Music review: Carlsbad Music Festival

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Saturday at noon, in the courtyard fountain of Village Faire, a quaint shopping center in Carlsbad Village, four musicians began tapping out a pulse on a variety of wood and metal percussion instruments. They were soon to be joined by pairs of violins, cellos and double basses, along with a mandolin, an accordion and a tuba with a skull and crossbones decorating its bell, all contributing lapping and overlapping patterns. It was the start of a 65-minute performance of Terry Riley’s Minimalist classic “In C.”

Diners seated at outdoor cafes looked up from their brunch and smiled. Kids in Japanese robes fresh from karate class checked out the scene and showed off their kicks. Children frolicked on the grass. A golden retriever’s tail wagged in merry synchrony to the score. A statue of the Buddha in front of the World Bazaar, which is next to the Renaissance Institute of Music, was not out of place. Neither was the sound of an Amtrak train, whistling almost in C, as it passed the station around the corner.

The musicians, some as distinguished as members of the Calder Quartet, violated the sign posted next to them forbidding sitting or playing on the fountain. The performance was part of the Carlsbad Music Festival, the little new music festival that could.

Last weekend this unlikely seaside town 35 miles north of San Diego with its antique shops, surfers and, a bit inland, Legoland once more brought encouraging news about very recent music, much of it from Brooklyn, N.Y., or at least representing the Brooklyn state of mind. Brooklyn is where the festival’s founder and director, Matt McBane, a young composer from Carlsbad who studied at USC, now, like many of the perkiest composers of his generation, lives. The borough has become synonymous with a total breakdown between genres, a place where post-Minimalist instrumental music and indie rock, folk, progressive jazz and whatnot intermix in ever-evolving ways, some trivial, some not. This year’s festival — the eighth — began Friday evening with a “Music Walk,” free concerts at the train station, a coffee house and all around town. The schedule included Saturday and Sunday concerts in the quaint (much of the village is quaint) Carlsbad Village Theatre, concluding with the Calder Quartet, the festival’s founding ensemble-in-residence, performing the premiere of a work by Jacob Cooper, the winner of the festival’s annual competition for composers under 35.


I caught the Saturday portion, which ran from noon to nearly 11 p.m. and, following “In C,” included a recital by an exciting young pianist Vicky Chow and two radically different aspects of the remarkable vocalist Shara Worden.

Chow, a Canadian who joined the Bang on a Can All Stars two years ago, is poised to become one of the new stars of new music. She has an exhilarating sense of rhythm; the more metrically difficult a piece becomes, the more brilliantly she gets in the groove.

But she is also a pianist with a delicate sense of color. In John Adams’ “China Gates,” for instance, she tinted the repeated figures with exquisite refinement. In David Lang’s “wed,” she made delicate intersecting lines glow like ancient music for a brave new world.

Of the more recent pieces on her program, the most exceptional was an etude by Ryan Francis, whose piano works she has just recorded. She made the extraordinary rhythmic changes of Francis’ “Digital Sustain” sound like a Baroque sonata put through a rhythm time machine gone wrenchingly awry.

Video: Vicky Chow performs

At 5:30 Worden appeared in a formal black evening gown, backed by a chamber ensemble, to sing Sarah Kirkland Snider’s hour-long song cycle, “Penelope.” Recently recorded by New Amsterdam Records, a quintessential Brooklyn label of which Snider is a co-founder (although she lives in Princeton, N.J.), ‘Penelope’ is the setting of 14 texts by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, evoking Homer in the instance of a returning war veteran. Snider’s sweetly somber and often haunting music lifts the lyrics out of their pretensions.

Worden returned later in the evening at 9, dressed in a silly girlish costume, this time as My Brightest Diamond, her indie band, to sing her own songs. Her backup chamber ensemble, not unlike the one for “Penelope,” included acoustical instruments, electric guitar and drum set. Members of the Calder joined in, as had other Calders for “Penelope.”

Trained in opera, Worden has what may be the finest voice in the pop/folk world. Her songs are offbeat. The little-girl act works to a certain degree, especially when she counters it with an affecting combination of wonder and edginess. She can write a memorable line (“There’s a snake in my cellar and he’s drinking my wine”) and set it to a memorable melody.

She relied a lot on her lower range for Snider’s songs but became a wildly soaring soprano in her own work. A song she wrote for her son was as corny as they come, yet she made it not only touching but profound.

The Carlsbad Music Festival gives off a low-key vibe. Audiences are small despite so inviting a locale — how many beach towns have free parking? But this is a new music pipsqueak that is making a significant statement. It reminds me of what the Ojai Festival was before it became famous.


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Calder Quartet, Terry Riley to play Blum & Poe gallery

— Mark Swed