Concert reviews

wild Up presents Richard Valitutto’s WORK in Pasadena

On April 8, 2017 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music was host to Richard Valitutto along with gnarwhallaby, Arpeture Duo and a subset of wild Up – all in a concert from wild Up’s WORK series, which focuses on single members of the group. Several new pieces and arrangements by Valitutto were heard, as well as reference works by Messiaen, Feldman and Wolfe. Soprano Justine Aronson made a special appearance and the elegant Barrett Hall was filled almost to capacity on a quiet Saturday evening.

Pianist Richard Valitutto

The program opened with Papier Mâché, an original piano work by Valitutto. This began with a slow, mysterious feel and just a hint of tension in the chords that increased as the piece progressed. The density and complexity slowly built up, adding to a sense of uncertainty, just as the dynamic crested and fell back, fading at the finish. Papier Mâché has a sophisticated sheen and a solid, well-crafted construction that made for a fine opening to the concert.

Polichromia, by Zygmunt Krauze, followed, and this was performed by gnarwhallaby, the Los Angeles-based new music group who have made a mission of performing works by Polish avant-garde composers active in the mid-20th century. Polichromia begins with sustained tones in the cello, muted trombone and clarinet while the piano counters with rapid one and two note figures separated by silence. The highly chromatic tones in the instruments make for some intriguing harmonies and the sharper piano licks offered a fine contrast. After a few minutes this sequence finishes and there is an extended silence by all. This process restarts twice more, with the tones in the instruments becoming more active in each new sequence. Polichromia creates an environment filled with many varied tone colors, vividly portrayed by gnarwhallaby.

Next was an arrangement by Valitutto of two piano works: From the Cradle to Abysses by the Romanian-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu and Hungarian Passacaglia by György Ligeti. As Valitutto explained, these pieces felt like piano reductions of some larger instrumental work and the purpose of his arrangement was to fill out the parts that seemed to be embedded in the original scores. Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby was the result, and this was played continuously as a single piece of music. The brass, woodwind and string components present in the gnarwhallaby ensemble was ideal for this sort of exploration.

Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby began with solitary piano notes followed by a sharp sforzando from the trombone and quietly sustained tones in the cello and clarinet. Something like a melody materialized from the piano and cello while the trombone continued to emit loud sforzandos at various intervals. The dynamics of the piano chords increased rapidly and soon joined the trombone in making unsettling statements as the cello and clarinet continued with their smoothly understated response. The contrasts here were very effective – the more so because of the difference in instrumentation.

The program for wild Up and Richard Valitutto’s WORK concert

A soft cello solo appeared and seemed to tiptoe around the dramatic piano crashes. This melody was soon passed around to the clarinet and trombone. The piano calmed down to a series of steady two-note chords as the clarinet took up the melody in a higher register. Eventually all three instruments joined in together and some lovely harmonies emerged. The passages in the instruments gradually increased to a rapid tempo just as the piece concluded.

Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby is an inspired expansion of the works of two 20th century masters, and confirmed Valitutto’s sharp instincts for orchestration. This arrangement creates a seamless connection between the two source pieces and the vivid colors brought out by the expanded instrumentation were matched by the coordination and precision of gnarwhallably’s playing.

Shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders followed. This is a solo piano piece that explores the sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings that occur after a loud chord is played. An acoustic ‘shadow’ is heard, and with the sustain pedal depressed, the soft tones are allowed to ring out and decay in the subsequent silence. Accordingly, Valitutto struck a series of crashes, tone clusters and sharp chords – often with maximum force – so that the resulting acoustic shadow was clearly heard, even up in the top row of Barrett Hall. These effects were amazingly varied – from lightly hovering and insubstantial to menacingly ominous to warm and welcoming. After a few minutes of listening you begin to ignore the initial impulse and focus instead on the quiet shadows that follow. The process is something like hearing a loud crash of thunder and then listening to the rolling echo as it dissipates into the distance.

