Jacaranda Stitches Musical Patchwork On Expat Theme

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Jacaranda's Soviet Satellite concert, conceptual art (Jacaranda.org)

The Jacaranda program was a patchwork of expat chamber works by Prokofiev, Pärt, Schnittke and Gubaidulina.
(Collage by Tomato UK for Jacaranda)

By Richard S. Ginell

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The Jacaranda concert series once had a slogan, “music at the edge” – which was, and is, literally true since its home base, the First Presbyterian Church, is located one block from the palisades overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In other words, the edge of the North American continent.

(Wikipedia)

Gubaidulina’s Quartet No. 4 syncs with pre-recorded strings.

What this means in musical terms is that Jacaranda’s artistic and executive director Patrick Scott and music director Mark Alan Hilt have been patching together bold programs of new and obscure material since the series was founded in 2003, often organized around themes. Their latest brainstorm on April 25 was called “Satellite States,” a tour of chamber works by Soviet composers who all were expatriates at one time or another. One composer, Sergei Prokofiev, left Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution but returned home during the Stalin era and lived to regret it, while Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, and Sofia Gubaidulina got out and stayed out.

Exactly what “Satellite States” had to do with the music was not clearly explained in Scott’s voluminous, fascinating program notes; if you take the phrase literally, only one of the composers, the Estonian Pärt, actually came from a Soviet satellite state. What this inventive, intricately-laced program did have was an absorbing unity in mood — high seriousness marked by some glumness, stretches of meditation (all but Prokofiev are mystics to some degree), and often a willingness to experiment.

The program had an overture in Schnittke’s funeral-march-like threnody for his early hero, Prelude: In Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich. Here, violinists Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan faithfully followed the composer’s spatial instructions — Park playing from the stage, Vijayan stationed directly behind the church’s central aisle in the lobby.

Schnittke (Wikipedia)

Schnittke’s Septet: jangling harpsichord, exuberant dissonances.

Later on, there was another Schnittke piece, a Septet that was first played at a very different sort of occasion, to say the least — the funeral in 1982 of Leonid Brezhnev, of all people. For the Soviets, it was reportedly a last-minute decision and a strange one, for Schnittke was in the midst of his then-discouraged polystylistic experiments, using his favorite jangling harpsichord, minimalist patterns, exuberant dissonances, melancholy clarinet over string clusters, and subdued organ underpinning. The final movement is a funeral march in its own way, but one senses no real grief, just a quizzical expression on the rebellious composer’s face. Here, organist Hilt took the liberty of revising a reportedly-unplayable 14-bar stretch of the score so that some organ notes were transposed or given to the harpsichord, creating new colors in a piece full of unusual shadings.

Hilt took to the church’s pipe organ alone for two short, readily-assimilated Pärt meditations — first the solemn yet attractive Pari Intervallo, and a more outgoing but no less dignified minimalist piece Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler — emphasizing wind-like stops.

The Lyris Quartet played Prokofiev

Rough-and-ready Lyris Quartet dug into Prokofiev, Gubaidulina.

The Lyris Quartet, which includes Park and Vijayan and adds Luke Maurer on viola and Timothy Loo on cello, dug into Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 with a rough-and-ready vigor that came through sharply even in the  church’s reverberant acoustic. This quartet, written while Prokofiev lived abroad, contains a first-rate assortment of the composer’s motor rhythms, wit, and lyricism, and it should be played as often as many of the Shostakovich quartets. I think the reason it isn’t is because of its structure — two fast movements followed by a long slow one that comes to an inconclusive close.  Not good box office, as they say.

Finally, for the most experimental section of the survey, the Lyris tackled two Gubaidulina string quartets — the very short No. 2, based on a series of drones with microtones in play, and No. 4, which takes off in a wilder direction. For the latter, the quartet strapped on headphones in order to sync with two pre-recorded string quartets playing droplets of notes in which the strings are struck by toy Superballs. (Gubaidulina, incidentally, calls the added quartets “satellites.”)

Color field artist

Andrew Burke made color projections for Gubaidulina à la Scriabin.

On top of that, Gubaidulina intentionally or not reached back to fellow Russian Alexander Scriabin for the idea of projecting solid colors with the music, as re-created here by digital artist Andrew Burke with one screen for the live quartet and two more for the pre-recorded ones. The projections on the panels behind the Lyris did not always seem to match the corresponding quartets, and the overall effect was rather restrained. The piece’s main impact came overwhelmingly from the music, particularly when the Lyris sounded as powerful as a string orchestra, gathering neurotic energy in a nightmarish flood.

The takeaway from all this is that good and great art can transcend politics in the long run. Yet the irony is, while Russia continues to be under the boot of a strongman, as has been its historical inclination, the music heard on this program remains little-known, heard only when a few brave outfits like Jacaranda step up to the plate.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Date posted: April 29, 2015