Category Archives: Concerts and Performances

In Search of Unique Sounds

“For myself, tone color, texture and ‘unique sounds’ (growls, double buzzes etc.) …can be every bit as musical as harmonic expression can be, and ultimately I hope to meld [them] together hand and hand.” – Stephanie Richards

Trumpeter Stephanie Richards has performed and/or recorded with such luminaries as Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, and the Pixies. With her acclaimed debut solo album in 2018 Fullmoon, Richards announced her intention to expand the boundaries of contemporary jazz, and demonstrated the skills to do so. For her 2019 release Take the Neon Lights, New York City-inspired poems from cultural icons including Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg provide the backdrop for a sonic portrait of NYC that is equal parts dazzle and grit, like the fabled city itself.

Richards is a UC San Diego Music Department faculty member and co-director with trumpeter Dave Douglas of New York’s Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), and has inaugurated a West Coast version of FONT in collaboration with Fresh Sound, UC San Diego Extension, the San Diego Symphony, and others. In the FONT West concert, also entitled Take the Neon Lights, she performs at San Diego’s intimate White Box space with some heavyweight collaborators: bassist Mark Dresser, keyboardist Joshua White, bass clarinetist Brian Walsh, and drummer Andrew Munsey.

Richards’ interest in “tone color, texture and ‘unique sounds'” is on full display as the music ebbs and surges; at times lyrical, almost plaintive, while at others times it growls and roars. Underpinning these shifting sonorities is a sense of restless exploration; each band member probes the boundaries of conventional structure and their defined roles in a jazz ensemble while maintaining a three-way dialogue with fellow musicians and the listener. This is adventurous, challenging music that resists easy categorization, but the audience’s engagement is amply rewarded.

Take the Neon Lights marks Stephanie Richards as a talent to be reckoned with.

Watch Stephanie Richards: New Trumpet Music

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Past, Present and Future

For the La Jolla Symphony’s 2018/19 season, Music Director Steven Schick chose the title and theme of “Lineage.” Among other things this word suggests a continuum, an unbroken linkage between past, present and future, and this concept is central to both the season and the “Deep Roots” concert.

The past is invoked by Anton Bruckner’s much-revised Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. In his day Bruckner was known for his devotion to Richard Wagner, yet there is no discernible Wagnerian influence in this music. Rather, Brucker drew on other sources for inspiration – classical form, sacred music (Bruckner was a devout Catholic), and the folk tunes of his Austrian youth – and synthesized them into a style further influenced by Bruckner’s experience as a pipe organist and characterized by long melody lines and large-scale thematic shifts. Above all, the Symphony reflects Bruckner’s love of brass instruments. Though despised by contemporary critics, his work was admired by other composers, notably Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler, and has enjoyed a popular resurgence since the 1950s.

For the present the La Jolla Symphony turns to contemporary American composer Philip Glass. Glass created the scores for each of the experimental documentaries comprising Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy, and the final film score, Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for “life at war”) provided the basis for his Cello Concerto No. 2. Glass dropped sections of the score and re-worked others to accommodate a more prominent (and difficult) role for solo cello. The music has all the hallmarks of Glass’s mature style, including insistent rhythms, rapid changes in meter, crystalline textures, and constantly-shifting tonal colors. Contrasted with the often-turbulent proceedings are reflective passages for the cello, either solo or with minimal accompaniment. Though derived from a film score this piece doesn’t attempt to tell a story; rather, it should be considered a purely musical experience.

Fittingly, the future is given voice here by the work of a young, up-and-coming composer, in this case Community Acoustics by LJ White. As White explains,

The phrase “community acoustics” is a name used by some scientists for the phenomenon of acoustic niche separation, in which sounds within an ecosystem organize themselves into distinct frequency layers and interlocking patterns, allowing for communication within species and overall ecosystem function.

In Community Acoustics White challenges the rigid structures of symphonic music and the customary classical concert format, providing an environment in which the music evolves along more egalitarian lines than is the norm. The players have greater control over their role in creating the sonic environment, and the audience are also encouraged to contribute at the end of the piece. “Community Acoustics” points out one possible path towards an active and immersive listening experience.

Watch Deep Roots – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Dreams That You Dare to Dream

The annual Lytle Scholarship Concerts were inaugurated in 1996 to benefit the Preuss School at UC San Diego, a public college prep charter school for grades 6 through 12. The concerts are specific to a composer (e.g., Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt) or to a musical concept or genre (e.g., gospel tunes, tangos, ragtime, Latin jazz). This format has led to some unusual performances, including one in which five jazz pianists performed on five grand pianos arranged in a circle.

The 23rd Lytle concert, “Jewish Music: From Bessarabia to Broadway” carries on the series’ thematic custom by focusing on the evolution of Judaic musical traditions from roots in Russia and Eastern Europe to such early 20th Century practitioners of popular song as George & Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The creativity of Jewish emigres flourished predominantly in New York City, particularly in the Bowery, Lower East Side, and Harlem.

