Composer Steven Stucky is no stranger to Los Angeles, where he has been involved with the Philharmonic in planning and creative capacities since the ‘80s. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Phil-premiered Second Concerto for Orchestra. But a different side of Stucky was in the spotlight Sunday afternoon in Thousand Oaks, where his chamber music was performed in California Lutheran University’s fifth annual New Music Concert.
In this brief but substantial mini-survey of Stucky’s music for piano (with the ever-impressive Gloria Cheng), choir, clarinet and chamber ensemble, his aesthetic voice emerged with all its plurality, humor and tough grace. He’s clearly a contemporary composer liberated from any agenda, who balances complexity and immediacy.
During a pre-concert Q&A; with CLU choral director Wyant Morton, Stucky said, “On my mental iPod, I always have Stravinsky and Ravel.” Those influences, among others, were detectable over the next hour of music, especially in “Meditations and Dances,” in which piano and clarinet (Daniel Geeting) share dancing phrases and a conversational through line.
Cheng’s solo pieces were at times sublime, at others sublimely playful: The cerebrally dazzling “Album Leaves” joins ephemeral miniatures that include introspective clusters and antic keyboard cascades. “Three Little Variations for David” (that being conductor David Zinman) is similarly varied, but this time on the cheeky theme of “Happy Birthday.”
Stucky’s “Partita-Pastorale After J.S.B.,” commissioned in 2000 for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, is strangely lovely and a tad surreal. Strands of Bach appear fleetingly and fuzzily, like a familiar landscape viewed through a stained-glass window.
CLU’s choir, led by Morton, admirably rose to the challenge of “Cradle Songs,” an impressionistic mosaic of folk lullabies in Portuguese, Polish (with soprano Raina Witt shining softly up front) and Tobagoan English. Stucky savors texture and feats of harmonic weaving more than traditional choral values, but to expressive ends.
Closing with the biggest of the afternoon’s small works, Stucky conducted an ensemble in “Ad Parnassum,” after a painting by the music-inspired Paul Klee. With its elements of color and rhythm, pointillist accents and sonic washes, a painterly sensibility prevailed in music alternately visceral and abstract and with a shifting sense of figure and ground, melody and structure.