One way to ensure that you have music of our time—at least on paper—is to commission works, and the first half of this SummerFest outing was devoted to the world premiere of a string quartet by British composer Julian Anderson and a west coast premiere of a song cycle by Canadian Howard Shore of The Lord of the Rings fame. For each piece, the La Jolla Music Society was a co-commissioner.
Choosing stylistically opposite composers proved a decision worthy of King Solomon: for those with zero tolerance for the abstract dissonance and agitation of much modern music, Shore’s placid, mystical modal incantations could not have been more ingratiating. For those who found Shore’s mystical dreamworld too kitsch, Anderson’s acidic collage of extended instrumental techniques and pointillist flutterings sated their need for cutting-edge assurance.
Shore’s “A Palace Upon the Ruins,” based on six poems in German written by his wife Elizabeth Cotnoir, took the listener to some distant time and location, not unlike the medieval sylvan setting of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. I was impressed with Shore’s eloquent setting of the German text, not to mention mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s opulent execution of his floating, chant-like themes. Her La Jolla debut last season was one of the highlights of SummerFest 2013, and she again filled Sherwood Auditorium with ample vocal allure.
Equal kudos to cellist Coleman Itzkoff, whose richly somber lines so firmly supported the singer, and to UC San Diego percussionist Dustin Donahue, whose gongs and other exotic noise-makers added sonic incense. Pianist Andrew Staupe and flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly also supplied shapely lines to Shore’s deftly layered textures.
Anderson’s String Quartet No. 2: “300 Weinachstlieder” was anything but a medley of quaint German Christmas carols, although I did pick out a phrase from the Epiphany chorale “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” in one of the earlier movements. The New York-based FLUX Quartet could not have been more sympathetic or clearly focused in their execution of the myriad techniques Anderson required at varying speeds and dynamic levels: pizzicato, col legno, harmonics, etc.
Unlike Shore’s long, lazy lines, Anderson chose short, clipped motifs surrounded by silence, or when he occasionally turned out a more extended theme, it was partnered with other themes in excruciatingly close proximity. Anderson’s austere soundscape dared anyone to use the adjective “pretty” or “nice.” But I would gladly hear his quartet again played by an ensemble with the sharp contemporary acumen of FLUX.
Two pieces on the second half of the program were total crowd pleasers: American composer Michael Daugherty’s clever “Viola Zombie” and Mexican guru Mario Lavista’s “Marsias for Oboe and Crystal Goblets.” Demolishing with ease those silly stereotypes of the shy, indecisive violist, violists Cynthia Phelps and Yura Lee gleefully tore into Daugherty’s thematic fistfight, exchanging sonic fusillades with great panache. Lavista gave oboist Liang Wang an edgy, serpentine solo that Anderson lovers could identify with, but he gave the oboe a hazy, mystical accompaniment of seven tuned, very quiet crystal water goblets that “sang” with circular motion of moist fingers.
The goblet virtuosi included La Jolla Music Society President and Artistic Director Christopher Beach, and SummerFest Music Director Lin cued these “rimmers” seated around a table placed behind Wang. All of the Sherwood lighting was subdued for this “Marsias” making it just a little spooky and just a little humorous at the same time.[php snippet=2]
Ending this feast of music of our time with György Ligeti’s First String Quartet: “Metamorphoses Nocturnes” could not have more apt or more ironic. The young Ligeti finished this bold, uncompromising work in 1954, sneaking it out of his native Hungary when he escaped to western Europe during the revolt of 1956. The FLUX Quartet unleashed the work’s Expressionist vigor and reveled in its complex but rigorously logical thematic development. This String Quartet may have been completed 60 years ago, but Ligeti was so prescient that Friday night he sounded as cutting edge as the newest works.