The playing became more complex, loud crashes alternating with softer ones, multiplying the contrasting character of the various shadows. The interactions between the shadow tones themselves, although very understated, were also intriguing to the ear. Shadow is an instructive piece that points to the importance of listening for nuance, even when confronted by repeated dynamic outbursts. Valitutto’s sense of timing and the application of energy was perfect, allowing this piece to unfold with all of its subtlety intact.

Another solo piano piece was next, The Black Wheatear, by Oliver Messiaen, from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). This began with strong, crashing chords reminiscent of a booming surf; the breeding grounds of the black wheatear include the rocky sea cliffs of the Iberian peninsula. A series of short and rapid runs in the upper registers portray the brief but rich warble of the species. These skittering phrases regularly recur, nicely suggesting the chattering of birds wheeling high above a coastal meadow. The quick and spiky passages were accurately played by Valitutto, fully realizing Messiaen’s unconventional vision.

Voice, Violin and Piano by Morton Feldman followed, and for this Valitutto was joined by Adrianne Pope on violin and – naturally – soprano Justine Aronson. All the familiar Feldman virtues were present – the soft, airy voice of Ms. Aronson hovering lightly over a quiet violin and gentle piano chords. Each sound seemed independent of the others, but the sequences often produced memorable moments despite the spare texture. The intonation, especially in the voice, was impressive as there are almost no landmarks for pitch; even so, there was no hesitation or tentativeness in the many entrances. Voice, Violin and Piano is counted as a miniature in the Feldman canon, but this performance contained everything that makes his music so distinctive.

Valitutto’s Another Spring was next, based on poetry by Denise Leverton and with violist Linnea Powell joining the other players on stage. The opening piano chords of this were bright and sunny while the strings played very high, thin pitches that brought to mind wisps of wind. With the entrance of the soprano voice, Another Spring gained its focus and produced some lovely passages; the strong vocal part giving Ms. Aronson some room to stretch after the restrained Feldman piece. The seemingly disparate piano chords, airy strings and lovely legato vocal parts came together in a fine balance that nicely captured  the optimism of a radiant spring day.

In his final remarks Richard Valitutto explained that the composers of his generation have spent their artistic lives working in the shadow of 9/11, and this burden has only increased since the November election. Accordingly, the last piece selected for this program was Compassion (2001), by Julia Wolfe. This begins softly, with an ominous slow trill that steadily builds tension, followed by a series of strong chords that become progressively more chaotic. The roiling chords roll in like a booming surf, freighted with powerful emotions. The rumbling continues to build in intensity, especially in the lower registers, until there is an explosive silence – and the roar slowly dies away. After a short silence, a new trill is heard, now filled with a quiet sorrow. Compassion is destined to be a landmark of our era and was played to perfection by Valitutto, whose efforts were received with extended applause.

The impeccable playing by all the performers made Work an engaging evening of contemporary music that ranged from  forceful and complex to the soft and subtle. This concert was a good benchmark reading of Valitutto’s varied musical influences as well as pointing to his continued artistic growth.

 

Review: People Inside Electronics @ Boston Court

People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.

Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.

Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.

Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.

The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.

After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.

After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.

Second Take: Bonnie and Clyde

Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.

Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”

The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.

As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.

Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.

The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.

Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.

After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice's <em>Bonnie and Clyde</em>.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice’s Bonnie and Clyde.

This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.

 

Review: Mark Menzies plays Nono, Chao, and Ulman

On February 3, 2017 wasteLAnd presented the second in a series of four concert appearances – titled 4:7 – by master violinist Mark Menzies. A long time presence on the Los Angeles new music scene, Menzies was in town on a visit from his native New Zealand and the four concerts also marked the violinist’s 47th birthday. The spacious downtown Art Share  venue was filled to capacity despite a rainy Friday night on the local freeways. Three solo pieces were heard, by Ching-Wen Chao, wasteLAnd resident composer Erik Ulman and the Italian utopian Luigi Nono.

