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Contemporary composers highlight this year’s International Music Festival

By Fredric Dannen

It wasn’t long ago that a composer of so-called “serious” music faced ridicule if the average concertgoer actually enjoyed the composer’s work. New music that employed traditional Western harmony – or worse yet, that could be called melodic – was heresy. Prominent composers such as Morton Feldman and John Cage wrote esoteric works that today rarely appear on concert programs. “Composers half a generation older than me who embraced tonal music,” says the Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis, born in 1953, “were anathema.”

Hatzis is one of six living composers whose music will be included in this year’s San Miguel International Music Festival. His featured work, “Old Photographs,” for piano trio, is – dare one say it? – simply beautiful, an unabashedly romantic piece with touches of Robert Schumann and Argentinean tango. This season, alongside standard repertoire by the likes of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert, concertgoers will have the chance to hear relatively new works by Hatzis, R. Murray Schafer (born 1933), Thomas Adès (born 1971), Don Davis (1957), Gabriela Lena Frank (1972), and Judd Greenstein (1979). All six are known for compositions that are often rooted in Western harmony, sometimes even influenced by popular music. Not one seems to feel any need to apologize.

Hatzis, who immigrated to Canada from his native Greece in 1982, studied composition with Feldman, whom Hatzis still reveres. But the student’s approach to writing music is markedly different from his teacher’s. “Feldman had a kind of monastic purity,” Hatzis recalls, “and kept himself apart from the world. I wanted to get my hands dirty in the world.” A prime example is the composition for which Hatzis is best known, his decidedly worldly Constantinople, a 2004 theater piece for violin, cello, piano, singers, and audiovisual media, described by the Toronto Globe and Mail as “one of the most talked about contemporary classical compositions of the decade.”

“Old Photographs,” the seventh movement of Constantinople, has become a standard concert piece, in particular for the Gryphon Trio, whose cellist, Roman Borys, worked closely with Hatzis on the creation of Constantinople. The Gryphon will give two concerts at the festival, on August 9 and 10, and “Old Photographs” will have its San Miguel premier at the first of those. At the second concert, the Gryphon will perform the Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by the celebrated Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. The Gryphon commissioned the piece, and gave its first performance last year in Toronto, in honor the composer’s 80th birthday.

On the following Friday and Saturday, August 15 and 16, the Calder Quartet will perform works by Thomas Adès and Don Davis, respectively. British-born Adès, the bad boy of contemporary music, came to prominence at age 24 with his chamber opera Powder Her Face, about the sex-addled Duchess of Argyll, with a libretto so explicit that British classical radio considered it unfit for broadcast. His string quartet Arcadiana, which the Calder will perform, composed a year earlier, is a thrilling work, a series of short invocations, with phantasmagoric hints of Elgar and Debussy. Don Davis’s Vexed had its debut at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in a performance by the Calder. It is a musical impression of Messerschmidt’s portrait bust “The Vexed Man,” a work of sculpture that is part of the Getty collection. Davis is most famous for composing the score to the hit movie The Matrix, and its two sequels.

In the festival’s two final concerts, on August 22 and 23, the Claremont Trio will perform works by Gabriela Lena Frank and Judd Greenstein, respectively. Frank was born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of Peruvian descent, and her Four Folk Songs draws its inspiration from the melodic motifs and rhythms of her mother’s homeland. Judd Greenstein’s A Serious Man, which opens the final concert, is also a deeply personal work, a musical homage to his late uncle, a hardworking “company man” who lived in suburban Detroit. “He was a warm, generous, funny person, but he also had this deep, serious side,” Greenstein recalls. “My piece is a reflection of that interplay.”

General seating tickets to the eight concerts go on sale July 1 at the Teatro Angela Peralta, but subscriptions, and the more elite patron packages, may be purchased now at the festival office on the second floor of Bellas Artes, Hernandez Macias 75, 10am to 4pm, (415) 154-8722, or via email, Patrons get reserved seating at all eight concerts, invitation to four post-concert parties, and entrée to master classes. Patron packages start at US$500, and qualify for a charitable tax receipt. For music programs and group information, please visit


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