Rebecca Jackson’s Festival Features Stunning Poem/String Sextet Premiere
By Richard Lynde
Music in May (MiM), bigger and better than ever in its 10th year, again showcased a roster of world-class musicians selected by local Juilliard-trained Rebecca Jackson, founder and former Miss Santa Cruz County. Jackson’s radiant congeniality has inspired these annual gatherings into what now has become a mini-festival.
This year there were two totally different programs, both at the acoustically superb Samper Recital Hall at Cabrillo College on Saturday evening, May 27 and Sunday afternoon, May 28. The event was preceded by three days of the dozen guest musicians spreading joy through outreach programs at many grade schools and even Juvenile Hall. MiM’s 10th anniversary was dedicated to the memory of Jackson’s friend and mentor, David Arben (1927 – 2017), longtime advisor to the festival.
This reviewer missed the Saturday program, with its haunting Schoenberg “Transfigured Night” sextet, including Santa Cruz Symphony’s music director, Daniel Stewart, on viola. But on Sunday afternoon, Rebecca Jackson explained that our recital would feature a world premiere sextet, “Music for Strings,” composed by T.J. Cole (b 1993), which would follow a recitation of the poem, “This is Not a Love Letter,” by its creator, 19-year-old Nika Narayanan.
Nika is a USC writing student who coincidentally is the granddaughter of David Kaun, UCSC professor emeritus who happens to be co-founder and a huge supporter of MiM. Jackson said she wished these two very different works for strings to be taken as a “Diptych” (Paired artistic creations) by those who also attended the prior evening’s Schoenberg, since each is based on a poem that prompted the reader to create a significant musical response.
In this premiere, we were blessed to hear and see poet Nika reciting her own stunning verses, followed by Cole’s evocative and somber musical take on “This is Not a Love Letter.” Also presented were a set of unfamiliar Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) dance arrangements, and an exuberant piano quintet by Erno Dohnanyi (1877 – 1960) to provide an uplifting finale to this year’s MiM Festival.
The Shostakovich dance arrangements for two violins — a warm Prelude, a sprightly Gavotte, a tiny Elegy, a Slavic/Viennese Waltz, and a rousing wine cask Polka — were all played with superb precision and expression by Jackson and Liang-Ping How on violin with Sayakawa Tanikawa at the Steinway.
Samper Recital Hall with superb acoustics was the perfect venue for Nika, tall and slender in matte black, presented her most carefully constructed free verse, “This is Not a Love Letter.” The verses took us into the chaotic free association of a battered woman trapped in a worsening long-term relationship with an increasingly violent mate. In it were the fantasy of escape via the railroad track overcome by the reality of rum and Xanax, and the conclusion: “this is where I am meant to be.” T.J. Cole’s interpretation was via the sextet of Jackson & Daniel Jordan, violins; Alexandra Leem & Matthew Young, violas; and Daniel Cho & Jonah Kim, cellos.
Her “Music for Strings” opens softly with suggestions of sirens from rescue vehicles coming closer, strident then muted sounds suggesting both violence and fear, dramatic and disturbing music that ends with a bang. Or does it? After a short pause, there is a soft and somber “afterward,” perhaps a requiem for the poem’s “no exit” woman.
Whereas the previous event’s “Transfigured Night” had been a triumphant take on a poem’s powerful message of redemption and hope, this world premiere of Cole’s sextet take on Nika’s poem was strongly and memorably disturbing. This talented young duo should make video and audio recordings to preserve spontaneity and to act as “models” for others wishing to perform these significant works, so greatly appreciated by the audience. n
As a perfect conclusion, we heard Erno Dohnanyi’s (1877 – 1960) splendid, uplifting 1895 “Piano Quintet in C Minor,” the then18-year old’s exuberance in the Schumann-Brahms tradition was a fitting finale to yet another great MiM Festival Season. We can hardly wait for next year.