Once you leave San Diego’s sheltered university campuses, the curious local music aficionado is unlikely to encounter with ease performances of serious contemporary music. At Copley Symphony Hall, for example, it has remained an endangered species for some time.
Fortunately, series such as Art of Élan and Fresh Sound have provided dependable oases of new music with their chamber music performances in Balboa Park and Barrio Logan. However, La Jolla’s annual SoundON Festival of Modern Music, which opened Thursday (January 5) at the Athenaeum, sets an uncompromising standard in San Diego with its dense, challenging repertory. Following that trajectory of complex, atonal music from Webern to Boulez to Carter to Reynolds and Ferneyhough, the SoundON players demand much of their listeners, but the rewards are great.
The program opened with “Spectrum 6,” a later sonic tapestry by the late American experimentalist composer James Tenney. Opening with short discrete tones of varying timbres and the widest range of pitches (hence, I suppose, the title “Spectrum”), the work fluttered over the audience like a gossamer veil in an unpredictable breeze as individual tones slowly morphed into tiny phrases surrounded by silence and pointillist percussion commentary. The players, all members of the festival’s resident NOISE ensemble, included Mark Menzies, violin; Franklin Cox, cello; Christopher Adler on electronic keyboard; Robert Zelickman on bass clarinet; Lisa Cella, flute, and percussionist Morris Palter.
For the evening’s premiere, Franklin Cox’s “Shattered,” the other NOISE member, Colin McAllister took stage center and conducted his six colleagues. We were privileged to hear “Shattered” twice: on the first half of the program, NOISE played it with neither program notes nor introduction, and before its reprise on the second half, Cox explained to the audience the “program” he was attempting to depict in his music. On the first hearing, I noted Cox’s dense, bright collage of sparkling motifs that sounded as if they were simply overlapping in playful excitement. But on second hearing, when Cox explained that he was expressing in “Shattered” an individual’s psychological breakdown (oh—not the exuberance of shattering a world record, but a person’s world shattering before him), I heard not playful voices, but dark, chaotic forces contending. I also noted how harsh the piano clusters sounded in this light, and how the close lines played in the upper ranges of the flute, violin, and clarinet suggested an agony I missed on the first reading.
Benjamin Sabey’s “Winter Shore,” although depicting a rather desolate visual landscape, turned out to be the program’s most extroverted—almost symphonic in scope—offering. Starting with a startling loud crash of the bass drum, “Winter Shore” then whispered fluttering sounds that suggested a sharp wind over a deserted beach. Dense piano clusters followed by jovial clarinet roulades and dark drumming suggested fevered human activity or perhaps a storm. With only a title to go by, the mind invents its own program. NOISE gave this muscular work a most persuasive performance.
Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman’s “The Chaco Wilderness” gave guitar and mandolin virtuoso Colin McAllister a chance to join his NOISE colleagues, adding his unique plucked sounds to this more subdued nature homage. The spare aesthetic Feldman expressed in this work aligned her with that of early Webern.
From his New Zealand colleague Chris Cree Brown, Mark Menzies commissioned “Faultlines,” a virtuoso 12-minute solo violin study that jumped back and forth from sonic and dynamic level opposites in fits of bipolar frenzy. Kinder to the ears was “Études aperçues,“ Betsy Jolas’ shimmering solo for vibraphone and temple bells, which Morris Palter delivered gracefully. Is this work Jolas’ response to Erik Satie’s clever piano four-hand set “Aperçus désagréables“? Menzies and flutist Lisa Cella brought frightening intensity to Daniele Venturi’s “Arlìa,” an assertive duo that kept these players dueling in their highest range, suggesting a pair of hummingbirds fighting over a fragrant blossom.