Elegy in Flight by Ching-Wen Chao was first, inspired by Buddhist sacred texts and the ‘wheel of life,’ as described in the program notes: “This piece starts with a statement of a 59-note set, which is derived from a 59-syllable mantra used in recitation for the dead. The set subsequently expands itself through the multiplication of its own intervals… This expansion/compression process is stated 6 times over the course of the piece with variations of speed and emphasis.” Elegy in Flight opened with a strong, declarative statement followed by a series of softer runs. Menzies is extremely adept at dynamic contrast and this added to the underlying sense of anxiety and building tension in the complex passages. A stretch of soft, sustained tones followed that changed the feeling to one of a quiet remoteness, only to change again with a series of rapid runs full of spikes and squeaks. In all of this Menzies was in full command of the intonation and expressiveness pouring out from his violin. Some lovely playing was heard in the lower registers while several short, stabbing phrases marked the finish. Elegy in Flight is a dynamic, evolving work that makes many demands on the soloist; all artfully met in this performance.

The world premiere of Lake, by Erik Ulman followed, and this solo viola piece was dedicated to Mark Menzies. Soft, sustained tones in a rich viola register filled the space, making for an elegant contrast to the preceding work. Lake has an introspective feel, nicely conveyed by the series of long tones that decrescendo to pianissimo. High-pitched phrases added a rhythmic movement that evokes a more alien feel, but this changed yet again to an active bubbling propelled by the pop of rapid of pizzicato notes. All of this was managed adroitly by Menzies, and as the final notes faded quietly away, sustained applause filled the room. Taking full advantage of the viola’s range and timbral possibilities, Lake is a worthy contribution to the solo repertoire.

After the intermission, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura by Luigi Nono was performed by Mark Menzies along with Scott Worthington at the controls of the electronics. This piece was seemingly inspired by a stray piece of graffiti that Nono happened to see while visiting Toledo: “Traveler, there is no pathway, there is only traveling itself.” Accordingly, several music stands holding copies of the written score were scattered throughout the venue – on stage and in or around the audience – and Menzies traveled, as it were, from stand to stand during the performance. Speakers were also positioned in various places effectively filling the space with the recorded electronic accompaniment.

La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura began with Menzies at a music stand on stage, violin at the ready, while the speakers filled the room with the ambient sounds of what seemed to be string players warming up or tuning. There was a few odd words heard, then some thumps and squeaks before a strong upward glissando unleashed a series of complex runs that established an air of mystery and tension. Menzies then added short bursts of high, anxious notes and rapid passages that increased the ominous feel. The recorded sounds often came from single speakers in opposite corners of the space, and this added spatial perception to the overall experience. More rumbles and rattles came from the speakers as if large cases or cabinets were being moved. Menzies walked slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, settling at another music stand, and began playing a new set of quietly anxious tones along with the electronics.

The piece proceeded in this manner – the sounds from the recording continuing, full of riddles, while the soloist contributed variously fast phrases or slow, sustained tones. There was little form or structure evident – at times the sounds were fast and intense while at other times slower and softly atmospheric. The overall result was a remarkably good blend of electronics and live playing, with excellent fidelity from the speakers that perfectly matched the soloist. The dragging and thumping sounds in the recording were most convincing and the violin playing was controlled and precise throughout. Menzies made his way around to the various music stands at certain defined points in the score, but not in any preset pattern. There was a microphone at the final music stand and the piece concluded with a strong, steady violin pitch that persisted for a moment, then faded away as Menzies slipped offstage. La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is a journey unto itself, full of mystery and uncertainty, yet always inviting the listener to formulate context from multiple combinations of sonic clues.

Review: Hub New Music and Kelsey Broersma at Sound and Fury

Hub New Music, an artist-led chamber group hailing from Boston, made their West Coast premiere on Sunday, January 29 at the Sound and Fury Concert at Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. Comprised of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, the group has commissioned numerous works by established and emerging contemporary composers. In light of all that is happening in our political climate, this concert contained relevant themes of rejuvenation, self-actualization, environmental issues, journey, and sacrifice. This was my first time at a Sound and Fury Concert, but I was inspired by the directors’ enthusiasm about the music that lay ahead.

