Review: Concert performances bring emotion, spirit

The 2011 season of Festival Mozaic will be remembered for, among many other qualities, its extraordinarily effective blending of traditional and new music. The last three concerts, all at Cuesta College’s sweet-sounding Performing Arts Center, demonstrated newer ideas in composition that complemented older traditions.

Friday night’s chamber music concert contrasted well-known works by Debussy and Brahms with the world premiere of Patrick Zimmerli’s Quintet for Piano, Strings and Percussion. Zimmerli’s arrangements of popular tunes had dominated Wednesday’s fringe event, so the expectations were high for this debut.

Contrary to these expectations, however, the evening’s most dramatically stimulating performance was a white-hot reading of the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet. Scott Yoo played like a gypsy demon and John Novacek summoned colors from the Steinway that gave the piece a deep Romanic vitality.

The audience gave the Brahms piece a much bigger ovation than it did Zimmerli’s, possibly because we were all hearing it for the first time. Its seven parts are each named after a “positive” emotion (openness, elegance, empathy, etc.), and the instrumentation is the same as the Brahms, plus a percussionist.

For this first-time listener, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi offered the most interesting coloristic statements, especially in part six, “Exuberance,” when he played a lengthy jazz-inspired solo that was written out but which felt improvised.

Saturday’s chamber concert offered another world premiere, John Novacek’s cello sonata called “Sounding Piece.” As with Zimmerli’s quintet, Novacek’s last movement is unusually quiet, as though both composers mistrusted the easy thrill of ending with a bang.

Novacek’s 35-minute piece with a hectic, assertive cluster of jazzy elements played with brio by the composer and cellist Michelle Djokic. The stinging dissonances were refreshing after Zimmerli’s sweetness, and the hymn-like final movement left in its wake a shared silence as beautiful as any music.

That same concert featured a sprightly, clever piece of musical theatre, Michael Daugherty’s “Dead Elvis,” for seven-piece ensemble. The players wore costumes — bassoonist Tariq Masri dressed as a Vegas-period King — and entered nicely into the spoof-spirit of the piece.

But “Dead Elvis” did not entirely work for me. The brass parts suggested Dixieland revival more than rootsy rock, and the quotation from “It’s Now Or Never” felt forced. The staging was a bigger problem. Elvis Presley’s ongoing appeal, for those born yesterday, lies in his erotic charisma, and I feel sorry for anyone, male or female, who tries to project that charisma while violinist Caroline Campbell is on the same stage. Campbell’s total magnetism as a performer is simply astonishing. She is a William Blake angel with elements of Aphrodite and Apollo.

Just as she dominated the “Dead Elvis” piece by (mostly) sitting in a chair and radiating, she claimed the final concert with her compelling performance of John Corigliani’s “Red Violin” concerto. She strode onto the stage barefoot in a long, fiery-red empire-waist dress that set off her blonde hair and made her seem 7 feet tall.

Thanks to Scott Yoo and new directors Diana Moroski and Bettina Swigger, we can look back at the most brilliant Festival Mozaic yet.

James Cushing is a Cal Poly lecturer and writer who reviews the San Luis Obispo Symphony for The Tribune.