Category Archives: Arts and Music

The Intimate and the Cosmic

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus’ December 2019 concert is comprised of three pieces that seem disparate at first glance: the premiere of Celeste Oram’s “a loose affiliation of alleluias,” Robert Schumann’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” and John Adams’ “Harmonium.” As LJS&C’s Music Director and Conductor Steven Schick points out, however different these compositions are stylistically – and they are very much so – they nevertheless share key thematic interests. Chief among these is an examination of how and where mystical introspection intersects with shared public experience.

Nee Commission recipient Celeste Oram’s piece blends the orchestra with improvising violin soloist Keir GoGwilt and three offstage singers dubbed “Teen Angels” in an inventive mélange of Renaissance-derived styles, popular song, postmodern modalities and other sources. “a loose affiliation…” also employs elements of theatre. What emerges is a contemplative work that simultaneously embraces both the intimate and the cosmic.

This examination of the mystical and metaphysical continues (albeit in a different form) in Robert Schumann’s concerto. Schumann’s music often expresses his concern with spirituality and how one reconciles its demands with mundane daily life, something with which the composer himself struggled. His approach to this question became increasingly elliptical as his career progressed; indeed, the “Violin Concerto in D Minor” has been dubbed “enigmatic” and “mysterious.” Seemingly conventional in style, the concerto leads the listener through intricate layers of sound meant to engage the curious mind in spiritual inquiry while appealing to more casual listeners. Virtuoso violinist Keir GoGwilt returns to the stage as the featured soloist.

Upon the 1981 premiere of John Adams’ choral work “Harmonium” one prescient critic noted that “a major new talent has arrived.” Like Oram’s piece this work experiments with form by mixing styles, and like Schumann’s concerto it expresses a concern with spirituality, in this case by setting poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson to music. In each section Adams’ subtle modulations gradually gather energy, resulting in near-celebratory climaxes; in the final movement, based on Dickinson’s sensual “Wild Nights,” following this exultation the music subsides into a long, quiet coda as it fades from our hearing. In its original usage this piece’s title, derived via French from the Latin “harmonia,” simply means “harmony,” and the composer uses constantly shifting tonal patterns to evoke what he called “always moving forward over vast stretches of imaginary terrain.” It’s not too great a leap to dub this a metaphysical journey, or to apply that term to the concert selections as a whole.

Watch — Oram, Schumann, Adams – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Pivotal Events

In the early hours of April 20, 1989, 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili was assaulted and left for dead in Central Park. The ensuing media frenzy instigated a public outcry for swift justice. Within days of the attack five African-American teenagers implicated themselves, after hours of psychological pressure and aggressive interrogation. The teens were tried as adults and convicted despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts connecting them to the victim. The convictions were vacated in 2002 after incarcerated serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. The men subsequently filed civil lawsuits against the City of New York, the police officers, and the prosecutors involved in their case. A settlement was reached in 2014 for $41 million.

The story of the Central Park Five has remained in the public consciousness, in part due to acclaimed documentaries on the subject and recent reminders of Donald Trump’s role in fanning public hysteria, and is an ideal subject for composer Anthony Davis. Davis has created several operas that address social and political issues in both a historical and contemporary context, with particular focus on events and figures in American history involving issues of race and social justice.

Davis’ first opera, “X,” examined the struggle of Malcolm X to redefine his identity in accordance with his spiritual beliefs. Subsequent operas included such diverse topics as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (“Tania”), the 1870s trial of Standing Bear (“Wakonda’s Dream”), a rebellion aboard a slave ship and the trial that followed (“Amistad”), and the story of Adam’s apocryphal first wife as emblematic of the eternal conflict between the sexes (“Lilith”). Given his concern with America’s continuing racial and political struggles, his latest opera, “The Central Park Five,” is of a piece with Davis’ earlier works.

In conversation with UC San Diego Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle, Davis recounts the origins of the opera, the challenges of writing for an ensemble, the use of jazz idioms in his work, his preference for smaller-scale intimate dramas, and the responsibilities an artist undertakes when dealing with historical events. He stresses that there will always be a place for socially-aware works that confront controversies head-on, and in this vein mentions his plan to create an opera focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (depicted in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” series). As Davis noted in an earlier interview, “These pivotal events in our history offer windows into understanding who we are today and how we arrived at our present situation. The slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is not only an important political statement but it is also the central focus of my work as an artist and composer.”

Watch — The Central Park Five with Anthony Davis

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Creative Spirits

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus is known for mixing favorites from the standard repertoire with the new, the unfamiliar, and the undeservedly overlooked. The November 2019 concert, the first of the 2019/2020 season, continues this tradition with works by Giaochino Rossini, Florence Price, and Bela Bartok.