Kelsey Broersma, alto saxophone

The first half of the concert featured Kelsey Broersma, a dedicated new music saxophonist of the Inland Empire. She began the program with No.e Parker’s work for solo saxophone, Sweeney Summer (2), an audification of temperature data. As both an artist and composer, Parker’s work addresses issues such as environmental sustainability and technology. Sweeney Summer (2) is one of a multitude of Parker’s works that explore data sonification.

Next was Christian Dubeau’s Crystal Lake, an electro-acoustic composition featuring recorded tape of lake waters as a basis for the saxophone solo. As a composer, environmental issues largely inspire Dubeau, and Crystal Lake is no exception. Its musical narrative tells of the only natural lake in the San Gabriel Mountains being gradually polluted and slowly shrinking due to drought. A lullaby of soft, floating tones from the saxophone over concrète water sounds gradually transforms; the water is distorted through process and the musical lines become more agitated. After reaching a climax, we are left with an eerie sound similar to wind, over which the saxophone resumes softly while facing away from the audience.

Patrick Gibson’s Feedback Loop features the composer on electric guitar along with Broersma. Before playing, Gibson explained that he was inspired by the similarity between saxophone multiphonics and guitar feedback. The piece starts with material reminiscent of a waltz before abruptly transforming texture. The middle section is the heart of the piece, for it is here that the two instruments play off each other’s “feedback.” It closes with material akin to the opening.

Over the Board by Christine Lee closed the first half of the program. Along with saxophone, it featured the composer on piano. Christine Lee described the piece as an “imaginary journey” of a boat on the sea. The piece involves an array of extended techniques for saxophone, the most prominent being multiphonics.

Hub New Music

The second half of the program introduced Hub New Music. They began with Judd Greenstein’s at the end of a really great day, a piece in memoriam of Emily – a friend of the composer’s who died in a tragic accident. Greenstein describes Emily as a beautiful, infectious spirit, and the music and performance alike were equally as contagious. As a celebration of her life, the piece is characterized by shimmering textures, piercing melodic lines, and a jovial lightness of being.

Kirsten Volness creates an exquisite sound world in Little Tiny Stone, Full of Blue Fire, inspired by Dorothea Lansky’s poem Beyond the Blue Seas. Just as the fire’s heart swells and subsides, so does the music. Within this outlining structure of ebb and flow are striking textural changes. The piece begins with a quiet whisper from the violin, overlapped by light, stuttering figures from the winds. The texture grows in the warmth and intensity, and then rapidly recedes. Angular textures are contrasted by freely floating lines. After a pause, the piece ends with a gurgle from the winds – one last word from the fire before its death.

Last but certainly not least was Mason BatesThe Life of Birds, a set of six short but dense movements. Together they tell a complete story, some chapters more abstract than others, but all equally vivid in their imagery. Intricate textures, bubbling lines bursting with energy, and lush, folk-inspired harmony are staples throughout the movements. I felt a refreshing sense of pure joy and innocence while listening to this work – a perfect way to end the evening.

If you missed the concert on Sunday, no worries – you can check it out again at Outpost Concert Series (with the added bonus of a piece by LA-based composer Daniel Wohl) on February 1.

Review: Equal Sound presents Battle Trance @ Live Arts LA

I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?

A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.

The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.

Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.

Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.

After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.

Battle Trance performing Blade of Love at Live Arts LA, presented by Equal Sound

Battle Trance performing Blade of Love at Live Arts LA, presented by Equal Sound

Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.

Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.

Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.

Review: Cipher Duo’s West Coast Tour Kickoff

Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.

Sarah Goldfeather, left, and Justine Aronson in performance as Cipher Duo

Sarah Goldfeather, left, and Justine Aronson in performance as Cipher Duo

The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.

The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.

The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.

The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.

Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.

Akhnaten: Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Resurrected at LA Opera

The daughters of Akhnaten. (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

The daughters of Akhnaten. (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Coinciding with a period of cooler, shorter days, and political change (even upheaval), the LA Opera staged a generous month-long run of Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, chronicling the subversive pharaoh who incited a religious revolution in ancient Egypt.

Third in a series of “portrait operas,” (the operatic equivalent of the biopic), Akhnaten, followed in the footsteps of Einstein and Gandhi, though three millennia their senior.

