Review: After a long silence, Art of Élan makes a happy noise at the San Diego Museum of Art


We didn’t realize how much we needed live music until the pandemic took it away.

The concerts broadcast continuously in our homes did not replace the ritual of friends and strangers meeting in a place filled with music.

No matter how many viewers a show reaches, musicians playing in front of no one other than camera and sound staff lacked the excitement that listeners in a shared space vitally provide.

One by one, our ensembles and presenters returned like the first flowers emerging from a long and cruel winter. Tuesday night, in the lobby of the San Diego Museum of Art, Art of Elk blossomed.

Its 15th season – aptly titled “Regeneration” – opened with a concert titled “Nostalgia”. It was inspired by a simultaneous exhibition of magical realistic paintings by Marianela de la Hoz that highlight the daily tribulations that have occurred during the pandemic.

Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3 and Grażyna Bacewicz’s “Folk-Themed Violin Duets” were both premiered during WWII in Nazi-occupied Europe. Bacewicz’s duets are harmonically conservative for their time, but extremely well written for the violin. They were created during a secret concert in Warsaw. Perhaps basing these short pieces on Polish folk music was an affirmation of nationalism at a time when many Poles were killed on the spot or sent to concentration camps. Violinists Jing Yan Bowcott and Kate Hatmaker performed them with confidence and charisma.

Ullmann, a Czech Jew, suffered a sadder fate. Although he was a cultural leader and a productive composer in the Theresienstadt ghetto / camp for over two years, he was sent to Auschwitz and died two days later. The String Quartet No. 3 was written in Theresienstadt. The opening section recalls the chromatic but tonal music of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky 40 years ago, but is followed by a dissonant scherzo. It’s hard not to hear these as pleasant memories ripped off by the harsh realities of imprisonment.

It was performed with passion and impeccable technique by the Artonic Quartet. This new local ensemble was born out of an impromptu concert at the Convention Center given to immigrant inmates by violinists Jing Yan Bowcott, Julia Pautz, violist Abraham Martin and cellist Nathan Walhout. Keep an eye out for this wonderful group.

Bassist Jory Herman’s approach to the pandemic was to compose. “Wistfully Yours”, his Opus 1, was composed for violin, cello, double bass and vibraphone, and was premiered by Pautz, Walhout, PJ Cinque and Fiona Digney respectively. Written in the keys of E minor / G major and with simple rhythms, it has been well received. Unfortunately, the vibraphone drowned the strings when it played fast and loud passages.

Kaija Saariaho’s “Nocturne” for solo violin was the only modernist work. Exploring gradual changes in timbre, it was played with mystery by Jing Yan.

Nico Muhly’s music is often labeled “Postminimal,” but I would describe the frantic repetitions and musical interruptions of his 2012 track “Doublespeak” as “Neo-minimal”. Neoclassical composers such as Stravinsky returned to the forms and surfaces of baroque and classical music and reinvigorated them with 20th century rhythms and harmonies. In “Doublespeak” Muhly uses 1970s minimalism (think Reich’s Octet or Glass’s “12-Part Music”) as the material to cut and reassemble. It was given a moving performance by Rose Lombardo on the flute; Josh Rubin, clarinet; Kate Chapelier, violin; Nathan Walhout, cello; Tina Chong, piano; and Fiona Digney, percussion.

This closest enthusiast received a loud standing ovation – something musicians sorely missed during the sterile months of the pandemic.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.


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