When it comes to commissioning new music, the odds for success are no better than those of the casual vacationer visiting a Las Vegas casino and hitting the jackpot. Wedding even an established composer to a generous stipend is no guarantee that the muse will bless this union with a felicitous progeny.
But there was no doubt that the muse of inspiration was smiling on the La Jolla Music Society Friday (Aug. 16), when SummerFest 2013 launched three new works by three distunguished American composers. Each composer, Stephen Stucky, David Del Tredici, and John Harbison, was present to introduce his new opus.
John Harbison’s gripping song cycle “Crossroads” probed the profound, autumnal poetry of Louise Glück, unleashing her poignant images with searing vocal arcs sustained by a string quintet’s taut counterpoint. And for good measure, Harbison included an oboe obbligato on that rare chance the listener may have missed the wistful tenor of the poetry.
Could Harbison have asked for a more compelling vocal interpreter than the young mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano? She warmly communicated the emotional impact of every phrase, employing with evident ease a vibrant, bright mezzo voice that commanded the modest confines of Sherwood Auditorium. With all of her operatic horsepower, however, she did not allow a single word of Glück’s concise text to slip by unnoticed.
The Linden String Quartet with bassist Nico Abondolo ably matched Cano’s passion and eloquence, and I was again impressed with cellist Felix Umansky’s verve that so animates this promising ensemble. Although oboist Peggy Pearson provided shapely counterpoint to the vocal solo, I thought she remained too much in Cano’s shadow.[php snippet=1]
Sometimes when I hear a new work, I am eager to hear it again just to get a better picture of it in my mind. But I am eager to hear “Crossroads“ many times over because it is so striking, a 21st-century counterpart to Samuel Barber’s beloved “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.“
The concert opened with Steven Stucky’s explosive but finely wrought Sonata for Violin and Piano, written for SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Jon Kimura-Parker, a three-movement sonata that divided equally the virtuosic responsibilities. Lin was at his best turning etherial trills in the stratosphere and floating mystical themes that hovered between Anton Webern’s stoic agnosticism and Arvo Pärt’s intense piety.
Kimura-Parker answered with transparent arpeggiations and slashing, astringent chords. The performers’ minutely calibrated pas de deux aptly honored the composer’s spare vocabulary and substantial intentions.
If David Del Tredici had not proposed such an elaborate program for his 40-minute “Bullycide“ for piano and string quintet, a
first hearing might have been less frustrating. Composed “in memory of five gay teens who committed suicide,“ this quasi-symphonic tone poem took us through the teens’ individual characterizations, through death, lament, rage, thwarted dreams, elegy and more.
The divisions between the eight (nine?) movements of “Bullycide“ proved indistinct, and tracking the themes was taxing. A combination of the composer’s unabashedly tonal idiom and his penchant for frequent triumphant, major-mode cadences compromised, I fear, some of the tragic dimension of his task.
Del Tredici found room for a rhapsodic five-voice fugue and a minor-mode incarnation of the same thematic material, as well as several elaborate cadenzas. Perhaps this expansive chamber piece is really a sketch for an imposing piano concerto. The Shanghai Quartet with bassist DaXung Zhang provided the requisite muscle and sonic sheen for the work’s ambitious scope, and pianist Orion Weiss contributed his highly focused, spritely keyboard technique.
These three premières would have comfortably filled a typical SummerFest concert, but Lin programmed Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Sz. 110, as a blockbuster finale. Trotting out his third and fourth star pianist of the evening—Joyce Yang and Joseph Kalichstein—Lin joined them with the excellent timpanist Markus Rhoten and UC San Diego’s percussion guru Steven Schick, surely a match made in heaven. The unrelenting, thundering impact of Bartók’s Sonata remains undiminished some 75 years after its premiere, and this quartet of players brought it to life with staggering authority and accuracy. In the Allegro molto, for instance, measures raced by with such daemonic speed, that even the pianists’ page turners needed page turners.