“So far I had covered science and politics. After that I was looking for a figure who influenced the religious side of society,” Glass told LA Opera.

Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach (1976)—a collaboration with director Robert Wilson—was shocking in its originality, great length, and anti-narrative concept, but equally shocking in its success, effectively launching Glass’s career.

An experimental work, LA Opera revived it in 2013 for a terse single weekend run.

Akhnaten, by comparison, markets well: commanding yet vulnerable, approachable yet profound. The work hypnotizes in it visual impact, restrained musicality, spirituality, and the ring of historic authenticity.

Varieties of Minimialist Experience

Glass is counted among the foremost exponents of minimalism in music, and has been for some decades. What is surprising in Akhnaten is that an expansive genre like opera fits so spaciously in minimalist terrain, and integrates minimalist techniques continuously and convincingly.

A scene from "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

A scene from “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Akhnaten exemplifies minimalism in all its many forms—some often overlooked. Beyond the now trademark arpeggios and tremolos pervasive throughout the Glass output, an economy of means—musical, theatrical, and dramaturgical—guides the opera.

Vocal lines are simple and direct, with narrow tessituras, seeming to avoid any superfluous virtuosity. Texts (when comprehensible) are pithy, repetitive, and set syllabically, fostering clarity and understanding.

Scenes are few in number, and drawn out, but imbued only minimally with story-forwarding action. Atmosphere drives Akhnaten above all else. Drama is restricted by the judicious hand of a minimalist composer: Almost an anti-plot, the opera unfolds in a series of immersive vignettes that paint a portrait of the title figure and his legacy.

Arresting Stillness

Perhaps the clearest example of Akhnaten’s minimalism is its relentlessly slow, measured pace of physicality on stage. The cast moves with a ceremonious, unhurried composure, as if the characters of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings had come alive.

That stately concept of movement, traceable perhaps to Glass-collaborator Robert Wilson’s use of slow motion, distinguishes this production—by Phelim McDermott and the English National Operafrom the original, faster version of the Stuttgart State Opera.

At center, Frederick Ballentine as the High Priest of Amon in "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

At center, Frederick Ballentine as the High Priest of Amon in “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

The deliberate pace, which never fails to enchant, induces that present-moment awareness associated with the best of minimalist music. Intermittent juggling episodes course throughout the opera, accenting the palpably inert ambience with gravity-speed bursts of activity.

Adapting Musically

Commissioned by Stuttgart State Opera during a period of renovation, Glass was required to reduce the orchestral forces to accommodate a smaller pit. He adapted by omitting the violin section entirely, setting the highest string writing for the darkly shimmering violas, lending a fitting melancholy character to the orchestral tuttis.

Though stopping short of that classic operatic organizing principle—the leitmotif, recurring motives do provide a thread of comprehension, unifying the lengthy opera through the power of musical memory.

An exposed A natural minor scale, played as a bassoon solo, courses sedately upwards and downwards, sparsely accompanied by thin string writing and gentle woodwind chords, perhaps symbolizing the rise and fall of Akhnaten, his new capital city, and the monotheistic religion he founded centered on the Aten—the disk of the sun.

At the heart of the opera, rounding out Act II, Akhnaten sings a radiant hymn to the sun, in the warmly contrasting key of A major. The one and only aria in English, it is set syllabically to a simple melody of repeated notes and occasional, sparkling leaps.

A Dead Language Comes Alive

Librettist Sholom Goldman calls Akhnaten a form of “vocal archeology,” in the way texts were borrowed from original sources, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, tomb inscriptions, and Akhnaten’s own poetry.

Most of the opera is sung in the Ancient Egyptian language, its resolute cadence imparting a distinguishing power that elevates text itself to a standing beyond the norm for opera. The first stanza of the choral setting which opens the opera immediately calls attention:

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) in the title role of "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) in the title role of “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yewk er heh en heh
Aha en heh

Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shalt exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of years

The sole drawback to the textual treatment might be the use of anachronistic King’s James English translations in the “Hymn to the Sun” and the text of the Scribe (the narrator and tour guide of the whole opera), which in its distanced formality seems at odds with the otherwise contemporary, highly personal character of the opera.

