Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Rountree’

The LA Phil’s Second Noon to Midnight transformed Disney Hall

On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.

In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.

And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.

In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.

Yuval Sharon demolishes the fourth wall with War of the Worlds

Hila Plitmann at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Hila Plitmann at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging
Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

When the LA Phil and The Industry announced that they would be partnering to present a new spin on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds involving the disused air raid sirens left all over Los Angeles since the cold war, my immediate reaction was, “well of course they are.” The original Welles radio dramatization was broadcast as a news report interrupting a concert; with Yuval’s penchant for staging stories with multiple perspectives interacting and occurring at multiple locations simultaneously, directing a drama that was literally intended to be broadcast back and forth between different locations makes almost too much sense. I imagined perhaps even not telling the audience inside of Disney Hall that the concert they were attending would be interrupted by an alien invasion, instead billing it solely as the premiere of Annie Gosfield’s new orchestral suite inspired by Holst’s The Planets.

While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.

Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.

That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.

That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.

The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.

When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,

Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.

Suzanna Guzmán as the shop owner Mrs. Martinez in <em>War of the Worlds</em>

Suzanna Guzmán as the shop owner Mrs. Martinez in War of the Worlds

Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.

Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.

Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.

Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.

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.