Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008 | Art of Elan will kick off its 2008-09 season at the Museum of Art on Tuesday evening. Haven’t heard of them? This is the group’s second season, and after their debut concert last year, they sold out the rest of their chamber music programs.

As I look at the pile of brochures and web sites for this look-see at the coming season, I realize that in San Diego as elsewhere, so much fine music comes from small ensembles like Art of Elan. It’s fun to see the resident and visiting artists break out to display their virtuosity in smaller groups. Art of Elan’s founders are San Diego Symphony players who came from the Pittsburgh; Kate Hatmaker is a violinist and Demarre McGill the principal flutist. Hai-Ye Ni, playing at the Athenaeum next month, is the principal cellist of the Philadelphia.

Art of Elan has succeeded, especially with its youngish audience, thanks to quality musicianship, programming with a mix of traditional works plus new music, a relaxed and intimate environment (jeans are fine), and a stunning venue — a gallery, with works of art related to the program. Concerts start at 7 p.m., are just about an hour long, with no intermission, so afterwards you can join the musicians at the Prado.

Yes, the audience is small — only 125 seats in the gallery — but that’s the point. Until the 19th century, music was like this, up close and personal. Small ensembles gathered in homes, churches and small theaters. When Schubert couldn’t get his music played in public theaters, his friends put together Schubertiades, evenings of his music in their homes. Today’s equivalents are house and loft concerts and performances outside concert venues, in libraries, community centers and clubs. The world-renowned Emerson Quartet has emerged from Lincoln Center to perform in a New York pub, and Revolution, a café in San Francisco, regularly includes art music in its programming.

Another benefit in those small packages has been — is — innovation. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven loved the smaller ensembles. They sometimes worked out musical issues for their larger works in smaller formats in string quartets and piano works. Today’s avant garde experimenters write mostly for small ensembles.

The larger orchestras continue to pull me, because composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich have written great music for them. Many orchestras have become music museums, however. Yet, just as we go to museums to see older, even “prehistoric” art, we go to symphonies for the same musical experience. I understand that except in a few cases, presenting new music is prohibitively expensive for big orchestras: extra rehearsal time for unfamiliar pieces and even the cost of sheet music add to the normal cost. Still, living orchestras need some new blood.

The Small Packages

Smaller concerts range from one to about 20 artists. La Jolla Music Society is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, and the organization is gushing talent. The Guarneri Quartet will open the chamber music series in October, for its farewell tour after nearly 45 years of performing together. In the world of chamber music, the Guarneri is the Yankees and Red Sox put together; I’ve heard and seen them during 30 of those years. The tradition-soaked program is the group’s meat and potatoes, and I will be there, if I can get a ticket.

Kudos to LJMS for two programs celebrating the centennial of the birth of Olivier Messaien. If you caught Christopher Taylor at the first Messaien concert at SummerFest, you’ll understand the bag of adjectives that a New York Times critic used to describe him: “bookish,” “gangly,” “nerdy” and “demonically intense.” He’ll be back in December for a solo performance. (Also in December, the Takacs Quartet and French pianist Helene Grimaud.)

ArtPower! at UCSD features five terrific groups in its “chamber music” series, including the powerhouse Emerson Quartet and the edgy Tin Pan Alley String Quartet. Yet elsewhere in the season brochure for “special events” are red fish blue fish and Laurie Anderson. Some music categories don’t make sense.

The Athenaeum does music the way hard-core music fans want it, as if it were in your living room. One of my favorite clarinetists, Charles Neidich, will appear with cellist Hai-Ye Ni pianist and Lin Hong from Juilliard (October). Then harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the director of the London-based Academy of Ancient Music, will perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations (November). That’s even before the official chamber music series starts with La Catrina String Quartet (November) and pianist Kevin Kenner (December).

Camarada is another small group — four resident artists — that will start its 14th season with a weekend of music from the German and Austrian Romantic tradition (September). They have a nice hook, playing the same program in three different venues, St. Paul’s Cathedral, a private home (a soiree that includes dinner) and the Neurosciences Institute.

Early music has plenty of fans in San Diego who find it transfixing and transforming. I’m one of them. When Monteverdi published his book of madrigals in 1605, old-timers called his music crude and licentious. Well, we’ll see when the Bach Collegium performs in a concert of music from the man who invented opera, as well as other Italian and Spanish masters (October). The Collegium’s artistic advisor is Richard Egarr, yet Ruben Valenzuela is the real force behind such a gift of great music from mostly resident artists.

The San Diego Early Music Society is like a rare wine club. The tasting starts with the U.K.’s Fretwork playing Bach’s keyboard music transcribed for strings (October). Like other composers, Bach made money by rewriting his music for anyone who needed it. Coming from France (November), will be Diabolus in Musica (The Devil in Music), which specializes in French music of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The program is Machaut’s “Mass of Notre Dame.” Pierre Hantai will come from France (November) to perform a harpsichord program that is not set yet.

