San Diego New Music turned to that emblematic chamber music ensemble born in the 18th century, the string quartet, to assemble its season-opening concert Thursday night in the Jacobs Music Room at La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. The Hausmann Quartet is one of a handful of string quartets — all of them American — that move with fluent ease from Classical-period works (Haydn is one of their specialties) to contemporary works by living composers.
San Diego New Music’s 2017-18 season is built around an evocative theme it identifies as “In:Transit.” And it’s not just territory that will be covered, but feelings, dreams, the breakdown of language, the disappearing past — in short, the thing we humans face with dread and excitement: change.
Belgian composer Linde Timmermans’ “Cante de Ida y Vuelta” fragments melodies and rhythms across the oceans between Spain and its colonies, each end of the exchange affecting the other. These “round-trip songs,” permeated with raw dance-like energy, eventually coalesced into an ancient Moorish-sounding melody singing to itself.
Here as everywhere else on the program, the Hausmann players gave an immaculate performance. Since their San Diego debut in 2010 in SummerFest’s Young Artist Fellowship program, they’ve enriched musical life in San Diego and Southern California with increasing artistry. Their outstanding virtue is a rare one: the ability to disappear into and behind whatever they are playing, leaving only the music in view.
This meticulous self-effacement does not preclude virtuoso solo work, as violinists Isaac Allen and Bram Goldstein displayed in four of Bartok’s “Duos for Two Violins.” Cellist Alex Greenbaum — a San Diego New Music program curator last season — made his cello speak missing words in Luciano Berio’s “Les mots sonts allés…,” animating its whispered, somewhat tortured intimacy with a kind of crisp, forthrightness. Violist Angela Choong didn’t get a solo turn, but her vibrant presence was the indispensable inner voice that made phrases into statements.
Juxtaposing Tina Tallon’s “selective defrosting” and Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte” to end the first half was, in a word, brilliant. A master of timbral and instrumental layering to create vivid imagery, Tallon also possesses subtle wit. Her straight-faced empathy for the frozen objects enduring the transit from solid to liquid, from cold to warm, eventually yielded a small elegy for their former icy life before their ultimate sublimation from liquid to gas. Shaw’s “Entr’acte” was everything we mean when we talk of “warm” string playing, as rich and thick as a cup of Barcelona hot chocolate.
Missy Mazzoli’s “Quartet for Queen Mab” took us not into Mercutio’s speech from “Romeo and Juliet” but into the dreams he describes. Brimming with hints, allusions, dreamy repetitions, vanishing just when we thought we knew where we were, every note was played with light-fingered, superlative grace.
Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is almost impossible to describe. It is a kind of musical transubstantiation: everything is the thing that it is (a frightened little boy, a gleaming streamliner hurtling through night, a lost past) and it is other things, other people, other places at the same time. Nearly 30 years old now, its instantaneous grip on our feelings is as strong as ever. It was played with a kind of ecstatic abandon, which is just right.
Music is always “in transit” from one place, one world, one universe to another. San Diego New Music’s “In:Transit” is a kind of boarding pass to that future: Don’t be left behind.