Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and pianist Nadia Shpachenko performed original works by George Gianopoulos, Yuri Ishchenko, and Christian Carey, as well as a solo vocal piece by John Cage, at a new music recital titled The Truth in Simple Things at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale on Saturday. The weekend audience made its way into the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mark’s and settled comfortably into the long wooden pews.
Based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Three Songs of Shattering for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 18 (2009/2013) by George N. Gianopoulos opened the program. The first movement, No. 1: The First Rose…, began with a haunting piano phrase and a strong vocal entrance by Ms. Ihnen that filled the large sanctuary space. There is a somber feeling in this music, aided by a trace of the blues in the piano accompaniment. Ms. Ihnen’s rich mezzo voice was powerful enough to be heard everywhere in the audience without a microphone or amplification – but the spaciously resonant hall tended to swallow up the words of the text. Even so, the smoothly strong vocal lines, offset by Ms. Shpachenko’s active piano passages, produced a finely balanced combination.
The brighter, jazzy feel of No. 2: Let the Little Birds Sing… included some lovely vocals in a high register that went soaring lightly over the piano line. Expressive and playful, this movement prompted a spontaneous round of applause as it concluded. No. 3: All the Dogwood Blossoms… began with powerfully dramatic chords in the piano and tightly drawn vocal phrasing that dialed up the tension. Forceful singing, blending nicely with an intricate piano accompaniment, went weaving in and out of the texture, adding some drama. A powerful crescendo from both performers filled up the hall and then pulled back slightly, enhancing the strong finish. The audience greeted Three Songs of Shattering with sustained applause.
A second Gianopoulos song cycle, this one based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale, followed. I. Dawn, the first movement of City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) Op. 29 (2013), began with a solemn vocal line and a bustling piano accompaniment, similar in character to the first Gianopoulos piece. Strong, declarative lyrics followed, with further flourishes in the piano as if the rising sun were still over the horizon, a power more sensed than felt. A more relaxed II. Dusk featured an overarching vocal melody that soared smoothly upward, filling the big sanctuary space with sound. Ms. Ihnen’s power and range were on full display here and quite effective. III. Rain at Night gave a more cautious and tentative feel, especially in the piano, while nicely shaped vocal phrasings added to a sense of uncertainty. This movement captures the generally mixed feelings Southern Californians have about rain at night – especially on the freeways. City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) further validates Gianopoulos’ pragmatic style of assigning technical embellishments to the piano, freeing Ms. Ihnen’s robust voice to rise impressively upwards, filling the space above the audience.
Piano Sonata No. 6 (2005), by Yuri Ishchenko began with a Fantasia. Its strong opening and quietly mysterious melody made for a gloomy feeling. A bit of agitation animated the texture, leading up to a series of resounding chords. This pattern of quiet tension followed by increasingly anxious passages continued, especially in the lower registers where deep rumblings added a sense of menace. A marvelous Ukranian bleakness poured grimly out of the keyboard under Ms. Shpachenko’s steady hands. The dynamics and tempo increased just as the texture thickened, the notes rushing out into the audience like a dark, flowing torrent. A very rapid run upward and a solemnly quiet chord at the finish carried Fantasia to its conclusion.
The second movement, Imperativo, arrived with a bright, almost waltz-like tempo invoking a feeling that is both decisive and purposeful. The active phrasing, while often complex, never felt timid or nervous. The precise and nuanced playing impressed, especially in the quieter stretches, and a hint of Prokofiev lyricism emerged in the melodies. A new line in the lower register rose up in a complex wave, making its way through the middle piano keys and accelerated to an almost fugue-like intricacy. This is engaging music, aided by the expressive passages and a profusion of notes that roared outward at the conclusion. The final movement, Epilogo, proved much more subdued, with tentative notes and a vague feeling of uncertainty. Although brief and fittingly restrained, this movement contrasted perfectly with the preceding fireworks. As the last notes died away, much cheering and applause arose for this most energetic performance
Aria by John Cage followed, a solo piece for voice. Ms. Ihnen explained that the score is fashioned from graphical notation with symbols, shapes and colors employed to indicate the vocal line. Aria began quietly, with a combination of musical notes and vocalese. Various languages comprised the text, the words mixing with sharp, spiky sounds and smoothly soaring musical notes. Hand clapping and breathy sounds scattered among the musical tones added to the variety. The dynamics and tempo frequently changed, often without notice, but skillful execution by Ms. Ihnen made for a graceful flow. The constant need to fit the various sound fragments into some sort of context proved challenging, and the sequences came as from a dream. Aria follows the philosophy of other Cage pieces – music is present everything we hear, as part of a continuous spectrum of sound experience.
