That lively and challenging contemporary music in San Diego flourishes outside of its several university music departments is a hopeful sign, and the Carlsbad Music Festival is clearly the bright beacon of this musical vitality. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season in a coastal town that was once visited only to see fields of poinsettias in bloom, this festival sports a cadre of performers that should make more established festivals green with envy.
Over just a few hours on Saturday (Sept. 21), the Festival presented jazz luminary Peter Sprague’s regular quartet augmented with hotter than hot trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, the much heralded Calder Quartet, and the New York vocal ensemble Room Full of Teeth performing this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning work “Partita,” composed by Caroline Shaw, one of the eight stellar vocalists who comprise this avant-garde powerhouse. Over the entire weekend festival, another 47 ensembles participated.
Credit festival founder and director Matt McBane with encouraging a level of collaboration among the performers that multiplies his events’ rewards and excitement. After hearing two of the main movements of Shaw’s “Partita”—Sarabande and Allemande—in a pulse-racing performance by Room Full of Teeth at the Magee Park outdoor stage, we were treated to Shaw singing solo vocal in another pair of movements from her “Bye and Bye” with the Calder Quartet in the Village Square Theatre up the street. If Shaw’s structure of “Bye and Bye” appears conventional and churchy—taking very traditional gospel hymns and decorating them with string quartet accompaniment—it is not in the least. Delicate wafts of string sound surrounded Shaw’s pure vocal line like a gauzy halo in a Renaissance painting. She gave these old hymns (“Angel Band” and “I’ll Fly Away”) some of the rhythmic freedom of plainchant, and every phrase unfolded with that pristine awe some imagine Arvo Pärt has patented. I have not been so moved since the first time I heard Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna.”
Another fruitful collaboration joined guitarist-composer Steven Mackey with Calder in Mackey’s “Physical Property,” in which the nasal twang of the electric guitar mutated the strings’ typical warm sonority into a hard-edged buzz. The work’s jaunty, motoric drive brought to mind the March from Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.”[php snippet=1]
The Calder Quartet revived “Ghost in the Machine: Part I,” an evocative, eerie tone poem McBane wrote for the quartet to premier at the second Carlsbad Music Festival, and also gave a polished, sensitive account of Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet. What makes Calder’s approach to Bartók admirable is their intuitive balance between the composer’s earthy rhythmic jabs and acute dissonances and his unmistakable structural elegance. Later this season, Calder will play the entire canon of six Bartok string quartets at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. They sound ready for this challenge.
Earlier at Magee Park, Peter Sprague and his quintet Bop Moderno offered an intense, inventive set of five of his own compositions, although one was his arrangement of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” “Opening with “Moot Point,” Sprague established his untrammeled melodic gifts and contrapuntal finesse, as well as the prowess of his soloists. Trumpeter Castellanos’ exquisitely mannerist embellishments never fail to astound, while Tripp Sprague’s more mellow tenor sax excursions gently balance Castellanos’ manic energy.
Bassist Gunnar Biggs is the quintet’s least assertive member, but not for lack of technique. When given the opportunity, his solos reveal a subtle rhythmic labyrinth that richly rewards the careful listener. Drummer Duncan Moore is one of the few jazz percussionists who manages to sound fresh every time he launches into a drum solo.
I particularly liked “You Wanna Dance,” Sprague’s languid, bluesy two-step tribute to Fats Waller that showed his abilty to evoke the plush texture of American jazz between the World Wars, yet pushed both himself on guitar and his soloists to allude to more abstract later jazz styles. He described his “Dream Walking” as a shuffle blues, but in Sprague’s musical vocabulary, blues always transmits hope, optimism, and a conviction that we are all blessed to be in the presence of soul-inspiring music. Let the people say, “Amen.”