicato playing added spice to this shining etude from 2006.
Beauton returned to the stage after “Shiner” for David Lang’s solo marimba opus (also from 2006) “string of pearls,” a minimalist gem that toys with a simple motif in the instrument’s upper range, slowly expanding its range, density and speed by adding discrete notes in each successive iteration. A few two-note falling intervals in the bass range brought this elegant ride to a safe landing.
Bassist Shawn Conley’s “Yann’s Flight” from 2013, a single-movement string quintet overstuffed with gorgeous tonal themes, proved that Samuel Barber did not die in vain, although Conley eschewed the chromatic harmonic underpinnings that Barber espoused. Bassist Susan Wulff handled the pizzicato, jazz-like bass line with cool finesse while first violinist Wesley Precourt and cellist Alex Greenbaum traded soaring themes that easily suggested the paraglider named in the work’s title. Kate Hatmaker and Hanah Stuart provided the other two string voices.
A Quartet for Strings from 1948-54 by the film score giant Nino Rota brought us back to the harmonic language of pure comfort as well as affable themes the audience could hum on their way out of the museum. Stuart’s gorgeous viola solo that opened the Adagio certainly fit that category, and Hatmaker’s suave, dramatic lead in the opening Allegro did not stint on the composer’s fervid emotional communication. Violinist Precourt and cellist Grennbaum completed this beautifully balanced ensemble.
Art of Élan presented this concert on March 12, 2019, in the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The organization’s next concert takes place on April 1, 2019, a free community concert at Liberty Station.