Kenyon Songs, by Christian Carey followed, three pieces based on the poetry of Jane Kenyon and completed between 2007 and 2009. Song opened with soft chords and a simple melody in the piano. A settled, nostalgic feeling came through and the quiet lyrics spoke of the familiar and the mundane: “An oriole sings from the hedge, and in the hotel kitchen the chef sweetens cream for the pastries…” Subdued and straightforward phrasing in the vocals sustained a pleasant wistfulness. A bit of tension crept in as the lyrics turned to some threatening weather: “Far off lightening and thunder agree to join us for a few days down in the valley…” The vocals became stronger, but never evoked even a hint of menace in this charmingly peaceful portrait. Next was Otherwise, and the smoothly graceful opening extended the sense of serenity. Homespun lyrics persisted: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, flawless peach, it might have been otherwise” – that last phrase introducing just the slightest uncertainty, echoed in the piano line. More singing of benign, everyday activities followed, each phrase ending with “…it might have been otherwise.” The final line: “But one day I know it will be otherwise.” forcefully drove home the point of the poem. The carefully modulated vocals and accompaniment perfectly matched the intentions in the text. As Otherwise concluded the feeling turned poignant, reflecting the sense of impending loss.
Let Evening Come completed Carey’s song cycle. This brought a warmer feeling combined with a sense of completion – a welcome to the end of the day. The declarative phrasing in the voice added a bit of purpose, echoed from the text “To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats. to the air in the lung – let evening come.” Kenyon Songs celebrates those small, prosaic parts of life that so often bring great contentment; the music and the nuanced performances capturing this exactly.
The final piece on the program was Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano, Op. 7 (2007/2010) – another song cycle by Gianopoulos. Based on texts by Dorothy Parker this consisted of three sections: I. Little Words, II. One Perfect Rose and III. Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song. A breezy, Manhattan feel that combines the wit and energy of Ms. Parker’s prose with a Broadway sensibility permeates all these pieces. The carefully balanced piano and vocal passages occasionally contained some impressive flash from the keyboard. The final section featured a nicely syncopated melody in the vocals joined with a light, swinging feel that animates the accompaniment. Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano perfectly expresses the elegant urban sophistication of New York at its height.
We found the place all right, though it took a minute to find the door. It’s frankly genius, using a dance studio as a concert venue at night, since it functions like a blackbox theater. It even had a balcony, with squishy sofas to view the performance. It was completely sold out, standing room only. The lights dimmed and Nick Norton, one of Equal Sound‘s directors, ran up to the stage to make an announcement: the Michael Gordon piece, originally written as a reaction to 9/11, was moved to the beginning of the set as tribute for the recent attacks on Paris and Beirut. This simple and meaningful gesture hushed the audience, and the piece began.
Light Is Calling is pure and beautiful, just a solo violin and electronic sounds. It began with the thump of a slow heart, a tiny ray of hope in light of a tragedy. It sounded like music heard through pounding ears, muffled and throbbing like there’s too much adrenaline to calm down enough to pay attention. The violin cut through the pulsating track, the only pure and uninterrupted sound, singing, like glass rubbing on glass. At the end of the song, the sounds through the speakers were clearly manipulated synths, and yet they sounded human, like a choir singing underwater and far away. It was both an elegy for the lost and a paean for the survivors.
John Cage’s Radio Music is a (relative) oldie but a goodie. Oddly enough, it carried over the mood from Gordon’s song. The trick with Cage music is that one often hears what one wants; aleatoric music is more or less a blank slate, the most famous example being 4’33” of silence. I like to say that Cage’s music lets the listener put in more of themselves, sort of like paint by number rather than a filled in piece. Radio Music had the performers holding radios and taking turns twiddling the dial on AM and FM stations and turning up and down the volume. There were commercials for car dealerships, live reports on various sports games, a few pop songs, and a talk radio segment. More than half the piece was static. At the best of times, static and white noise have a kind of mystery, a potentiality to become or be imagined as anything else. Coming immediately after Light Is Calling, the static seemed like a metaphor for waiting to hear from people at the sites of the attacks, or the silence of the fallen.
Next up was Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar. Having first been introduced to her work through her opera the LA Opera put on a month or so ago, it was affirming to hear a quartet piece that solidifies what I now recognize as her style of strident strings, tasteful pitch bends and slides, highly motivic, pounding syncopation in exciting sections, and recorded sounds blending and sometimes overtaking the live sounds. At first I thought the recorded voices were an illusion from open strings from the quartet. After a segment of minimalism in the middle, the voices crescendoed until it all but set the quartet in the background. The ending was absolutely turgid with the quartet grinding on their strings and the voices growing ever louder, and one could practically hear the grain in the wood of the cello. It ended suddenly, like inhaling after holding your breath for almost too long, just a cut and ringing out to nothing. I say here again that my mind was still on Paris and Beirut, and the fading resonance at the end was to me another reminder.
