Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008 | Art of Elan will kick off its 2008-09 season at the Museum of Art on Tuesday evening. Haven’t heard of them? This is the group’s second season, and after their debut concert last year, they sold out the rest of their chamber music programs.
As I look at the pile of brochures and web sites for this look-see at the coming season, I realize that in San Diego as elsewhere, so much fine music comes from small ensembles like Art of Elan. It’s fun to see the resident and visiting artists break out to display their virtuosity in smaller groups. Art of Elan’s founders are San Diego Symphony players who came from the Pittsburgh; Kate Hatmaker is a violinist and Demarre McGill the principal flutist. Hai-Ye Ni, playing at the Athenaeum next month, is the principal cellist of the Philadelphia.
Art of Elan has succeeded, especially with its youngish audience, thanks to quality musicianship, programming with a mix of traditional works plus new music, a relaxed and intimate environment (jeans are fine), and a stunning venue — a gallery, with works of art related to the program. Concerts start at 7 p.m., are just about an hour long, with no intermission, so afterwards you can join the musicians at the Prado.
Yes, the audience is small — only 125 seats in the gallery — but that’s the point. Until the 19th century, music was like this, up close and personal. Small ensembles gathered in homes, churches and small theaters. When Schubert couldn’t get his music played in public theaters, his friends put together Schubertiades, evenings of his music in their homes. Today’s equivalents are house and loft concerts and performances outside concert venues, in libraries, community centers and clubs. The world-renowned Emerson Quartet has emerged from Lincoln Center to perform in a New York pub, and Revolution, a café in San Francisco, regularly includes art music in its programming.
Another benefit in those small packages has been — is — innovation. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven loved the smaller ensembles. They sometimes worked out musical issues for their larger works in smaller formats in string quartets and piano works. Today’s avant garde experimenters write mostly for small ensembles.
The larger orchestras continue to pull me, because composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich have written great music for them. Many orchestras have become music museums, however. Yet, just as we go to museums to see older, even “prehistoric” art, we go to symphonies for the same musical experience. I understand that except in a few cases, presenting new music is prohibitively expensive for big orchestras: extra rehearsal time for unfamiliar pieces and even the cost of sheet music add to the normal cost. Still, living orchestras need some new blood.