Like Gaul, the main body of the Carlsbad Music Festival on Saturday and Sunday is divided in three parts: a series of essentially free performances in Magee Park, two intimate afternoon performances in the chapel at Saint Michael's by-the-Sea, and main stage evening performances in the Carlsbad Village Theatre. While the evening artists might properly be thought of as "headliners," the chapel programs on offer Saturday were top drawer in their own right.
Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum presented a three part program featuring two very recent works and a modernist classic.
First came Christopher Cerrone's "Memory Palace" for percussion and electronics, a piece whose hand crafted quality derives in part from requiring the performer to construct some of the intruments: wood must be cut to specified lengths, beer and wine bottles must be acquired and tuned to proper pitch by filling with water, and so on. The piece itself is in four distinct segments, each for a different set of percussion equipment and each named for and drawn from the composer's past. The first segment centers on a restrung thrift shop guitar, the second on the hand cut slats of wood, the third on an array of chiming items including tuned metal pipes, the fourth returns to the wooden slat in larger numbers, and the fifth focuses on blowing over the tops of those beer and wine bottles. A loud kickdrum punctuated the transitions. The electronic elements grounded the piece with an array of low harmonic drones, underpinning the melodic elements emerging from the percussive hodge-podge.
Given the roughness of the equipment, it was a charming surprise when the overall effect of "Memory Palace" proved remarkably contemplative and moving. The composer—in southern California preparing for the premiere of his opera Invisible Cities in L.A.'s Union Station in three weeks—was present to share in the deserved applause.
The classic on the program was John Cage's 1948 piano piece, "In a Landscape," transcribed by Rosenbaum for marimba. "In a Landscape" is Cage for people who don't like Cage, a hushed and lush Satie hommage. The spectral tones of the marimba were a natural match for the straight up loveliness of the piece.
Rosenbam concluded with "Khan Variations" by Argentine composer Alejandro Viñao. Viñao was inspired by a recording of the great Pakistani singer of qawalli music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, borrowing the core melody from that performance and running it through an array octave jumping styles and variations. Rosenbaum played it with verve and conviction, and physical stretches worthy of Cirque du Soleil, to a rousing conclusion.
What's Next? Ensemble occupied the chapel in the later afternoon. A Los Angeles based group of performers and composers, What's Next? brought a program that it premiered last month in L.A., themed to the intermingling of "natural" and "unnatural" sounds and featuring works by two of the ensemble members on either side of a forbidding masterwork of Luciano Berio: "Naturale" (1985) for viola, percussion and recording.
The performance of "Naturale" by violist John Stulz drew an unqualified rave from the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed, and it was easy to understand why. "Naturale" is a setting of more than a dozen themes drawn from Sicilian folk music—knotty, idiomatic stuff, sung in native Sicilian dialect and drwing heavily on north African modes. The percussionist enters and retreats seemingly at random, as do prerecorded excerpts of actual Sicilian singers. The violist works away non-stop, called upon to draw most every extended sound his instrument can be made to produce and to shift instantly from lyric to cacophony to growl to sigh. Stulz surmounted the uncountable challenges of the piece in riveting, edge of the seat fashion. He did not make it look easy: one doubts that anyone could.
Before the Berio, What's Next? offered "The Galvanized Natural Electric" by the Ensemble's electric guitarist, Alexander Elliott Miller, for guitar, viola and percussion. The two-part piece was inspired by Miller's experiments with digital treatments of his guitar, progressing from hushed tension to a crunching assertive conclusion. For a closing number, the Ensemble added a keyboard player—and Miller took up the harmonica and kazoo—for percussionist Ben Phelps' "Concerto for Viola, Percussion, and Casio Keyboard". Although there is still a good deal of serious viola work secreted about its person, Phelps' "Concerto" is ultimately an intentional hoot. Over four progressively more lengthy movements, it features a theme that seems a tribute to Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" and a quick detour in to Carmen's "Habanera". It is the most sophisticated cartoon music you ae likely to hear, and a proper delight with which to end.
After an overcast Friday night and Saturday morning, there was nary a cloud on Saturday afternoon. One consequence of the otherwise perfect weather, though, was that the Saint MIchael's Chapel was decidedly close and toasty, and grew more so as the afternoon progressed. All of the performers, and particularly John Stulz, deserve extra commendation for playing with both grace and force under less than optimal conditions.
Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.