One cannot remain sad forever and the show will go on. I would describe Fog Tropes II by Ingram Marshall as if Stephen Sondheim wrote Lark Ascending as a track for use in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth during the rain scenes. The recorded sounds became windy, dissonant, and haunting; the strings gradually caught up from pastoral air to grim dirge, as if it only slowly dawned on them to change. Chattering birds added to the foggy forest mood, followed by didjeridoo and scratchy strings to make it more foreboding. A woman’s voice in the recorded sounds turned into an unreal animal. Near the end was a kind of double duet, with the violin and viola hocketting pitches and the other violin and cello intertwining melodies. The sound as a whole is how I always imagined a cursed forest would sound. Being from Seattle where the landscape is vastly dim forests, it felt weirdly like a slice of home.
You have probably heard M83‘s Grammy-nominated Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which contains their hit “Midnight City,” one of their more danceable songs. A French electronic band now local to LA, their niche lies in chill grooves and ephemeral minimalism, often similar to Sigur Rós or Balmorhea. There were ten tracks in total, and given the seamless flow from one piece to another I inevitably got off in keeping track of where I was in the program. That said, Digital Shades is decidedly an album that ought to be heard together in one sitting, so maybe it is even better this way.
My notes from the performance stand as testament to the distinct sonority M83 possesses in each of their songs. It started with ocean waves, synth waves, and string quartet waves. It moved on to vocals moving softly like a stream, drops in the water, over tremolo cello, in the form of a passacaglia; the vocals never change, but the strings move around them. The performance featured a viola plucked like a ukulele, bird song, and white noise, and always sounded natural. Certain sections strongly reminded me of Iceland. Others sounded like people bumping into each other on a New York sidewalk.
An essential takeaway from this concert is that modern music is not inaccessible. While writing this, several people implored me to make this clear, for even they were surprised. It seems that many stereotype new music to be constantly unyieldingly harsh. Yes, I am one who enjoys hearing extended trombone technique solos and experimental jazz. I will be the first to admit that much modern music is an acquired taste. That said, a substantial corps of music in general, from Perotin from the Medieval era to Buxtehude from the Baroque to Milhaud at the turn of the century, can sound alien to our ears attuned to Nirvana and Taylor Swift, when all we listen to from ‘Classical music’ is Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. There is so much more. Live performers can play tonally and in tandem with recorded sounds and it can sound simply beautiful, no qualifiers attached. Some composers push the limits of possibility with sound, and they are, quite literally, the fringes. Equal Sound reminded everyone in the audience that modern music is not dissonant, just new.
Back in July I was invited to a garden party hosted by Jacaranda, at which they featured five pianists and an incredible lunch [I don’t usually plug businesses on here, but Cafe Luxxe in Brentwood provided the coffee service and dude, their stuff is delicious]. They also announced the concert lineup for their 2012-13 season, which features composers John Cage and Benjamin Britten, and works inspired by or connected to them. It’s an impressive one to say the least, kicking off on with a four-day Cage festival on September 6 that includes a complete (read: 24 hour long) performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations. I caught up with Artistic Director Patrick Scott to talk about what’s coming up. Check it out:
Okay, the garden party was epic. Tell our readers about it.
The party celebrated the end of the season and announces the new one. We featured five of the pianists who will perform in the next season. They each played 10-15 minutes of music (total 70 in two sets) that is in some way related to the upcoming concerts, including this year’s special pre-season Cage 100 Festival. A fabulous lunch was served between the two sets. The first set includes solo and four hands music played by Danny Holt and Steven Vanhauwaert, aka 4HandsLA.
Danny played music by David Lang and Nico Muhly. Excerpts of Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion will be included in the December concert, “Winter Dreams,” as will Knee Play V from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Muhly’s mentor. Steven also played Old & Lost Rivers by Tobias Picker. Picker’s piece The Encantadas will receive its LA premiere in October’s concert, “Different Islands.” Together they played Eric Satie’s own 4 hands arrangement of his ballet, Parade. Satie was a major influence on Cage and his Vexations will be played over 24 hours by 32 pianists (including all 5) in the festival. Danny and Steven will perform in Steve Reich’s City Life in October. And they will both play the original 4 hands arrangement of The Rite of Spring in February. Steven will perform with the Pantoum Trio in the US premiere of Eric Tanguy’s Trio in November’s “Seduction.” Steven is also prominently featured on the season finale playing a rare Benjamin Britten concerto.
