Mention the composer Ottorino Respighi, and most music aficionados will reel off a list of massive orchestral works. Throbbing tone poems that depict everything about Rome—fountains, trees, festivals—usually top such lists.
But the early 20th-century composer has another more intimate and subtle side: Respighi the chamber music maestro. This was the visage that smiled on Art of Élan’s season-opening program Tuesday at the San Diego Museum of Art. Soprano Priti Gandhi offered a dramatic, yet finely nuanced account of Respighi’s “Il tramonto” (“The Sunset”), a setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s somewhat convoluted poem in an Italian translation, accompanied by string quartet.
While the quartet—violins Pei-Chun Tsai and Igor Pandurski, violist Jason Karlyn, and cellist Erin Breene—ardently churned the composer’s dense, lush harmonic textures, Gandhi spun our a calmer vocal line, buoyed by her opulent tone and deft declamation. Of all the pieces on the program, this fervent scena most convincingly fulfilled the evening’s title, “The Song Goes On.”
A set of three songs by the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, transcribed for flute and harp, courted the lyric muse surprisingly well, with the flutist Rose Lombardo taking the singer’s role. Lombardo tapered her phrases like any communicative singer, and the subtle burr at the edge of her ample sonority engaged the listener at every turn. Harpist Julie Smith Phillips transcribed these songs, and she skillfully brought out the accompaniment’s darker shadings from the deepest tones of her instrument.
Nico Muhly’s rhapsodic miniature tone poem “Clear Music” gave all the sumptuous riffs to cellist Breene, who dispatched them with robust authority, while harpist Phillips and celeste player Ines Irawati provided a shimmering halo around her angular lines. For a ten-minute work, “Clear Music” offered a wealth of motivic invention from a young composer that Art of Élan has championed from its modest beginnings seven seasons ago. If only Muhly’s harmonic daring were as great as the masterful structures he so adroitly constructs.
I suppose Giacomo Puccini’s delicious miniature for string quartet “Crisantemi” (“Chrysanthemums”) could be considered a “song without words” to make it fit the program theme. Displaying laudable balance and beautifully matched timbres, the string quartet had its finger on this work’s volatile emotional pulse. But the ensemble’s dynamic range sounded monochromatic—a room as small and bright as the museum’s Hibben Gallery could easily sustain delicate pianissimos the quartet never approached.
The quartet opened the program with a suite drawn from Henry Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen. Even if period instruments are not at hand, a lighter touch and shorter phrases from conventional instruments allow Baroque music to breathe and sound more idiomatic. The themes may have been Purcell, but the quartet sounded like it was reading through Robert Schumann.
The next Art of Élan program will be given at 7:00 p.m. on November 25, 2014 in the Hibben Gallery of the San Diego Museum of Art. www.artofelan.org.