Composers at SDSU music festival ponder COVID-19 and the Ukraine war

Since 2002, the New West Evolving Arts and Music Organization (NWEAMO) has brought composers and performers to San Diego State University for a weekend of contemporary music. In earlier years it was known as the New West Electro-Acoustic Music Organization. I guess it evolved.

On Friday evening, a very small but appreciative audience showed up at Smith Recital Hall after a 2-year hiatus for live concerts.

Past festivals presented a variety of performers, but this program exclusively featured electric guitarist Gene Pritsker from New York, violinist Petro Krysa from Vancouver, and San Diego saxophonist Todd Rewoldt. They were billed as the “CompCord Ensemble,” which Pritsker joked consisted of whomever happened to be needed.

In his spoken introduction, NWEAMO director Joseph Waters touted the festival’s musical diversity, but most of the works heard consisted of good old-fashioned melody and accompaniment. The one exception was SDSU Professor Texu Kim’s “Images” for solo violin.

The two movements heard were quirky aphorisms reminiscent of György Kurtág’s miniatures. Listeners familiar with Kim’s music may have been surprised by the start-and-stop skittering of the second movement.

A theme running through several works was personal reaction to recent world events, none more than in Joseph Waters’ “Anguish — Compassion — Requiem.” A meditation on the war in Ukraine, it began with a slow violin melody in a minor mode. The electric guitar picked up the main line, with supporting harmonies from the saxophone and violin. The dissonance increased as all three instruments climbed to their highest registers. Harmonies did not quite resolve in the slow ending.

“Lament, Prayer and Renewal” by local composer Aaron Alter was his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scored for tenor sax and electric guitar, “Lament, Prayer and Renewal” traverses a lyrical route through loss, reflection and recovery in a style reminiscent of ECM jazz.

Pritsker’s “Pand Q.” is an arrangement of his “Pandemic Quartet” from his most recent album, “Duets for the End of the World.” He converted the bass and dumbek parts into an electronic track with a Middle-Eastern-sounding vocalise and an additional live violin part. Like his other works on the program, “Pand Q.” rode on a strong rhythmic groove.

His “The Will” was inspired by a Ukrainian poem. Violin and alto sax sustained tones over repeated notes in the electric guitar, moving into a minor key waltz that became more grotesque. This was accompanied by a pre-recorded part derived from a video of Ukrainian women singing, found on YouTube by Pritsker. The assimilation of pre-existing material was musically effective, but his failure to properly attribute the song tainted the piece.

The first two movements of Pritsker and Rewoldt’s online collaboration, “Duets for the End of the World,” were heavy on guitar riffs and jazz-inflected saxophone work.

I most enjoyed Pritsker’s “Figar-Oh,” a remix of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” for violin and track. Country fiddling intersected with the overture and “Dove sono,” underlain with an electronic drumbeat and distorted chords.

Palomar College professor Madelyn Byrne’s “Coffee” musically attempted to capture Italian or Viennese blends, but it was French neo-classicism that was the strongest aroma in this light-hearted work.

Rewoldt masterfully soloed in Dan Cooper’s “TBA,” switching from a bouncy repeated-note groove to a more melodic middle section and back again.

His playing here and elsewhere was eminently satisfying, a description equally applied to Pritsker and Krysa.

Editor’s note: The writer, Christian Hertzog, is a founding board member of San Diego New Music, where Madelyn Byrne serves as president.

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