Review: San Diego New Music’s SoundOn Festival carries on long tradition of compelling new premieres

For more than two decades, San Diego New Music has been bringing top-shelf performances of new music to our town. Their mission is simple and utopian: to present uncompromising and compelling new works by living composers are programmed in festivals that take place over the course of several days that easily rival, in their substance and performances, similar events in other, larger cities. Friday night was the second installment of the three-day SoundOn Festival, the regular title of San Diego New Music’s annual event.

This is a community project; the musicians have often been their own administrators and publicity managers, and support for visiting artists comes in large part from donors, some of whom provide housing for out-of-town players.

Friday evening’s concert at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla was typical, a carefully curated, diverse set of new chamber works presented by expert musicians in vibrant and impressive performances. The concert began and ended with larger works performed by NOISE, San Diego new Music’s resident ensemble, the members of which are veterans and virtuosi.

Katherine Balch’s “musica spolia,” was an apt introduction to the synthesis of avant-garde imagination and performative expertise these festivals regularly show. “Spolia” (the title of this year’s SoundOn festival) are small architectural remnants, like columns, that have been recast into later buildings. Indeed, Balch’s work is a savvy recontextualization of bits of older musical material that have been woven into new settings. Too often, pieces that try a similar gambit–dropping familiar materials into new textures–make a foil out of a tawdry and generic “new music” background. Balch’s piece creates a discourse wherein these fragments, many of them tonal, are somehow meaningfully integrated into a new language. Pianist Christopher Adler spun out a meticulous series of minor piano arpeggios, and sustained an entire traditional harmonic plan even as percussionist Morris Palter countered with impressively precise, visceral rhythms played on a varied setup that included, among other things, packaging bubble wrap. Violinist Myra Hinrichs and flutist Lisa Cella were fiercely together in unison, jagged textures, guided along by the clarity of Robert Zelickman’s conducting.

“iridescent shadows” by Yan Ee Toh, featured Cella on flute and Zelickman, this time on bass clarinet. These players have worked together on countless pieces, and their innate sympathy was clear as they moved smoothly between opposing states of synchrony and conflict, acceleration and entropy; Yan’s work is written ably for the instruments, exploring all manner of sonic detail and extended techniques; the duo’s ability to render these unfamiliar sounds confidently and capably helped make this piece both clear and moving.

The cellist and composer Franklin Cox has been with San Diego New Music from the beginning. Cox’s creative work is highly diverse, and he had two very different works on Friday’s program. His “Pedagogical Etude in F-sharp Minor,” which he performed on solo cello, posits itself alongside those teaching works of Bach, Bartok, and Chopin. Cox’s remarks before the performance mentioned the music of Bohuslav Martinů, whose influence can be heard in the incandescent chromaticism, and extremes—tonal, registral, sonic, and expressive—of this riveting work. Another side of Cox’s aesthetic and performance was presented in his “Duet for Bass Flute and Cello,” which had its world premiere with the composer playing the cello and Miss Cella returning for the flute. This is a different work: thorny and thick, each performer developing materials in seeming independence, coming together only for a gripping moment, and then reversing tracks. Cox’s music has been played extensively by San Diego New Music and is a musical avatar of the group’s commitment to presenting works of musical and intellectual rigor in a warm and intimate setting.

Pianist Christopher Adler gave the world-premiere of another work, Adam Greene’s “Multiplicity” (six miniatures) from “Memos” for solo piano. Despite its use of the term “miniatures,” this is an extended, difficult, and rewarding work that flushes out issues that surface in the writings of Italo Calvino, by exploring, almost in catalog form, the expressive and sonic potential of the modern piano. The complexity of Calvino’s thought, sources, and literary techniques is mirrored here by a surprising and inspired set of programmatic textures, each of them wholly original. The canon of contemporary concert-music is stuffed almost to capacity with big pieces for solo piano, but Greene’s textures and the quasi-metaphorical ideas that animate them are striking and new. Adler was everywhere, moving easily between moments of brutal virtuosity and contemplative, sustained near-silences.

The full complement of NOISE returned for Adam Borecki’s “Scorpio.” Borecki’s piece is wickedly smart and sort of miraculous, combining disparate elements into a winning, millennial, new-music sundae: shards of almost-identifiable melodies are presented, combined, and juxtaposed; raucous and mercurial textures pummel us with heavy atonal chaos, then settle down into focused harmonic gulleys; a cheeky chorus of blown melodicas interrupts the piece with a grand, almost sentimental, chorale. “Scorpio” has many, many referents, some of them hilarious, but the work as a whole emerges as utterly serious. It sounded as if NOISE had been playing this piece for longer than it has been in the world, each player perfectly at home in this wild and captivating landscape.

Schulze is a freelance writer.

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