The Big Guys

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, San Diego Symphony, and La Jolla Music Society marshal about 100 artists for performances. In between big and small is the San Diego Chamber Orchestra with about 30 musicians.

Hands down, La Jolla Symphony and Chorus do the most exciting concerts among these. This fall is no exception, with music from Brahms, but also — to pique our interest in the new and exotic — Takemitsu and Ziporyn. The programming reflects the interests of Steven Schick, who actively works with living composers and brings that energy to this group. LJSC is a mix of professionals, “amateurs” (a much maligned term) and graduate students. They play with joy and enough skill that noted composers like Philip Glass and John Luther Adams have entrusted their new works to Schick and his band.

Next in order of attraction is the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Jung Ho Pak has enough energy for a couple of orchestras. (He shuttles between California and Massachusetts as the music director of the Cape Cod Symphony, the second largest orchestra in the state, after the Boston). Pak’s audience-pleasing programming is heavy on traditional pieces in unusual groupings, and I wish he would push us with some contemporary works. The season starts with a concert devoted to all the Mozarts — Wolfgang, father Leopold and son Francis Xavier (October). Then, borrowing from Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road project has excited concertgoers, Pak and the SDCO will present a similar concept (November). Although Ma’s project combines Asian, Middle Eastern and the European tradition, Pak’s is almost all familiar European: Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky and one newer piece from Tan Dun. What about a work from one of the California experimenters who were heavily influenced by Asian sounds?

The last two big organizations are the San Diego Symphony and the orchestral series of La Jolla Music Society. I wish I could warm up to the Symphony, which marshals fine resident and visiting musicians for concerts that have a some major drawbacks: lackluster programming and the gloom of acoustically-challenged Copley Hall. (The season brochure refers to the “cool confines of Copley;” what’s that about lipstick on a pig?)

The San Diego Symphonyopens (October) with a one-concert gala, featuring the famed Lang Lang performing in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. This is a good example of the symphony as museum. Rach 2 is a popular perennial. Why not the Tan Dun piano concerto he’s playing in Toronto before he comes to San Diego? Lang Lang premiered the work with the New York Phil in April; the audience loved it, and critics gave it mixed reviews. I’d love to hear it.

Opening weekend (October) is more like it, with the brilliant Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performing Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, along with Sheng’s “Shanghai Overture” and calming excerpts from “Swan Lake.” Later in the season, let’s see how SDS does with guest conductor Peter Ondjian, from the Toronto Symphony, for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra plus Saint-Saens’ piano concerto.

Also, the Symphony Exposed series is a good introduction to the major works, with the always Type-A Nuvi Mehta talking about familiar works. Concerts start at 7:30 p.m. and end by 9 p.m., with no intermission, and the narrator is the always Type-A Nuvi Mehta.

In its anniversary celebration, La Jolla Music Society also will present its Celebrity International Orchestra Series (LJMS lays on the naming thick). The Israel Philharmonic is first (November), with a hottie on the podium. Gustavo Dudamel, the best known product of Venezuela’s music education program, will take over the LA Phil next season. This season, the 27-year-old Dudamel is leading the IPO on a U. S. tour marking the 60th anniversary of the formation of the state of Israel. The program is a duplicate of the one the IPO will do at Carnegie Hall six days before San Diego: two works by Leonard Bernstein (celebrating the late maestro’s 90th birthday) and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth.

You’ll find the future of music in our colleges and universities; that includes pop, because the best rockers are trained musicians. Music programming at San Diego’s institutions are underway and packed with performances by resident and visiting artists. Check out the schedules for University of San Diego, University of California San Diego,

Point Loma Nazarene University, and San Diego State University.

I can’t let this commentary go without a word to parents and grandparents. San Diego suffers a surfeit of programming for children, that is, imaginative and small-scale concerts in smaller venues. SDS’ family concerts in Copley are overwhelming for my grandkids (ages 4 and 6). Older kids might do well.

One alternative is Classics 4 Kids, with its own orchestra. Its family concerts are designed for elementary school children. The first is a program about the connection between music and the human body (November); concerts are at the Kroc Center and Balboa Theatre.

Drawing on young musicians from across the county, the San Diego Youth Symphony trains more than 450 players every year. You can hear them either in ensemble or full orchestra performances, and kids can see musician peers. The season starts in November.

Finally, how about Messiah? This is the 250th anniversary of Handel’s birth, and you’ll have a choice of three versions in December. The San Diego Symphony will have the big orchestra, big chorus and big hall for an American dream “Messiah,” for just one performance. La Jolla will do a sing-along on the same date. The less said the better, but sing your heart out. SDCO will team up with Bach Collegium for three performances that are closer to what Handel had in mind. (The first “Messiah” was in a Dublin music hall that held about 700 patrons.) I’ll be there!

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