Jacaranda series in a bracing Golden State of mind

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, a jacaranda was planted near the ocean and, more to the point, near the increasingly chain-store-ordinary Third Street Mall. It has bloomed, and Santa Monica is a better place.

Not a tree, it is actually Jacaranda, the concert series at First Presbyterian Church, which began its second season Saturday night with a terrific program celebrating the West Coast spirit and American spunk.

The series features bright young talent alongside some of the better-established local performers and seems to take its inspiration from the original Evenings on the Roof in Silver Lake in the 1940s. Like that pioneering series, which evolved into the new-music-exclusive Monday Evening Concerts, Jacaranda celebrates the new but also looks back. Mozart, Dvorak and Debussy are due later in the season.


The starting point for Saturday’s program was John Cage, whose first public performance was at the Santa Monica Women’s Club in 1932. The program opened with his “Living Room Music,” written for one of the early Evenings on the Roof programs, percussion music meant to be played on the furniture of the Silver Lake bungalow where the concerts were held.

Other Californians were also represented Saturday: Lou Harrison, with his Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra, and Terry Riley, with “Cantos Desiertos” for violin and guitar. Charles Ives, who was a large influence on Harrison and often played in Silver Lake, was the other main composer.

The performances were, for the most, joyful -- a lackadaisical and jokey version of “Living Room Music,” given by the Jacaranda Percussion Pack, being the only letdown. Most important, there were young string players to discover.

Sarah Thornblade, a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, took a rapturously winning approach to Riley’s exquisite tunes (Miroslav Tadic was the understated, eloquent guitarist). Joined by a commanding young cellist, Timothy Loo, and a strong pianist, Scott Dunn, she also contributed to a fervent performance of Ives’ Trio.

The other violinist to remember, Joel Pargman, a student at USC, played Harrison’s concerto with a firm authority perfectly suited to music that comes and goes from Asian destinations. Here the Jacaranda percussionists were exhilarating when conducted by Donald Crockett.

Elsewhere, Dunn turned to Cage’s silent piece, “4’33”,” focusing listeners on distant street sounds, and he contributed a luminous reading of the “Alcotts” movement from Ives’ “Concord” Sonata. Tapping on the piano percussively, Matt Hilt accompanied mezzo-soprano Christina Sjoblom as she intoned a James Joyce text in Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.”


There wasn’t much need in this packed concert for an outsider: Chris de Blasio’s saccharine “God Is Our Righteousness” for guitar (Tadic) and organ (Hilt). But Californians are friendly and open, and the music proved pretty and inoffensive. When a concert is this inspiring, why not bring out the welcome mat?