REVIEW: SummerFest concert brings Boonville composers to La Jolla
August 18, 2021
Gabriela Lena Frank Academy of Music alumni shine in Sunday evening’s SummerFest program
For the average fan of contemporary classical music, the Bay Area is as far north as California’s new music scene goes.
However, drive two hours northwest of Berkeley and you’ll come to Boonville, a small town best known for Anderson Valley Brewery and the birthplace of the unusual folk language “Boontling.” It’s the home of the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy of Music, and judging by the composers heard on Sunday evening’s SummerFest program, it’s a terrific musical incubator.
The JAI, a cabaret-like space in the La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, was the venue for two concerts of music by Frank Academy alumni (the second sadly canceled out of concerns for COVID), anchored by Frank’s own works.
We got a taste of Frank’s upcoming San Diego Opera commission, “El último sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The last dream of Frida and Diego”). Guadalupe Paz dramatically rendered an excerpt. Paz, a mezzosoprano with a strong lower register and a commanding stage presence, will create the role of Frida Kahlo. The aria, “El mundo,” described the torment Frida feels in returning to the world of the living on the Day of the Dead. It began with the piano laying down alternating chords built on fifths, sounded in dirge-like regularity. Over this, Frida’s aria slowly climbed, getting higher with each phrase, seemingly spurred on by chittering minor seconds in the right hand, only to strikingly fall on a lustrous low note.
This led into a new section in which Paz swooped and staggered up from a low A to a rich, lush high G. By the aria’s end, these two contrasting ideas transformed into a long phrase in which Frida lamented “I erase my footprints in life with oblivion.” Paz’s riveting demeanor was underscored by Chelsea De Souza’s carefully colored piano playing.
Paz’s artistry enriched the brief song cycle “Shorelines” by Timothy Peterson, who at the age of 27 must be one of the youngest living composers ever featured on a SummerFest program. Surely accompanied by violinist Byungchan Lee, Peterson’s understated language of consonant chords put together in unexpected ways suggested short stories told in a spare style, hiding turbulent emotions beneath.
The other Frank Academy alums contributed string quartets. Anjna Swaminathan’s “Duplicity” was influenced by studies in South Indian Carnatic music. The audience enjoyed this accessible work.
More impressive was Christine Delphine Hedden’s “Cuimhne,” something Sibelius might write if he were Irish. Slowly changing melodies were supported by resonant open strings, and the bowings and fingerings were informed by traditional Irish fiddling, accurately captured by Hedden. Both quartets were competently played by the Balourdet String Quartet.
At the grand old age of 37, Nicolas Lell Benavides seemed the most capable of the Frank Academy graduates. His “El Correcaminos” (“The Roadrunner”) explored his New Mexican heritage. The second movement, excitingly performed by the Calder Quartet, was inspired by the Mexican (and Spanish) settlers. Beginning with slapping the instruments, the accumulating rhythms became a gritty Spanish-tinged dance played on the strings.
A selection from one of Frank’s song cycles was replaced by a video of her “Contested Eden.” Few sights are more disturbing to a Californian than the charred remains of trees from a fire. On such a hillside the dancers of Molly Katzman & Co. were filmed by Swan Dive Media, crushing cold charcoal, holding on to dead black trees, and choreographically mourning the destruction.
Cristian Mǎcelaru conducted the soundtrack, performed by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra. The first section, “Canto para California” (heard Aug. 7 in a string quartet arrangement https://youtu.be/4gQfpIBBcAk?t=921 ) was a contemporary lament, while the second section, “in extremis,” was more alarming and strident. A hopeful note was sounded at the end with a shot of a recovering hillside, tinged by the ambiguity of a subtitle noting that the featured land was never ceded by tribes who predated colonists.
As the largest wildfire in our state’s history continues to rage, “Contested Eden” was a sober contemplation of the severe consequences of human inaction.