Adventures in Tonality

La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Music Director Steven Schick is renowned as a champion of new music and contemporary composers, and the Symphony’s February 2020 concert program features two such contributions.

Works by Los Angeles-based composer Michael Pisaro have been performed frequently in the U.S. and Europe, and are particular favorites of music festivals. Pisaro’s Umbra & Penumbra is a concerto (of sorts) for amplified percussion and orchestra featuring virtuoso percussionist Greg Stuart. Stuart’s sounds as soloist function as the foundation of the piece rather than as an ornament “hung” on the orchestra, which is often the case with conventional concertos. Here the role of the ensemble in each short section is to draw out, and expand upon, the colors each sound casts. These evolving tonalities form a three-way conversation between soloist, orchestra, and listener.

Emerging Iranian-born composer Anahita Abbasi, recipient of a Steven and Brenda Schick Commission, premieres an adventurous work entitled why the trees were murmuring that expresses the perspectives of a diverse community through the interplay of multiple soloists and the orchestra. Abbasi is known for her experiments in the electro-acoustical space. The instrumentation and staging for this piece is itself unusual, consisting of four percussion ensembles (two on stage, two in the venue’s technical booth), four trombonists (one improvising soloist on stage, two next to the audience, one in the booth), and the orchestra. The various solo ensembles and performers form a sort of “round robin” as sounds and textures are passed among them. As with Pisaro’s piece, why the trees… plays with conventional forms, sometimes subverting them and sometimes expanding upon them in novel ways. Improvisation also plays an important role in both works.

The two contemporary selections are bookended by treasures from Johannes Brahms. The program opener, Academic Festival Overture, was written to celebrate Brahms’ receipt of an honorary degree, and he described it offhandedly as “a potpourri of student songs.” However you characterize it, what emerges from Brahms’ unusual treatment of sonata form is one of those rarities in symphonic music: a fun piece, full of sly jokes and antic humor, that invites the listener to laugh along with the composer. The piece closing the concert, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, needs little if any introduction to classical music fans. A perennial audience favorite, the Third is the subtlest and most concise of Brahms’ four symphonies. Each movement demonstrates Brahms’ mastery of the orchestral palette as he ranges in tone from boisterous to ominous to introspective, ending on a note of dignified restraint.

Watch Abbasi • Pisaro • Brahms – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.