Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Rountree’

The LA Phil’s Noon To Midnight was a triumph

Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.

First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.

Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.

gnarwhallaby in BP Hall

gnarwhallaby in BP Hall. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging,

Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.

But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.

Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.

WasteLAnd performance in BP Hall.

WasteLAnd performance in BP Hall. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging.

Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.

Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.

Matt Cook (LAPQ) performing Jeffrey Holmes' Ur

Matt Cook (LAPQ) performing Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging.

Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.

Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.

Nimbus

Nimbus. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging.

This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.

The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.

A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.

Interview: Conductor Chris Rountree on wild Up

Forgive me for hyperbolizing here, but it seems like you can’t throw a stone at a new music event in LA without hitting Chris Rountree. With his extremely busy conducting and teaching schedule, it’s amazing that he has time for anyone else’s shows at all, yet he seems to be there to support his fellow musicians every chance he gets.


Chris is busy indeed. He’s the artistic director/founder/conductor/manager/etc. of wild Up  (who we have mentioned on here quite a bit before, with good reason), assistant conducting in Brooklyn, artistically advising the American Youth Symphony, teaching conducting at UCSB and elsewhere, releasing a record…the list goes on. With wild Up’s show at The Armory coming up this weekend, I’m lucky he found time to answer a few questions.

Right off the bat, you’ve got a show coming up this weekend, and it’s all about birds. Tell me something about that.

Birds! Yes. We’re crazy about them. (and so many composers have been!)

Ha, so they have. Your programming this season is diverse, but every show seems to have a thread holding everything together. How do you go about programming?

We’re interested in exploring ideas and exploring them from a variety of angles. Our main concern is how the audience will feel in the concert — how comfortable or uncomfortable they’ll be and how each piece creates context for the next.

So this time we started with Olivier Messiaen’s piano concerto: Oiseaux exotiques and went — stream of consciousness from there to Charlie Parker, to Haydn, to new complexity composer Brian Ferneyhough to indie rocker Andrew Bird. It’s become a crazy program.

On that front, can you identify anything that makes a piece stand out as being right for wild Up?

There’s some mystery here. I want to be able to feel the music we play in my gut. Visceral is the best description — but that doesn’t altogether do it. Also, it’s how well the piece fits into the program we’re considering — more about the fit actually than anything else.

At wild Up’s last concert I was sitting with Lacey Huszcza, the director of advancement of the LA Chamber Orchestra, when you decided to offer an autographed brick to an audience member whose had an obstructed view. She said something along the lines of “wow, I wish we could do that for our unhappy patrons.” Why do you think your audience is so much more receptive to stuff like that than a traditional classical audience? Do you think it’s about the demographic you’re attracting, or the vibe that you and the band seem to embody?

The Brick! Oh right. So, that was a last minute decision — we saw that three to five seats were very bad at Beyond Baroque. One is shared with a fire-extinguisher, one is a 1.5 person wooden love-seat-pew, one was directly behind a pole, and one was right under a trumpet bell. In honoring the audience we wanted to improve the experience of one or more of the people who happened to end up with those seats. A signed brick (signed bricks and obsolete printer the second night) did the trick.

I hope our audiences have come to expect nothing. Maybe, just to enjoy themselves. So they have to be receptive to things like this — because they didn’t expect tuxedos and coughing. It could be the aesthetic — I’m not sure. As long as it feels like we’re all characters together in some big adventure, I’ll be happy.

We once talked about feeling like we were right on the cusp of becoming professionals. That you, and the members of wild Up, were getting gigs all over town, and beginning to get some notoriety and releasing CDs and even getting paid a bit, but you were still all working extra jobs to make rent. This is a big question, but for you, where’s the line? Are you taking this concert by concert, or working toward a concrete set of goals?

We have goals. To succeed, I believe that’s a necessity. At this point, we’re planning a season at a time and moving toward being presented versus presenting ourselves — which has been wonderful and painful experience — some serious learning has taken place for all of us in the past two years.

You also teach conducting, or at least started to recently. Has teaching influenced your performance practice at all, and your working with your own performers?

I love teaching. In fact, I’ve been doing it for a decade (I’m 28) teaching: high school marching band, youth orchestra, community orchestras, pre-professional orchestras, college orchestras, middle school brass players, private conducting students, partners attempting to cook improperly and most recently students at UCSB.

Through teaching we learn so much — mostly, I’ve found, I learn about psychology — how people learn, how they want to be worked with, what collaboration looks like, what a dictatorship looks like, etc.

I know you guys are working to release a recording of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony on limited-edition vinyl, which totally gets me nostalgic for NoFX’s 7 inch of the month club. Were you consciously drawing on the punk tradition there? Also, will you please play at Origami Vinyl for the release party?

Yeah, we’re working on releasing our album “Shostakovich and Rzewski, The Salt of the Earth” on vinyl and digitally — actually we have a kickstarter going at the moment. People can help us on Kickstarter and we’ll give them nice gifts!

Punk rock of the month club! Not intentionally, but we’re happy to reference that.

The recording was made live at the Jensen Rec. Center Studio, recorded and mixed by Nick Tipp. We didn’t make any edits, there are still errors on the album. But we mixed the tracks to feel like your head is inside a cello.

What’s next for wild Up?

We have shows in March at Beyond Baroque: Craft: DIY Art Music. Brooklyn vs. LA and in May at the Armory again, a program called: The Armory actually, the music is Stravinsky, Palestrina, and Slayer.

And for Chris Rountree?

I’m teaching in Santa Barbara, composing in Highland Park, Assistant Conducting in Brooklyn, Advising American Youth Symphony in LA and…drinking coffee at Intelligentsia.

And since you are a native, I’m sure readers would love to know about your current favorite:

1. Neighborhood

Highland Park

2. Place to hear music

Walt Disney Concert Hall (one of my favorite buildings, period.)

3. Restaurant

Let’s do a whole other interview about this! But for now: Elf in Echo Park

4. Bar/hang out

Verdugo Bar / Intelligentsia in Pasadena (the official band hangout…and SPONSOR!)

5. Store

Apple Store. RIP Steve Jobs

6. Thing to do/see

….the beach.

Anything else you’d like to add?

More to come, hopefully.

Click here to purchase tickets for wild Up’s next concert, this Saturday, January 14 at the Armory Center for the Arts. To donate to their record campagin, visit kickstarter.com.