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A Year of Cautious Music in San Diego : Programming: Both the symphony and opera stuck cautiously to tried and true works. More of the same is likely in future.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The past year of classical music here was, in a word, timorous. Though the major musical institutions served up respectable performances in respectable proportion, the year’s programming was characterized by modest innovations calculated to coddle audiences. The word “challenge” has simply disappeared from local parlance.

San Diego Opera’s April production of Carlisle Floyd’s “The Passion of Jonathan Wade” best exemplified this cautious mind-set, even though across the country, interest in contemporary opera has never been greater. Even the reactionary Metropolitan Opera produced John Corigliano’s “The Ghost of Versailles,” its first premiere in almost a quarter of a century.

And the Met wasn’t alone.

New York City Opera presented Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s controversial “Die Soldaten.” Chicago’s Lyric Opera staged the first major revival of Samuel Barber’s sumptuous Shakespearean pageant “Antony and Cleopatra.” And San Francisco Opera presented in the same season Prokofiev’s epic “War and Peace” and the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s political allegory “Das Verratene Meer.”

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San Diego Opera, meanwhile, not a company to stick its neck out, climbed on Houston Grand Opera’s bandwagon to stage Floyd’s traditionally crafted opera.

Houston had commissioned Floyd in 1986 to revise his 1962 grand opera, a conventional love story set in the South immediately after the Civil War. After working the bugs out in the Houston and Miami “Wade” productions, the composer came to San Diego to direct his magnum opus. “Wade” turned out to be heavy on pageant and spectacle, but light on musical content.

It pleased local audiences, and San Diego Opera general director Ian Campbell will probably bring it back before the decade is out. Joining the “Wade” bandwagon probably assured the San Diego Opera scenic studio of landing the contract to build the set that was shared by the four opera companies in the “Wade” consortium. But it was no gamble to stage “Wade,” and the musical rewards were appropriately modest.

Just down the street, the San Diego Symphony (after its acute financial traumas of the 1980s) has wisely sworn off gambling. But its programming over the last year has been cautious to a fault, rarely venturing outside the standard repertory.

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Music director Yoav Talmi’s season-opening concert in October included a peace offering to contemporary music, Jean Berger’s “Sinfonia di San Petronio.” It noodled innocently.

Other forays into “uncharted” waters never pressed beyond middle Copland, his Third Symphony under Lucas Foss in November, and a program of vintage Bernstein under Robert Shaw in March.

The symphony’s one venture off the beaten track, a November concert that included rock star David Byrne’s innocuous cantata “The Forest,” was as courageous as selling hot dogs at a baseball game.

At UC San Diego, where the music department is constitutionally devoted to contemporary music, conservatism has set in like middle-age spread. The university’s crack contemporary music ensemble SONOR used to turn out premieres as efficiently as McDonald’s serves up burgers. In March, SONOR dug up Ives and Schoenberg, and its offerings of more recent provenance, which were played in November, verged on easy listening, according to my colleague Frankie Wright.

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A notable exception to this trend on the La Jolla campus was a production of Virgil Thomson’s opera “The Mother of Us All,” undertaken by the La Jolla Civic-University Orchestra and Chorus and its music director Thomas Nee.

Thomson’s 1947 pageant on the political career of Susan B. Anthony, his last collaboration with Gertrude Stein, is lauded in all the history books, but no one ever stages it. Nee and his cohorts stepped in where experienced opera companies fear to tread and produced a warm, spirited facsimile of this undeservedly orphaned opera.

The premiere of a John Cage opus at UCSD in May was upstaged by the arresting and equally musical sculpture of Mineko Grimmer, with which it was paired in an unusual duet.

Though being upstaged by the graceful sculpture, which produced random tones when ice melted and tumbled onto strings, is probably a virtue in Cage’s metaphysics, the solo violin piece performed by Janos Negysey sounded like a minimalist’s attempt at shorthand.

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At the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s SummerFest ’91, the Ridge String Quartet brought some lightweight Terry Riley and early Anton Webern to the festival’s otherwise predictably middle of the road program fare.

But the La Jolla society deserves great bouquets of thanks for bringing the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi. Its Civic Theatre concert in October included Pulitzer prize-winning Shulamit Ran’s brilliant Concert Piece, a welcome stimulus and a fresh voice.

Earlier this month, David Chase and his La Jolla Civic-University Chorus dispelled the usual drone of Christmas choral music with the American premiere of Andrezj Panufnik’s “Winter Solstice.”

The late Polish composer found a novel holiday theme, the dispute between early Christians and pagans over the winter solstice feast, and clothed it with equally challenging music.

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Sadly, such challenges were but minor themes in the cautious concerto that was San Diego music 1991.

That caution is sobering because this season’s music was planned two years ago, when the economy was judged to be stronger than it is now. Deep in a recession that shows no sign of ebbing, local musical organizations are likely to retreat to even more inoffensive programming in the upcoming years.

Welcome to the return of the musical Ice Age.


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