Genevieve Feiwen Lee played more Satie, and Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields) by Alvin Lucier, a disciple of Cage. Aron Kallay will perform the Lucier in the festival. Genevieve will also play sampling keyboard in City Life. Aron, who will join her on the second sampling keyboard, played three Un-intemezzi by Veronika Krausas, just because I wanted to hear them live and the pieces fit the program well. To close, Grammy-winner Gloria Cheng played Cage’s In a Landscape and Les sons impalpables du rêve from Messiaen’s Preludes. Messiaen was deeply influenced by Debussy, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate in November. Gloria will open the season with music by Esa-Pekka Salonen written for her. She will also perform the Ligeti Piano Concerto in January’s “Fierce Beauty.”
Quite a few party guests to bought subscriptions and festival tickets.
The next season, the one the party is supporting, features 100 year shindigs for both Cage and Britten. They seem like an unlikely pair, but the music you program with Jacaranda is really wide ranging. What are your thoughts going into programming?
Cage’s actual 100th birthday is September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles. We start celebrating the next day in our regular venue First Presbyterian. It’s a really unusual, fun and wild program with a lot of short pieces including a super-rare performance of an organ work based on 18th century New England hymns. Chance is a factor as three “assistants” pull the stops according to I Ching tosses. We then move to the Miles Playhouse in the middle of a park for 24 hours for Satie’s Vexations. The next venue was a place Cage regularly lectured about contemporary art and premiered his earlier music: Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club. To close we will be at the Annenberg Beach House. Brooklynite Adam Tendler will play from memory the complete Sonatas & Interludes by Cage — his gentle gamelan-like masterpiece for prepared piano. I think Cage is attractive to a younger audience and I hope they will come back for the Steve Reich.
We love Britten and think he is under-appreciated and under played here. Both Cage and Britten were gay, but very different. Britten’s birthday was November 22. 1913. We are dedicating three consecutive concerts to Britten, as well as including a work for children’s chorus and organ in December’s “Winter Dreams.” The programming takes a biographical approach and one that emphasizes his relationship with the tenor Peter Pears and their life in Brooklyn during WWII. A bunch of American composers and the Canadian Colin McPhee were their friends. So the March concert will put Britten in this milieu. We will stage our first opera, Britten’s Curlew River, a one-act chamber opera intended for church performance. There is an all male cast and the central role of the Madwoman was originally created by Pears in 1963. Internationally, the most exciting young opera director, LA-based Yuval Sharon, will direct. The season finale is full of contrasts, super popular and super obscure, solo piano to string orchestra with string quartet and piano.
We are celebrating Britten in the early part of 2013 because the 2013-14 season is our Tenth Anniversary and we cannot devote so many concerts to one composer.
Great programming takes a very deep knowledge of repertoire, history and culture. It depends on alchemy and intuition as well. I am not a trained musician so I have the advantage of approaching programs from the audience’s point of view. I want the atmosphere of the intermission to be charged with the afterglow of excitement, of shared discovery, of intense sensation and emotion. That state readies the audience for the substantial journey of the second half — full of surprises and challenges. At the end of a concert I want the audience to feel deeply satisfied and on a high.
How do you think programming such a range of music affects audiences’ experience? Do you find the same crowd at most of your concerts, or does the audience change drastically from say, the Debussy concert coming up in November to the second Viennese school one set for February?
I like variety — within a concert and within the season. But I also like things to be connected in unusual ways. The Jacaranda audience is quite loyal because the performance quality is super high and the adventure is planned to span the whole season, sometimes reflecting back on season’s past. I hope each concert will attract new listeners that will become loyal because they trust that the journey will be an exciting one, full of dazzling virtuosity and musical commitment. Among our audience development strategies, we do targeted outreach through the Consulates General. This year the consulates of France, Hungary, Austria and Britain will help.
What excites you about presenting this music in LA?
The amazing talent pool of musicians here makes almost anything possible; and the sophisticated audience in LA really has an appetite for new and modern music.
What would you like to see change here, whether about your own series or our town’s scene in general?
The geography of LA traffic is making it harder for people downtown, in Hollywood, and Pasadena to attend our concerts in Santa Monica. Eventually the train will help. In the meantime, we need more support in the media to inspire people to make the trek across town, by making a whole afternoon of their Santa Monica visit. There are awesome restaurants nearby, as well as the beach, shopping and movies on the Promenade, Bergamot Station, the newly renovated Santa Monica Mall, and two parking structures nearby. We have people regularly driving from Riverside, Whittier and Long Beach! There is a guy who actually drives from Arizona once a year! It just takes a little more planning.
For more details and tickets, visit jacarandamusic.org.