Delirium Musicum
Delirium Musicum

Imbued with an abundance of youthful, virtuosic energy and a willingness to embrace adventurous programing, Delirium Musicum and its gregarious artistic director, violinist Etienne Gara, have become a dynamic force in the Los Angeles musical landscape.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to open a classical concert with a string arrangement of Dick Dale’s 1962 surf’s-up treatment of “Misirlou,” made famous in Pulp Fiction. But that is exactly what Delirium Musicum did Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. It was one of many signals that this group does things differently than most other classical string ensembles.

This is a group that embraces informality and a cordial, almost community-building feel to music-making. Many in the large, enthusiastic audience looked to be Santa Monica residents; it wasn’t your usual downtown crowd, and there were a number of younger folks as well. Key to the spirit of the concert was Gara’s chatty rapport with the audience between pieces. As frontman for the group, he introduced each number with abundant personal charm.

Etienne Gara
Etienne Gara

Another salient point about this concert is that it contrasted many short works instead of concentrating on big multi-movement pieces. Here, the selections averaged five to 10 minutes each, the whole concert was a little over an hour, and the group stood for the entire show. The program, titled “Cabinet of Curiosities,” was like a jukebox, a vast array of material held together by a series of arrangements for strings and electronic keyboard by composer-in-residence Gianluca Bersanetti. They included: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, and the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita in D Minor, combined with the dulcet flow of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and slashing snippets from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho.

The one contemporary composition on the program was “Cactus Yucca Scrub” from Gabriella Smith’s Desert Ecology, which, as part of Treelogy: A Musical Portrait of California’s Redwood, Sequoia, and Joshua Trees (in combination with pieces by Billy Childs and Steven Mackey), was premiered by Delirium Musicum in February at The Soraya in Northridge.

What looked crazy on paper actually worked when interspersed with chatty commentary by Gara. The mood swing from Pulp Fiction to the bone-clattering frenzy of Danse macabre and the foreboding of “Erlkönig” cast, as Gara quipped, “a dark vibe” on the program. Dark, yes, but the synchronous buttery tone that the 12-member ensemble consistently produced made it all feel less like dread and more like Halloween trick-or-treat fun. Even Herrmann’s shower scene from Psycho ended with a jest when the string players simultaneously held up their bows like so many butcher knives before bringing them down for the final stroke.

The one case where Bersanetti’s arrangement seemed to miss the mark was his honey-sweet treatment of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1. Its emphasis on harmonic interplay worked against Satie’s haunting, off-kilter melodic refractions and the need for those moments of silence that allow the music to hang suspended in time.

That said, the same approach worked to great advantage in Bersanetti’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne. It showcased the ensemble’s abundant richness of tone, clear-voiced sectional interplay, and soloistic virtuosity. Nathan Ben-Yehuda provided the necessary resonant underpinning on the electronically synthesized organ.

The inclusion of Smith’s musical evocation of the high desert may not have been a perfect fit, but it did give the ensemble a wonderful opportunity to introduce this immensely evocative piece, with its thorny sense of micro-details and big-sky grandeur, to a new audience.

The concert-ending performance of the Chaconne was met by a rambunctious ovation that all but demanded an encore. More than willing to comply, Gara introduced “Winter” from Delirium Musicum’s recent recording of Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons. He then invited the audience to come and hear the entire work performed on Jan. 21, 2024, when Delirium Musicum will make its debut at Santa Monica’s BroadStage.