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Friday, Nov. 29, 2007 | One rocker fresh from a Dave Mathews concert experience wrote on his blog that for any pop concert, “it is understood that most concert-goers will be drinking.”

Audiences for fine art music continue this tradition, although less extremely, partly because they can’t bring food or beverages into concert halls. Mostly their concert experience is about the music: program, musicians, performance. It’s also about venue, time of day or night, and schmoozing. Audience tastes and state of mind contribute mightily.

While I usually report on future performances, this time, I’ll tell you about some concert experiences — with and without booze — and point you to some coming up. (I’ve been mostly missing from voiceofsandiego.org for the past three months because of travel and a publisher’s deadline. I haven’t been avoiding concert halls, though.)

  • You can’t tell from the name of the Carlsbad Music Festival that it’s an “alternative classical music” — a new music — event. The four-year-old festival is the brainchild of Matt McBane, an old man of 30, who is the violinist and composer for Build, a New York indie-classical band.

I made it to just one of the three-day festival’s programs at the end of September to hear Real Quiet. The trio, last seen here during the 2007 Summerfest, includes cellist Felix Fan, pianist Andrew Russo and percussionist David Cossin. Is there anything these guys can’t play? A New York Times critic described Russo’s pianism as full of “technical assurance and infectious high spirits.” Fan and Cossin share those qualities. The three-year old group has performed in New York, Munich, Taipei, Moscow, San Diego, and Santa Fe.

The artists and the music infected each other with contemporary energy, wit, intensity and imagination. Real Quiet played the premiere of McBane’s “Swelter,” which hurried and slithered with jazz and delicate piano work. “The Last Buffalo” written in 2005 by Phil Kline, gives us a drama and dirge. Selections from Marc Mellits’ “Tight Sweater” included “Exposed Zipper,” and “Mechanically Separated Chicken Parts,” hilarious titles that hardly describe the seriously minimalist shape of the music.

Even in the characterless but intimate Schulman Auditorium, everything seemed to gel: music, dynamic musicians, audience enjoyment, and food and drink afterwards. San Diego County supervisors, the City of Carlsbad, and the Carlsbad Convention and Visitors Bureau are major supporters of this venture; that should be on a plaque somewhere. (This year, the festival also played in Los Angeles venues.)

  • The Bach Collegium, on the opposite end of the music-time continuum, played a tee-totaling event. I confess I’ve become a Collegium groupie. The period performances are esoteric and riveting, the artists’ skills are impeccable, and the ensembles produce clear and intense sonic qualities.

The group bravely performed in late October, when everybody else, worn out by the fires, was canceling events. The Collegium chose works based mostly on scripture by Dietrich Buxtehude and J. S. Bach. Legend has it that Bach so admired Buxtehude that he once walked 200 miles to meet the master, with whom he studied for a few months.

Music Director Ruben Valenzuela confessed to the audience that he was having second thoughts about performing the concert. He was partially right. Patrons nearly filled All Souls Episcopal Church in Point Loma, and the Collegium fulfilled its mission with a program in a serene venue tailor made to lift weary San Diegans. Yet, as I walked out to my car with my throat and eyes burning, I decided that the performance was just a notch less than the group’s usual near-perfection. Voices seemed strained, and the musicians seemed distracted.

  • In early November, La Jolla Symphony and Chorus opened its 53rd season in one of San Diego’s worst venues, UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium. Bleak, dark, bare, Mandeville swallows music, performers and audiences.

Nothing could beat down the La Jolla band, however. The event was singular for several reasons: Steve Schick’s debut as the orchestra’s music director, the North American premiere of a new cello concerto from Philip Glass, and the presence of the composer at a pre-concert talk and at the performance. The first half also included another contemporary composition by John Luther Adams. In the second half the program went mainstream with Beethoven’s Fourth, which, stuck as it is between the Third (“Eroica”) and Fifth, seems to get short shrift in concert halls.

This concert also came together like magic, sending the audience out into a cool evening with spirits soaring. Glass, one of our brainiest composers, did a funny pre-concert shtick. With a range of music from film scores like “Koyaanisquatsi,” “The Hours,” and “The Truman Show,” operas like “Einstein on the Beach” and “Appomattox,” much chamber music, and commercials, Glass has attracted fans across age and taste lines; 800 of them filled Mandeville.

Although Glass’s music is described as minimalist, the cello concerto is romantic and lush with a unifying overarching theme and a waltz alternating with asymmetrical rhythms in the finale. Adams’ “The Light that Fills the World” was inspired by an Inuit song; he lives in Alaska. This ode to the color white unfolds slowly and requires extra attention from the listener. The new works illuminated the Beethoven Fourth’s brilliance and originality.

  • The Russians arrived in mid-November, when the La Jolla Music Society’s snagged the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, for its Celebrity Orchestra Series (where do they get these names?). Symphonic music is not at the top of my list of favorite genres, but the St. Pete is worth a trip to acoustically challenged Copley Hall. Venue also could not defeat the St. Pete, one of the world’s great orchestras. Baton-less conductor Yuri Temirkanov and pianist Nelson Freire delivered muscular interpretations of Schubert’s “Rosamunde,” Schumann’s piano concerto and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet the St. Pete makes them new with a rich sound that seems to rumble out of the earth.

