Modern Music will be a Highlight of this Year’s San Miguel International Festival
By Fredric Dannen
People who call themselves cultured will eagerly take in a Mark Rothko exhibition at an art museum, attend a Samuel Beckett play, or see a movie by Jean-Luc Goddard. Get those same people in a concert hall, however, and they will squirm if there is modern music on the program. A lingering false prejudice among concertgoers supposes that all contemporary music is a mud puddle of ugly dissonance. The San Miguel International Music Festival’s three concerts for this coming week, by the Grammy-winning Parker Quartet, and the superb Onix Ensamble from Mexico City, will include exciting modern music that should convert even the most prejudiced of listeners.
Wed, Aug 12, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
Fri, Aug 14, 7pm
Sat, Aug 15, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
On Friday, August 14, the Parker will perform Helix Spirals, for String Quartet, a brand-new work by celebrated American composer Augusta Read Thomas, with the composer herself in attendance to introduce her music. “Without question,” says music critic Edward Reichel, Thomas is “one of the best and most important composers that this country has today.” She was composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony, and her orchestral works have been performed by some of the world’s leading conductors, among them Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Slatkin, and Mstislav Rostropovich. Audiences respond to what the American Academy of Arts and Letters calls the “beautiful immediacy” of her music.
“I like music to sound good,” Thomas says. Her compositions do not adhere to any school or doctrine, and are impossible to classify, other than, perhaps, with adjectives. (Thomas’s own list: “optimistic, radiant, colorful, vivacious, energized, positive.”) Like all composers, she is the product of her influences—among which she enumerates Ravel, Mahler, improvised jazz, Bach, Berio, and Boulez—but the result is entirely her own. “I write purely from my heart and my ears, willing the listener to come on that adventure with me,” she says.
In 2012, medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin heard Thomas’s Double Helix, a work for two violins. The title was metaphorical—the violins weave around one another like strands of a DNA molecule—but it gave Guillemin an idea. Guillemin’s husband, Matthew Meselson, and his colleague Franklin Stahl, had conducted in 1958 an historic experiment in DNA replication, and Guillemin commissioned Thomas to write a work commemorating their scientific breakthrough. The Parker Quartet, artists in residence at Harvard, was selected to perform the resulting work, a three-movement string quartet called Helix Spirals. The work debuted at Harvard this past April, but has not been publicly performed since. The Parker will play the new quartet at the Angela Peralta Theater on Friday, August 14, with the composer on hand.
The Parker Quartet, which the New York Times has called “something extraordinary,” will present another contemporary work at its second concert the following evening, Eight Colors for String Quartet, by Chinese-born composer Tan Dun, perhaps best known for the Oscar-winning score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In its two concerts, the Parker will also play quartets by Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky.
On Wednesday, August 12, Onix Ensamble, a Mexico City-based quintet—flute, clarinet, cello, violin, and piano—will give a single concert at the Peralta, as part of the San Miguel festival. Founded in 1996 by avant-garde flutist Alejandro Escuer, Onix is dedicated to promoting contemporary music, especially new Latin American music. At Wednesday’s concert, Onix will perform five works, including two written specifically for the ensemble. One of those works, entitled simply Quintet for Onix, is by Michael Nyman, the British composer who wrote the multi-platinum soundtrack to Jane Campion’s The Piano. Onix has toured extensively in Mexico, the United States, South America, and Asia, and has been described by Classical Music Review as “exceptional, hypnotic…with amazing strength and musical expressiveness.”
Tickets for all three concerts are on sale at the Angela Peralta box office, or at the festival office on the second floor of the Bellas Artes. For more information see festivalsanmiguel.com, or call 154 5141.