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Music review: Jacaranda and America at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica

October 25, 2010 |  2:36 pm

Jacaranda, the Santa Monica new music series, began its season over the weekend with “strong sincere voices nurtured while America was inventing itself afresh,” as wrote artistic director Patrick Scott in his detailed program notes. Such invention has, it appears, become harder in our choleric country with its widening rift between left and right, rich and poor, greed and giving, science and religion.  

Music can be just as divisive. But Americans may, at least, still agree upon a common heritage of old hymns, popular songs and spirituals. American composers –- populist or classical, conventional or avant-garde -– have long used these natural musical resources the way inventive chefs deconstruct local ingredients to come up with new tastes based on the old.

Charles Ives showed the way, and Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, Jacaranda turned to this first great American original in 12 short numbers, written between 1897 and 1934. Songs, solo piano pieces and strange ensemble works were given illuminating performances by soprano Elissa Johnston, pianist Scott Dunn and a chamber orchestra conducted by Jacaranda music director Mark Alan Hilt.

Ives loved the past yet fought for a better future. The composer was by day an idealistic businessman who helped create the insurance industry. At night, Ives wrote music that honored nostalgia and chaos. He retained a place for innocence and one for progress.

Elissa Dunn began the program with a hilarious solo piano march based on Handel’s “See the Conquering Hero Comes” in which high-toned Baroque music, vaudeville and the modern sounds of an approaching new century commingle. The score is still, 113 years after it was written, unpublished.

The set included Ives the serious (the song “Like a Sick Eagle” with its uneasy microtones); Ives the riotous (“Impression of ‘St Gaudens’ Boston Common," a piano predecessor of the first of “Three Places in New England” and also unpublished); Ives the radical (the fabulously clangorous “From the Steeples to the Mountains”); Ives the wistful (“Serenity”); Ives the outspoken (“Gyp the Blood or Hearst? Which Is Worst?”). And my favorite Ives: the mystical. A goose-bump-raising performance of “The Unanswered Question” featured ethereal strings in the lobby behind closed glass doors, a hidden solo trumpet and chattering woodwinds on stage.

After intermission, pianist Mikhail Korzhev brilliantly turned to Ernst Krenek’s startling, little-known “George Washington Variations,” written in 1950 by the Austrian composer who emigrated to Southern California. Krenek took an 18th century military march through a set of variations that get increasingly complex, in a way that anticipates the pieces of such contemporary American left-wing modernists as Frederic Rzewski and Christian Wolff.

The Denali Quartet then offered the world premiere of Ben Johnston’s “Revised Standards.” Johnston, who is 84 and a master of microtones, began his string quartet in the '80s but put it aside until recently. The first movement is based on Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and Richard Rodgers’ “Little Girl Blue.” The middle movement is a set for Billie Holiday. The final movement concentrates on Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You.”

Familiar strains come in and out of focus as if filtered through a pleasant dream. Strange harmonies in the second violin and viola alluringly distort the image of old songs. In the Billie Holiday movement, blues tones and microtones are shown to be the same, magical thing.

The evening ended with nostalgia not -- as in Ives, Krenek or Johnston -- tempered. Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” for soprano and ensemble, is loved by some. But James Agee’s self-involved text and Barber’s sentimental score (written in 1946 as America emerged from war) was never helpful for reinvention. There are no evolving old songs here, just old music. Elissa Johnston’s performance was committed, but it was the rest of a long, meaningful concert that mattered.

-- Mark Swed       

Photos: Jacaranda music director Mark Alan Hilt conducting Sunday at First Pres Santa Monica; Soprano Elissa Johnston with pianist Scott Dunn. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.