When the string quartet on stage is playing works by Felix Mendelssohn and Elvis Costello, you can be certain you’ve entered music’s crossover zone. Art of Élan, that plucky chamber music series run by Kate Hatmaker and Demarre McGill, opened its fall season at the San Diego Museum of Art on Tuesday (Oct. 15) with Mendelssohn’s Second String Quartet in A Minor and selections from Costello’s “The Juliet Letters,” the British rock star’s 1993 opus for string quartet and vocalist.
Now in its seventh season, Art of Élan has built a strong, loyal audience with a canny mixture of accessible new music and standard classical repertory. Take the British-American composer David Bruce, whose commissioned work “Night Parade” opened the San Diego Symphony’s fall season ten days ago. He may have been unfamiliar to most Symphony patrons, but he was old hat to Art of Élan audiences, who have heard several Bruce compositions in recent seasons.
While I have nothing but praise for McGill and Hatmaker’s success in attracting both audience and funding for their enterprise, a part of me longs for the adventure and deeper rewards of the programming San Diegans heard in the 1980s when the Arditti Quartet performed the likes of Kurtág, Ligeti, and Reynolds in visits to Mandeville Auditorium at UC San Diego. But in those days the university had deep pockets and could subsidize such artistic luxuries.
Costello’s “The Juliet Letters” came about in collaboration with another notable British string quartet, the Brodsky Quartet, and is a collection of imaginary letters written by Costello and members of Brodsky to Juliet Capulet, that literary fiction immortalized by Shakespeare. Of the 20 or so songs in “The Juliet Letters,” we heard only three on Tuesday, an amuse-bouche rather than a banquet of Costello.[php snippet=1]
Like much pop music and many classical Lieder, these songs proved emotionally direct and monochromatic. Costello’s vocal lines stayed in that narrow range pop singers find comfortable, and he does not linger over a thought. In each song, the text flew by quickly, and while the emotional impulse of each letter came into immediate focus, probing is not an adjective that fits these songs. The instrumental lines wove a spare but alluring texture, at times reminding me of Leos Janacek’s speech-like motivic writing. Violinists Wesley Precourt and Meri Englund, violist Chi-Yuan Chen, and cellist Yao Zhao formed the alert quartet that realized “The Juliet Letters,” and Ted Atkatz, trained as a percussionist, did the vocal honors. In his spoken introduction to the Costello pieces he easily persuaded us that he was passionate about these songs. His shallow vocal technique was not as persuasive.
The string quartet continued the program with a virile, rhapsodic account of Mendelssohn’s Second String Quartet, a sophisticated composition completed by the composer when he was but 18. The poise and marvelous sense of ensemble of these four players belied the fact that they are not a touring string quartet that spends prodigious amounts of time practicing together, although Precourt, Chen, and Zhao do play together in the San Diego Symphony.
First violinist Englund displayed a muscular, gleaming line that aptly captured the work’s youthful exuberance, and Zhao drove the energetic bass line with commanding assurance. These four players should stick together—their chemistry was evident in every phrase.