Rossini’s Overture to William Tell (1829) is familiar to audience members of a certain age through its association with The Lone Ranger radio and TV series (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”). Written for Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, the piece is essentially an instrumental suite in four parts. The last of these, marked Allegro vivace, is the most familiar section, and was written seven years earlier as a march for a military band. It’s the only part of the Overture (and its parent opera, rarely performed today) known to many people outside opera circles. Perpetual-motion violins, inspired brass and insistent percussion power this music to a galloping conclusion.

Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 (1932) was the first work by an African-American woman to be performed by a major American symphony orchestra. It was a singular achievement that should have secured Price’s place in modern musical history, yet her work came perilously close to being forgotten altogether. We can thank the 2009 chance discovery in a ramshackle house of several Price scores previously thought lost that led to renewed interest in her work. Among the manuscripts were two violin concertos: Violin Concerto No.2, performed by La Jolla Symphony last season, and the First Violin Concerto, written in 1939 (exactly 70 years before its re-discovery) and presented in this program. This concerto is lyrical and traditional in form, with beautiful writing for both soloist and orchestra. Indeed, Price’s devotion to the traditional idiom may have contributed to her obscurity in an era that scorned such “old-fashioned” music. Hopefully, our contemporary eras renewed appreciation of those traditional forms bodes well for the music of Florence Price to at last find its audience.

The concert concludes with Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943). The words “difficult,” “challenging,” and “uncompromising” are often applied to Bartok’s music, but not so this piece. The Concerto is a perennial favorite with conductors and audiences alike, and it’s easy to see why. The five movements move through a surprisingly broad range of emotions, from brooding to philosophical to playful to a final exultant rush of energy, with humorous moments yes, humor in Bartok – verging on the parodic. Bartok was terminally ill with leukemia during the Concerto’s composition, but he nevertheless referred to it as a “life assertion.” It is indeed that, and the final expression of an indomitable creative spirit.

Watch — Rossini, Price, Bartók – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Giving Back

La Jolla Symphony & Chorus kicks off its 2019/2020 season in traditional fashion with the annual Young People’s Concert. Conductor Steven Schick notes that this free concert is one means for the Symphony to give back to the community, with the added goal of encouraging an interest in music among children (and perhaps their parents, as well).

Steven Schick serves as host and narrator, guiding the audience through excerpts from Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No.1 as well as the complete William Tell Overture by Rossini. Schick places particular emphasis on the orchestra’s organization and how the various sections interact with each other, with each of the musical selections serving as examples – duets in Bartók, the solo violinist in Price, and the four brief but distinctive movements of the Rossini, including the famous finale (aptly described as a “gallop”). Schick also solicits questions from his young audience, the topics ranging from “How many strings does a harp have?” and “What is the loudest instrument?” to “What sparked your [Schick’s] interest in music?” Following this introductory presentation, the three selections are performed in the first regular concert of the season, giving students and parents the opportunity to hear the pieces in their entirety.

In his concert program notes Steven Schick says this about the “uses of music:”

“The usefulness of music gets at its true power: the ability to shape our lives and, in small and large ways, to connect to other people’s lives…Music can be used as a cultural adhesive, binding our experiences one to the other.”

The Young People’s Concert and other classical music performances can be a valuable tool in helping children to begin forming their own tapestries of cultural memories and shared experiences.

Watch — Young People’s Concert 2019 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Celebrating Cultures

In the past forty years several of America’s largest cities have made or renewed a commitment to support public art and performance, whether by creating new spaces or by adapting existing venues. Public art (or civic art) is seen as a vital component for enhancing urban life and contributing to a healthy community by providing residents with a commonality of experience.

This installment of the Helen Edison Lecture series brings together three innovative curators who have created change-making public arts programming in Houston and Los Angeles. Moderator Jonathon Glus, Director of City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, leads the panel in discussing their mission to boost government and audience engagement, as well as some of the practical considerations and implications – financial, logistical, political – of contemporary arts production/presentation in high-volume public spaces.

Marc Pally, Independent Curator based in Los Angeles, discusses the Santa Monica Glow Festival, a dusk-to-dawn arts event on the beachfront which attracted over 150,00 people in 2008, 2010 and 2013. Susanne Theis, Program Director of Houston’s Discovery Green Urban Park, outlines the history and purpose of the 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, which opened in 2008. Karen Farber, Executive Director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, discusses her organization’s interdisciplinary collaboration with the University of Houston in inviting leading artists and creative thinks to the UH campus for workshops, public presentations, exhibitions, and performances.

Though differing in the nature and scope of their activities, the three curators share a common commitment to public art and performance as a unifying force in increasingly diverse communities. They extol the benefits of investment in civic art as including:

• Economic growth and sustainability
• Attachment and cultural identity
• Artists as contributors to society and the local economy
• Social cohesion and cultural understanding

The curators hope their experiences will encourage other towns and cities to explore and celebrate their own local cultures.

Watch — Contemporary Art and Performance in Public Spaces

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