Review: WasteLAnd Summer Concert Series Finale

On Saturday evening, August 1, 2015, the final concert of the WasteLAnd summer series was given in Clausen Hall at Los Angeles City College in Hollywood. The music consisted of works for piano and voice, with Stephanie Aston, soprano and Leslie Ann Leytham, mezzo-soprano the featured singers. Richard Valitutto and Brendan Nguyen accompanied.

The first piece on the program was Got Lost (2007/2008) by Helmut Lachenmann and this began with whooshing and breathy sounds from Stephanie Aston while a series of low solitary notes issued from the piano, played by Richard Valitutto. This continued for a some minutes but gradually some humming was heard along with a few musical fragments of tunes. This escalated, and rapid runs on the piano keyboard collided with powerfully sustained pitches by Ms. Aston as the dynamic balance shifted back and forth between them. As the piece continued the voice parts became more musical and the piano took on a split personality with Richard Valitutto skilfully executing a number of extended techniques. The piano strings were variously strummed, plucked and stopped by hand as a note was played and this gave rise to a number of interesting effects in quick succession; it actually seemed as if there were two different instruments accompanying the vocals. Perhaps the most intriguing effect was when the piano was silent but with the sustain pedal held down. Ms. Anston gave out a short fortissimo passage that was caught by the piano strings and heard as a ghostly echo. Lachenmann’s unconventional techniques were on full display in this piece – all the more impressive as none involved electronics or amplification of any kind.

Got Lost is without any sort of beat and the performers were seen to be cuing each other as they worked their way through. Their timing and coordination were admirable given the unorthodox demands of the score. The various clicks and pops of the vocal sounds were like a frustrated foreign language, just on edge of intelligibility. The piano added to the alien, anxious feeling with sharp, stabbing notes and loud crashes at unexpected intervals. Got Lost astonishes the listener with its ever-changing series of complex sounds, textures and dynamics and the performance on this occasion was smoothly and skillfully realized.

5 McCallum Songs (2011) by Nicholas Deyoe followed, again featuring Stephanie Aston and Richard Valitutto. This piece consists of five sections, each a setting of the text from the series Love Poems, by poet Clint McCallum. The opening section begins with deep, solemn chords from the piano and the airy soprano voice above singing “I want you to look at me with throbbing eyes…” This sets the tone – plaintive, yet with a smoldering passion. High soprano notes arced gracefully above the piano accompaniment and with the words “I want to show you the cover, and snatch the book away” Richard Valitutto slammed shut the keyboard cover on the piano to end this section.

The second section seemed yet more sorrowful and the quiet vocals had a feeling of lonely sadness about them that hinted at distress. In section three the singing was stronger and more active with soft piano notes and chords underneath. The text “Your begging eyes free my soul, I’ll never let you go” was especially moving. Section four had a single line that was repeated: “to convince you” and this was beautifully sung by Ms. Aston in a small, soft voice. For the final section the piano was tacet and the emotion from the soprano voice singing “ and as I turned you grabbed me and kissed me” was very moving. 5 McCallum Songs filled the spacious hall with a quiet economy of sound yet completely imparted all of the sentiment embedded in the text.

The final piece in the concert was Canti della tenebra (2011) by Swiss-born composer Beat Furrer and this was the US premiere. The featured singer was Leslie Ann Leytham, mezzo-soprano and the pianist was Brendan Nguyen. Canti della tenebra, a setting of text by Dino Campania, was sung entirely in Italian and proceeded in a series of sections. The first began with a deep rumble in the lower registers of the piano that dominated the soft vocals and this established the feeling of faint tension that suffuses throughout the entire work. The voice line soared briefly above, but the piano became more agitated, with notes running rapidly up and down the keyboard. The voice retreated into low, quiet tones, as if subdued, and this added an understated color to the overall texture. Eventually, the piano dropped back a bit as if to give the vocalist some space for a final declarative statement to conclude the opening section.

There were moments that overcame the early bleakness. In a later section, the singing of Ms. Leytham took the lead with a lovely chromatic melody line with the piano in a supporting role. This produced a more introspective feeling, aided by some masterful singing in the lower registers. Still another section had a more uplifting feel as a line of single piano notes was followed by warm, sustained tones in the voice that made for some lovely harmony. The later sections restated the initial sense of anxiety with waves of active piano notes and a series of strong vocal passages filled with tension. Towards the close an extended piano solo moderated the disquiet and the singing became gentle and reassuring. Some very lovely singing and playing followed as the piano slowly faded away at the finish.

Canti della tenebra contains a wide range of emotions that must flow through the voice and piano. The singing of Leslie Ann Leytham – especially in the lower, darker registers – was admirably suited to this task and the playing of Brendan Nguyen provided the ideal accompaniment.

This final concert of the WasteLAnd summer series proved how powerful and evocative the simple combination of voice, piano and poetic text can be in the right artistic hands.

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