American musical theater – indeed, American popular culture as a whole – was transformed by the efforts of Jewish composers, songwriters, and performers. Themes of suffering and hope, and the tensions between the two, combined with a yearning for social justice to fashion a portrait of a people striving to endure and assimilate in their new home. Perhaps no other song of the era encapsulates these aspirations as poignantly as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, written by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg:

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true…

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can’t I?

The programming of the concert reflects the diversity of the Jewish repertoire, from cantorial songs of worship to jazz to classical forms to popular songs of stage and screen. While many of the works performed arose from, or evoke, a specific time or place, their cumulative effect is universal; a celebration of a rich religious and social heritage, and a reminder of just how much immigrants have contributed to our American identity.

Watch Jewish Music – From Bessarabia to Broadway – Lytle Memorial Concert

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Memories, Found and Lost

In his Conductor’s Note for La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’s Celebrating Tradition concert, Music Director Steven Schick observes that “memory flows down two related streams,” the personal and the communal. In this concert’s program communal memory is strongly evoked by Handel’s Messiah, Part 1, drawing as it does upon a story heard around the world for over two millennia. Since its Dublin premiere in 1742 Messiah has become such an integral and cherished part of Christmas tradition that virtually everyone who hears it anew may reflexively summon recollections of prior performances; those recollections are in turn echoes of past cultures that experienced Handel’s music.

Qingqing Wang’s new piece, Between Clouds and Streams (a world premiere), explores the sources and formation of memories in its evocation of the natural world set against the most modern of musical techniques. At times Wang’s observations are arranged as in a musical garden, serene and contemplative, while at other points in the composition she conveys the sense of memory struggling to the surface, as half-remembered and sometimes fragmentary images intrude on the composer’s (and listener’s) thoughts. The overall effect is one of connections drawn and new pathways forged from the old.

Memory can also be a fragile, capricious thing, as evidenced by the inexplicable and undeserved obscurity of Florence Price. Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, performed in 1932 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Chicago World’s Fair, was the first work by an African-American woman to be performed by a major American orchestra. The Chicago Symphony continued to champion Price’s music through the Forties and Fifties, and singer Marian Anderson recorded several of her songs. All together Price composed over 300 works in a variety of forms and was performed widely in America and Europe, yet shortly after her death in 1953 her work fell into obscurity, possibly as a result of changing musical tastes that were not hospitable towards her conservative style. It was only by accident that her vibrant Violin Concerto No. 2 was discovered in an abandoned house, and the La Jolla Symphony’s performance of this nearly-forgotten work serves as an excellent introduction to a remarkable and unjustly neglected composer.

Watch Celebrating Tradition – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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The Persistence of Memory

For La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’ 2018-2019 season, Music Director Steven Schick has chosen an encompassing theme entitled “Lineage: A Memory Project.” As Schick explains,

A critical component to living an ethical life is how we remember, how we create lineage. It answers important questions: Who are we? To what echoes of our history do we resonate and how do we memorialize them? And, most importantly, what do we need to do today so that, in the future, we will be remembered by someone who will recognize herself in her memories of us; who will examine her lineage through our lives and be grateful?

This concept guided Schick when programming the season’s concerts, as he sought to highlight linkages between seemingly disparate composers and styles. The inaugural concert, also titled “Lineage,” is a case in point, as it unites three composers widely separated by era, location, upbringing, native culture, and modality.

The first offering, “Lineage,” is by young Canadian composer Zosha di Castri. According to di Castri the piece was inspired by the memories her Italian immigrant grandparents shared with her as a little girl in Alberta, against which she contrasts the noises and rhythms of her contemporary life. Di Castri invites the listener to dive under the work’s modernist surface to discover the echoes of a vanished era; some effort is required to sift through the shifting textures and impermanent rhythms to reach memory’s deep core, but the rewards are great.

Like di Castri’s composition, Tan Dun’s innovative “Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra” evokes the past, in this case the composer’s childhood in rural China. Tan Dun considers the sound of water to be universal and fundamental, even primal, to the human experience; after all, the aqueous environment of the womb is the first sound we hear, and a connection to the Earth’s oceans and waterways is hardwired into mankind’s DNA. Accompanying the sounds of water, as played by three featured percussionists, are the metallic sounds of spiritual rituals and the suggestion of chants conveyed by voice-like effects in the orchestra. All combine to portray a culture that is at once ancient and contemporary, but always rooted in immutable truths.

Composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Igor Stravinsky’s beloved “Petrushka” draws upon memories of Stravinsky’s youth, in particular the Shrovetide Fairs popular in rural Russia and the Ukraine. The music tells the story of three puppets whose tangled love affairs and jealousies result in tragedy. Mixed with this narrative are the sounds of festival barkers and fair-goers and traces of Russian folk melodies, all melded together in a style that pointed the way for composers who followed.

Taken together, these three pieces make a strong case that music in all its forms is a most effective means for recognizing and celebrating our diverse lineages.

Watch Lineage – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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