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Music review: Carlsbad Music Festival 'L.A. Satellite Concert'

September 24, 2009 | 12:20 pm

It may be too soon and too hyperbolic to declare Carlsbad as a new hotbed of contemporary classical music action. But as the sixth annual Carlsbad Music Festival unfolds this weekend featuring new music notables the Calder String Quartet, the California E.A.R. Unit and guitarist-composer-conceptualist Fred Frith, clearly something is abuzz in the seaside town, at least for one weekend each year.

Founded and nimbly run by young composer-violinist Matt McBane, the festival provides a fresh West Coast forum for new music, commissioned, performed and served up with seriousness as well as audience accessibility.


As a more urbanized festival harbinger, Wednesday at Zipper Hall, an “L.A. Satellite Concert” offered a taste of what is to come this weekend. The program of four pieces was evenly divided between ink-still-wet world premieres and past CMF commissions, testimony to the festival’s growing feeling of a continuum.

While the pieces at the Zipper differed, a general aesthetic spirit here accentuated modes of contemporary music relatively free of harsh or dissonant elements, except as points of tension in carefully constructed conceptual schemes. In other words, this was ear-friendly contemporary music, without the intellectual factors often alienating to audiences disinclined toward old school Modernism.         

For starters, Keeril Makan’s “After Forgetting,” played sensitively by the five-piece E.A.R. Unit, relies on fairly simple harmonic and rhythmic materials, in a post-Minimal mode, but the music’s intrigue rests on the work’s structure and assembly. Ideas and themes echo, circle and seek resolution in this music, conspiring toward a suspended emotionality — as seductive as it is slippery. Befitting the underlying theme of memory’s elusiveness, the music evokes the scent — and sense — of a search underway.

Similar structural tensions can be found in Fabian Svensson’s “Singing and Dancing,” a CMF commission from last year, written for the game and mighty Calder. In the first part, tender downward cascading lines are disrupted by jarring insistent tones in a study of tension, in tonality and in design. If this dreamier “singing” section reminds us of Gavin Byars’ introspective music, the jauntier but angular “dancing” section suggests an odd merger of Bartók and Radiohead. The two sections are layered into a brief forced marriage at the end.

After intermission, the E.A.R. Unit returned to offer the premiere of Linda Catlin Smith’s “Wanderer,” marked by a beguilingly muted, mournful loveliness, with no disruptive notions in the mix. The composer creates an aura of detached introspection, between softly stated piano chords and fragments, murmuring percussion (with mallets) and languid melodic lines floated by violin, cello and clarinet.

By comparison with the compositional company of this program, McBane’s own piece “2x4,” a commission from the CMF’s first year, in 2004, came off as a veritable party favor. McBane is among the new crop of young composers connecting the dots between contemporary classical music and rock-geared sounds, as heard in this often riff-fueled piece. It’s a four-movement piece for a doubled-up string quartet (including the composer himself on violin), moving between rocking motions, post-minimal dance steps and a subtler, pizzicato-and-harmonics slow section for balance.

McBane’s music made for a tasty, bright finale in this altogether hearty and heady “Satellite Concert.”

Let the new music festival games continue, down Carlsbad way.

-- Josef Woodard

Sixth Annual Carlsbad Music Festival. Schulman Auditorium at the Dove Library, 1775 Dove Lane. Carlsbad. Friday through Sunday. Most events $15 and $25.

Photo: The California E.A.R Unit. Credit: Carlsbad Music Festival.