A Transcendent Pharaoh

The strongest connector of audience to opera was Akhnaten himself, portrayed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who at once seemed exempt from the boundaries of mortality and sexuality, yet closely related to his listeners.

Akhnaten first appears descending from an elevated platform in a lengthy procession scene, fully frontally nude. His leisurely, aimless gait, and bare, shaved body and scalp impart a newborn, androgynous, angelic quality to the character that endures continuously.

Costumes by Kevin Pollard also served to reduce clarity of gender: ornate, baroquely bejeweled ceremonial regalia enveloped Akhnaten like a newborn swathed in loincloth. His ceremonial robe was imprinted with a female breast insignia, fostering a dual-gender persona.

Akhnaten’s gender is negated further—and foremost—by the use of the countertenor vocal quality, a form of falsetto vocalizing, although more resonant and capable of vibrato.

“When you write an opera, you have a very limited time to tell a complicated story,” Glass said. “Any shortcut becomes important.”

Akhnaten is silent onstage for 40 minutes, and when he finally does sing, “they are all astonished by the sound that comes out of his mouth. It is a clever way of emphasizing him as different,” elaborated Glass.

Tom Pye’s set design was always visually stunning and often surreal, featuring a brilliant, blinding sun, a moon of shifting hues—by turns white, pink, and blue—and later several giant levitating luminous orbs, all pointing to a dream realm more than any actual past.

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of "Akhnaten." (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of “Akhnaten.” (Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera)

The Welcome Akhnaten 

In the end, what is most striking about Akhnaten is its relevance: That an Egyptian pharaoh separated by three millennia of history could come alive to speak to contemporary audiences so intimately, in a dead language left largely untranslated, in a rare, almost artificial vocal type—that listeners should feel a sense of welcome and belonging—is the genius of this opera and production.

Despite courtyard protests that the original Akhnaten was black but Anthony Roth Costanzo is white, there was a mood of excitement and the sense of something important happening at LA Opera. And while some of the Italian opera regulars were conspicuously absent—replaced by new faces this round—at six performances, Akhnaten is firmly established in the mainstream operatic repertoire.

Glass has made a similar observation: “I always felt there was a public that would like this music, and over time, the audiences, so small in the beginning, have only gotten larger.”

Synchromy + HOCKET present Crusoe at LACC

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy's performance of Rzewski's Crusoe.

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy’s performance of Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.

The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.

Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy's performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy’s performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard.   This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.

The next piece on the program was Marc EvansOne Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).

Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.

Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans' One Wandering Night.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans’ One Wandering Night.

And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.

Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:

H O C K E T = B G C D E F#

Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.

Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.

About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.

The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.

Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.

Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.

In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.

Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…

The second half began with Mayke NasDiGiT #2.  (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.)  For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.

DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:

The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski's Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.

Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski's Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski’s Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)

As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.

The Lyris Quartet at Music and Conversations

On Saturday, November 12, 2016 Music and Conversations presented the Lyris Quartet in a concert of music ranging from Bach and Mozart to Shostakovich, along with new contemporary works by Jane Brockman and Billy Childs. The Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on La Brea was the venue and an overflow crowd filled every available seat for the occasion.

Timothy Loo, cellist for the Lyris Quartet was first, performing the Prelude from Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009 by J.S. Bach. This began with a lovely deep sound in the warm lower registers followed quickly by a series of ascending scales. The detailed ornamentation and the precise articulation was especially easy to follow in the cozy acoustics of the gallery. The tempo was brisk – almost urgent at times – but the optimism and elegance inherent in Suite No. 3 never faltered while under the care of Mr. Loo.

Duo No. 1 in G, K. 423 (version for viola and cello) by Mozart followed. Timothy Loo was joined by Luke Maurer, violist for the Lyris Quartet. By way of introduction, Maurer explained that Michael Haydn had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg in the summer of 1783 to write six duos, but Haydn fell ill and had only finished four. Mozart offered to complete the remaining two for his friend, and Duo No. 1 in G is the first of these. The piece begins with light, active passages in the viola with a nice counterpoint in the cello. The tempo was brisk and the resulting texture light and frothy – textbook Mozart. Maurer and Loo maintained good coordination as the quick melody alternated with more moderate sections, and they never let the pace slacken or drag.