I had another complaint, besides Copley. I had noticed in reviews of the orchestra’s U. S. tour in the New York Times that we would not get much adventure from this band — not even some Shostakovich. This has happened before with La Jolla’s celebrity orchestras. Last year, I skipped the mighty Philadelphia when it brought a program of war horses; I had recently heard them do a more daring Messaien work at Carnegie Hall. Less retro, more revolution please!

  • A day later, we got more Russians from Art of Élan, a new chamber group. The San Diego Symphony’s principal flute Demarre McGill and violinist Kate Hatmaker have started …lan to present new and familiar music in a contemporary context. That generally means close fidelity to the composer’s intention; for …lan, it translates into high energy, exciting and short concerts with no intermissions.

The players were mostly principals from the symphony who performed in quartets and duos. While principals might take a solo in a symphony, in a chamber music setting, they carry the entire piece, and that boosts their risk.

They delivered the goods for nearly 100 patrons at the San Diego Museum of Art.

This was more my style. The all-Russian program was named “Red Blossom,” and …lan served up modern but highly accessible works from Prokofiev and Stravinsky first and ended with the romantic Borodin.

A tall, barrel-ceiling gallery filled with stunning paintings that goosed us visually was transformed into a “live” stereophonic concert venue. This presented a problem for soloist Susan Dixon, in a set of Stravinsky songs. She has a strong voice, but she needed to moderate the volume in that venue; the singing became shouting.

The centerpiece was Borodin’s string quartet, which inspired the musical “Kismet.” (In 1954, Borodin received a Tony for “Kismet,” 73 years after its composition.) A chemist by profession, Borodin considered himself a music dabbler, and he wrote this luscious gift for his wife during a lazy summer vacation.

The artists threw themselves into the program with passion and skill. …lan’s original debut had been postponed because of the fires, and they were clearly wired. So was the audience, which welcomed the group to the San Diego music scene. After the concert, the museum stayed open for a while so we could stroll through galleries.

In the interests of full disclosure: I joined the musicians and tech team at Prado for a glass of wine. I had learned about the concert from Hatmaker, who recently moved in next door and occasionally fills our street with practice sessions.

  • A few days after Élan, the final concert experience started with fine Italian wines. ArtPower, UCSD’s performing arts series, prefaced a concert with tasting and schmoozing at La Jolla’s Venice Ristorante. The Quartetto di Venezia, four string players dropped in from La Serenissima on a U.S. tour. The group first played together in high school and got serious about becoming a quartet nearly 25 years ago.

The Venetians played to a nearly full house in the Neurosciences Institute’s auditorium, an austere house, with superb acoustics. It seats about 350, and during a pre-concert conversation, the audience was close enough to gasp when violinist Andrea Vio showed off the priceless 1740 violin he plays on loan from a Milan foundation. Some in the audience applauded after every movement, the typical practice many years ago. It usually doesn’t bother me, but this time the noise was sometimes unwelcome.

The program started with two 18th century standards by Cherubini and Boccherini, then Verdi’s quartet. It closed with a piece by the Sicilian composer and performance artist Giovanni Sollima from 2000. Full of Arabic tonalities, it held even older music lovers who avoid modern works.

The highlight for me was Verdi’s quartet, the only one that the great opera maestro wrote and not well known to many Americans. Verdi’s operatic hand shows up in the ravishing second movement — an aria, a love song. I’ve heard several performances over the years; the Venetians elevated this quartet as no one else has.

The Venetians were not only great to listen to but also to watch; their faces and glances revealed their delight. The audience brought back them back for curtain scalls and encores. Thanks to ArtPower for this San Diego debut; bring these guys back!

As this survey shows, San Diego is blessed. Even with “complaints,” concertgoers can find power, skills and daring in concert experiences with both visiting and resident ensembles. You just have to show up.

A Side Note
Missing from this survey is the Athenaeum, a tiny venue, like a club or someone’s living room, where I’ve never heard a bad performance. Coming up on Sunday, Dec. 2, for instance, will be the Daedalus Quartet with pianist Awadagin Pratt, who wowed audiences last year in a solo recital. They’ll do quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich and a Brahms piano quintet. Also, many groups, including the San Diego Symphony, Camerata, the Early Music Society, etc., will have holiday programming.

Real Quiet will be back to perform in next season’s La Jolla Summerfest. You might be able to catch Felix Fan before that, because he spends time in San Diego.

The Bach Collegium will join the San Diego Chamber Orchestra for Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 14-16, in various venues. Last year, the orchestra’s “Messiah” sold out.

La Jolla Symphony Orchestra will perform Berlioz’s “L’Enfance du Christ” on Dec. 8-9.

The next celebrity orchestra from La Jolla Music Society will be with Czech Philharmonic on Feb. 24, although plenty of chamber music and jazz are also on hand before that.

Élan plays next at the San Diego Museum of Art on Feb. 26, with an all-French program.

Art Power’s next chamber music will be Cuarteto Casals from Madrid on Feb. 22, at Mandeville. Hold on tight for the final concert in the series from the St. Lawrence Quartet on Apr. 25.

Cathy Robbins is a San Diego writer.

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