LA JOLLA — While most municipalities are finding ways to celebrate American Music Week this week, local observance of the annual nod to the native muse has been muted. Even if the San Diego Symphony were playing in Symphony Hall, Music Director David Atherton had not slated a single American composition until mid-January. The ubiquitous Aaron Copland, of course.
At UC San Diego, however, the SONOR ensemble mounted a salutary tribute to American music in a concert Wednesday evening at Mandeville Auditorium. And a typical UCSD celebration of American music is anything but a Copland retrospective.
Wednesday's program offered recent works by composers associated with the UCSD music department, John Fonville and Paul Koonce, and by composers soon-to-be-in-residence, New York-based Joan Tower and Charles Boone. With the departure of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Bernard Rands and the impending retirement of others, UCSD is doing a bit of composer window shopping.
Under the baton of Thomas Nee, better known as music director of the La Jolla Civic-University Orchestra, SONOR gave authoritative and professional readings of the fare. The quality of the music selected, however, varied greatly.
At the wretched end of the scale, one would have to place Boone's meandering "Khaju Bridge," a droning ensemble piece as dated as bell-bottom trousers and as edifying as a lecture on traffic safety. Fonville's flute duo, "Mong Songs," proved to be a tiresome etude that only a seasoned flute player could warm to. Fortunately, Ann LaBerge's vibrant playing provided welcome diversion from Fonville's chirping score.
Tower's "Petroushskates" easily won the award for the evening's most accessible fare. While Tower's clever reminiscence of several Stravinsky themes--notably from the orchestral ballet "Petroushka"--was more than a transcription, the kudos seemed to belong more to Stravinsky than to Tower. Her five-instrument synthesis boasted a fuzzy, contemporary texture, a happy counterpoint to Stravinsky's bristling themes, which the arch neo-Classicist religiously cast in pristine, crystalline textures.
Two works worthy of a second hearing were Max Lifchitz's "Night Voices No. 6," a vaguely neo-Classical, chamber-sized bassoon concerto, and Koonce's "Diapason" for 14 instruments plus piano. The craftsmanship and invention of these works put them in a special category, as did the lyrical, emotive bassoon playing of David Savage.
If these are not the palmiest days of SONOR, when the group's founder, Bernard Rands, and colleague Roger Reynolds regularly supplied the ensemble with potent new works, the situation is looking up. Next quarter's SONOR project will involve the ensemble in a weeklong homage to UCSD composer Robert Erickson. With San Francisco's celebrated Kronos Quartet and a host of local performers, SONOR will turn the first week of March into a sonic exhibition of the West Coast's seminal, senior composer.