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New music heard in San Diego recently

They’ve been piling up, my reviews at sandiego.com, to be passed on to you here. Lots of good music heard the past three months:

San Diego Symphony plays Remembering Gatsby by John Harbison (1/15/11)

Harbison has an ear for arresting sonorities, an original way of arranging chords so that one hears harmonies in a completely new way (Stravinsky, Copland, and Britten all had this talent as well). It’s tempting to call him a conservative composer, but his music never sounds like it’s rehashing older styles. He has carved out his own original voice within the classical music tradition, one in which melody and harmony still prevail, but those melodies and harmonies are unique to Harbison. There is an admirable balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in his music; musical craft is evident, but it never gets in the way of expression. It’s usually a pleasure to hear his music live, and Remembering Gatsby is no exception to that.

San Diego Symphony premieres new concerto by Michael Torke (11/19/10):

Most concertos are heroic works, a soloist or soloists struggling against the orchestra to prevail. The rhetoric of Cactus is more intimate. Torke employs a chamber orchestra, and his soloists are given lyrical melodies. The harp and violin often initiate a gesture which the orchestra picks up and takes off in its own direction. Arpeggiated chords turn into sonic pyramids in the orchestra, with each note in the violin or harp sustained by a different orchestral instrument. Ostinatos churn along, but never really continue for that long. There is an element of Sibelius here, where the music is continuously evolving, perhaps a trace of Debussy in the unusual diversions taken from the emotional milieus which had been developed, only to be left behind for something else.

California Quartet and Timothy Durkovic play Bolcom’s Piano Quintet (12/4/10):

William Bolcom has written that his Piano Quintet is based on 19th century models like Schumann and Brahms. You might not guess that listening to Bolcom’s Quintet. Bolcom is probably best known for bringing ragtime and popular music styles into the concert hall, with unabashedly hummable melodies. However, Bolcom’s Quintet is in his thornier idiom—it’s unlikely many audience members will leave the concert whistling any tunes from it….Although Bolcom’s harmonies are rather chromatic, there’s always a sense of tonality lurking beneath the dissonances. Melodically, the motives which are imitated and repeated could be plainly harmonized, but the way Bolcom combines them and chromatically shifts them up or down makes the whole sonority seem more dissonant than the individual lines really are.

Coming soon: Reviews of a David Bruce world premiere and an impressive show by the Wet Ink Ensemble