MAW – Festival Artists Series
David Bazemore

The Music Academy season was in top gear during the second to last week in July, with outstanding offerings in a broad range of classical music genres. I heard two great concerts of contemporary music early in the week, and then returned on Saturday, July 25, to the Lobero for a night that paired Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 with excerpts from an early 18th century opera, Rinaldo, by Handel.

What follows is a relatively in-depth account of the early week doings, followed by a necessarily short but heartfelt expression of appreciation for maestro Nicholas McGegan’s contributions on Saturday.

Back-to-back evenings on Monday and Tuesday featuring the JACK Quartet were outstanding examples of what the Music Academy of the West does to promote contemporary composition. JACK is Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins, John Pickford Richards, viola, and Kevin McFarland, cello. The group’s name is an acronym based on the player’s first names, and the quartet’s collective mission is to perform great new music. On Monday, July 20, they played works by Caroline Shaw, John Zorn, Matthias Pintscher, and Iannis Xenakis that demonstrated both a broad range of styles and a commitment to the elaboration of a specific tradition within the field of late modern music. The next night, composer Thomas Adès joined the group on piano for a performance of his Piano Quintet from 2000.

While the Tuesday, July 21, program included two other delightful pieces — a nonet by Louis Spohr and a duet by James Stephenson — for those who attended both nights, it was a rare opportunity to learn first hand what’s happening in at least one very active stream of contemporary music making. The cornerstone composition of Monday night’s quartet concert was Tetras, a raucous yet disciplined late modern masterpiece by Iannis Xenakis. With its copious use of extended violin techniques and glissando, it’s not for everyone, but for those interested in this strand of the contemporary music scene it’s a foundational piece.

On Tuesday we heard what a composer with reverence for the classical style does with the options opened up by Xenakis as the JACK performed the Piano Quintet of Thomas Adès with the composer. In the world of new music, the big question is always “will you still love me tomorrow?” This work stands an excellent chance of surviving to be played another day

Meanwhile, back at Miraflores, Nick McGegan was preparing another of his delightful explorations of the early 18th century Italian opera, this time as practiced by Handel. A trio of women from the Academy’s vocal program handled the pants role of Rinaldo, while another three performed songs from his both his love interest and his nemesis, a witchy figure that McGegan compared to Joan Collins. These annual visits from the baroque specialist conductor remain highlights of the season, and this evening was no exception. In the relative intimacy of the Lobero, the voices and instruments rang out with clarity and force, sending the audience into the summer night delighted with the unexpectedness of the past.


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