The Adagio movement followed providing a slower, more relaxed contrast to the opening, but even here the delicate proportions and almost weightless feel of the harmonies carries the listener effortlessly along. The intonation was rock solid. The Rondo:Allegro movement finished the piece and returned to the rapid tempo and closely intertwined rhythms. The quick passages in the viola were particularly well played and the intimate acoustics complimented the overall balance. The bright and sunny feel of this movement persisted to the conclusion, prompting the audience to enthusiastically applaud a fine effort.

The Lyris Quartet at Music and Conversations

The Lyris Quartet at Music and Conversations

Unrequited, the new Billy Childs string quartet was next, with violinists Shalini Vijayan and Alyssa Park joining the others on stage. Unrequited is one of four new pieces commissioned by the Lyris Quartet, all written as a commentary or reflection on String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Leoš Janáček.  Janáček was inspired by his long and close friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 38 years younger, with whom over 700 letters were exchanged over a span of 11 years. As Mr. Childs noted in his introductory remarks, this relationship never moved to the next level, and the tragedy of love unfulfilled was uppermost in the mind of the composer while writing this piece. Unrequited begins with long, sustained chords full of wistful sadness. The harmonies are very expressive and the inner details were brought out nicely by the gallery acoustics. This piece was performed at a recent Jacaranda event in a much larger hall and the difference is striking – the interior structure of this piece is well crafted and very beautiful. At times there were faster, more complex sections that suggested a sense of tension or anxiety, but Unrequited always returns to a feeling of achingly mournful disappointment. A final melancholy chord of sad acceptance completes this remarkable work.

beneath the surface of a sea of silence by Jane Brockman followed, based on two lines from the poem Fireflies by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:

“The world is the ever-changing foam
that floats on the surface of a sea of silence.”

This begins with high trills in the violins and an active melody that has a driving, rhythmic feel, although never overpowering. This sense of purposeful intent continues forward, with occasional hints of tension arising in the harmony. A nice series of tutti trills changes the texture to a mystical shimmering before returning to the more deliberate marcato. An elegant violin solo precedes another series of tutti trills. beneath the surface of a sea of silence proceeds in this way, with slower, more dramatic sections alternating with somewhat faster passages that move persistently ahead. All are interspersed with tutti pizzicato or trills that break into the moment and prepare the listener for the next sequence. beneath the surface of a sea of silence contains all of the mystery and restlessness of the sea, artfully capturing the contrasting relationship of contemplation and movement.

The final work of the concert was String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 by Dimitri Shostakovich. Written over just three days in July, 1960 it is dedicated to ‘the victims of fascism and the war’. Alyssa Park explained that rehearsals of this piece took on a cathartic dimension given recent political events here. The opening movement, Largo, begins with a solemn cello line, picked up, in turn, by the viola and violins. Soft, sustained chords add to the gloomy feel and a sad violin solo arose that was expressively played by Ms. Park. The reflective tempo abruptly ended and a series of frenetic passages of the Allegro molto movement ensued, intense and furious – almost like being under attack. The Lyris Quartet played this with resolute precision, and the close spaces of the gallery seemed barely able to contain the dynamic energy. The dance-like rhythms of the Allegretto movement relieved the tension somewhat and these were given just the right amount of airiness and lyricism. The anxiety and darkness reappeared, however, in the 4th movement with smooth, quietly powerful passages interspersed with short, rapid tutti strokes. The final Largo movement continued in this slower, dirge-like manner and the piece ended with a sad cello solo that faded quietly away. String Quartet No. 8 is a compact and impressively intense work, played with great emotion in this performance. The Lyris Quartet received a long standing ovation for their superb effort.

The next Music and Conversations concert is on March 18, 2017.

The Lyris Quartet has just released a new CD titled Intimate Letters, featuring the Billy Childs piece Unrequited.