At the 2013 Carlsbad Music Festival, Caroline Shaw, the iconoclastic young Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, performed several of her signature pieces to the delight of festival audiences. Apparently, Art of Élan’s budget was not sufficiently flush to bring her back to San Diego, but they did the next best thing and programmed her “Entracte” for string quartet to open their Tuesday (November 25) program at the San Diego Museum of Art.
In her 13-minute etude written 2011, Shaw took a sunny but unremarkable tonal progression that could easily appear as a transitional phrase in any classical string quartet and reiterated it in a cascade of whimsical variations like a cat playing with a piece of string. After a series of pizzicato disguises and breathy echo effects, she gave the cellist a mysterious solo, which Xian Zhuo executed with breathtaking allure, then erased that indulgent satisfaction with acrid twists of harmonic distortion.
An accomplished violinist, Shaw knows the vocabulary of string quartets all too well, and her clever work of deconstruction was a delight. Violinists Tien-Hain Cindy Wu and Kate Hatmaker and violist Che-Yen Chen made up the rest of this string quartet, the most polished and sonically balanced string ensemble Art of Élan has assembled, which is no small compliment. I would love to hear this quartet perform regularly!
After the edgy Shaw piece, Art of Élan settled into melodious and predictable fare, from Jacques Ibert’s arch-Romantic “Deux Interludes” to Luigi Boccherini’s frothy, rococo “Quintet for Strings and Guitar.” The Myriad Trio—flutist Demarre McGill, harpist Julie Smith Phillips and violist Chen—offered “Deux Interludes” with sumptuous phrasing and pellucid ensemble; it would be hard to imagine a more winning take on this work. The trio followed with “La Cupis,” a charming single movement from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Pièces de clavecin en concert,” with the the harp filling in quite nicely for the harpsichord.
After a long absence, it was rewarding to hear again McGill, one of the founders of Art of Élan. In both the Ibert and the Rameau he reminded the San Diego Symphony regulars how much we miss the incredible richness of his flute sonority and the exhilaration he so effortlessly infuses into a simple arabesque or figuration. After he left the his first chair post here in San Diego, he took a similar position with the Seattle Symphony and now serves as Principal Flute for the Dallas Symphony. My prediction: the orchestras of Chicago and New York are next, followed by the Berlin Philharmonic. I trust McGill keeps his German skills current!
Keeping the French mood alive, Art of Élan presented Thomas Adès’ curious transcription of Francois Couperin’s harpsichord solo “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” for a quintet of strings and clarinets. While the counterpoint of J.S. Bach quite readily transforms into all kinds of transcriptions—think of what the Swingle Singers did to his arias or what accomplished saxophone quartets have done for The Art of Fugue—French Baroque music is inextricably tied to the sonority of its instrumentation. Assigning the bass line of a harpsichord piece to a bass clarinet is as ill advised as attempting to make Blanquette de veau with Hamburger Helper.
For the Boccherini Guitar Quintet, guitarist Colin McAllister joined the string quartet players that opened the concert for a rollicking coach ride through the Spainsh countryside—the quintet was commissioned by a Spanish marquis who played the guitar. My only regret was that the overly modest guitar part (alas, the marquis was only a skilled amateur) did not allow McAlister to employ much of his ample technique. Boccherini was a virtuoso cellist, however, so Xian Zhuo was able to impress us with profuse ornate figuration and sleek glissandos. At the close of the final movement, Erika Lopez added castanets to heighten the rhythmic drive of the work’s final cadences.
This Art of Élan performance took place on November 25, 2014 in the Hibben Gallery of the San Diego Museum of Art. The next Art of Élan concert is scheduled for March 3, 2015, in the same venue. www.artofelan.org