By now, Piano Spheres has wound down their main 2015–2016 season, but that doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to hear contemporary piano music in the Los Angeles area, or even that the specific artists from their season are nowhere to be heard this summer. Last night (May 20th), for instance, Nadia Shpachenko and Danny Holt gave a joint recital at Boston Court in Pasadena, playing music inspired by specific buildings and places. Some of the pieces were familiar — either from previous Piano Spheres concerts or earlier eras of the piano repertoire — but others were new, including a three world premières.
On the first half, Nadia Shpachenko took the stage to present a fiercely contemporary set of pieces written around and about works of ancient and modern architecture. The program began with the première of Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs, a ruminative, convoluted work inspired by Lash’s time spent working in Aaron Copland’s old house in upstate New York. The layout of the building is, apparently, quite confusing, and Lash often found herself in the kitchen when the living room had been her goal (or vice versa), and the piece is in some ways an attempt to capture that surprising twisting and turning. The musical materials are simple and songlike, but their development is fractured and folded over on itself in endlessly shifting ways. There are moments where things seem to snap into focus — an earnest chorale, the beginnings of an aria, flutterings that bordered on the launch of a toccata — but the ground always shifted underfoot, and nothing ever remained quite what it seemed.
Shpachenko followed this with a reprise of Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh, which she premièred on a Piano Spheres concert last year. (Despite being written in 2015, this was the oldest piece of music on the first half.) Instead of the privacy of a personal home, Bangladesh takes its cue from the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a building complex designed by American architect Louis Kahn. For those less than familiar with this complex, Dana Berman Duff put together a slideshow of sorts featuring scores of pictures of the building and its environs, including a long sequence of archival shots of the building’s construction. The music is lush and atmospheric, interspersing imposing block chords — echoing the hulking weight of Kahn’s structure — with gaudy pentatonic washes describing water and fog. In many ways, the piece feels like an accompaniment to the slideshow, which is a pity, because the slideshow leaves something to be desired. While the photos do a stunning job of capturing the monumentality of the building as well as the interplay of light and shadow within its halls, they are presented with little context, with the result that Bangladesh (the country) comes across as shrouded, exotic, and mysterious. But Bangladesh needn’t be mysterious. It’s the eighth most populous country in the world, with a long and well documented history. Marveling at architecture doesn’t require and shouldn’t come at the expense of othering non–Western locales.
This was followed by Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., a piece that calls for Shpachenko to do triple duty, playing the regular piano with one hand, a toy piano with the other, and intoning cryptic vocal lines above it all. Inspired by The Big Hope Show at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, this was the sparsest piece on the evening’s program. There are very few moments in the piece when more than one note is played at the same time, and for much of its duration the regular and toy pianos play exactly the same line, tho the inherent inaccuracy of the toy piano’s intonation added a bewitching halo of sound that kept the sparseness from feeling completely unadorned. My only complaint about this piece is that it was far too short — it felt like the patient beginning of something much longer and grander, and the ending felt like an abrupt truncation of a larger, half–glimpsed structure.
Once the toy piano was safely out of the way, it was then time for the première of In Full Sail by Harold Meltzer, inspired by Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in Manhattan. This was another atmospheric piece, and one that was cleverly programmed to hearken back to both the Lash and the Spratlan. In its fluid textures and organic form, it echoed Bangladesh, but instead of using pentatonic sonorities as grist for the mill, Meltzer draws on a more American idiom, drawing in some of the hard–edged angularity that lurks just below the surface of much of Copland’s populism (an angularity that was also very present in the Lash). This piece was also accompanied by images of the building that inspired it, but here they felt very much like an afterthought, and I found it hard to focus on the structure of the music when the same few images kept repeating in a static loop.
Next, and last on the first half, came the première of Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú, the only piece on the program named after the building that inspired it. And, also unlike the other pieces, it’s based not on a contemporary dwelling or monument but on a Neolithic monolith constructed some time around 3200BC. Sí an Bhrú (or “Newgrange” as it’s known in English) sits in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, and its original purpose is not entirely clear — it takes the form of a large mound with a single passageway into its center, a passageway that lines up with the rising sun on the winter solstice, leading many to believe it originally had some religious purpose. But given the yawning gap of years between then and now, it’s difficult to say with certainty, and many plausible competing hypotheses remain. Van Zandt’s work embraces this loss and uncertainty, beginning with a meditation on deep time and progressing thru the construction and decoration of the structure into the dark starlit night of deep winter with music that seems achingly familiar without ever being fully placable, just as we recognize that human minds were behind this monolith without being to understand their full purpose. In addition to piano, the piece is scored with electronics, and these too, play a similar game. There are snatches of concrete sounds — a brook burbling or leaves rustling in the wind; chisels on stone or steps down a long corridor — but they mix and blur both with each other and with markedly synthetic static and pop. This was the only piece where the visuals (images of Sí and Bhrú and the surrounding landscape, plus a few nebulae) and music really felt integrated into a unified whole, each adding to and balancing out the other.
Coming into the second half, Danny Holt elected to shift the focus from specific buildings to geographical regions more generally, and from the very present day to the first decades of the 20th Century. Holt is perhaps best known for his virtuosic recitals where he plays the piano and various percussion instruments simultaneously, but here he eschewed such things and showed that he can dazzle just as well without the use of drumkits. Holt opened with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s fifth Choros, “Alma Brasileira” (1925), a work that was jagged and heartfelt by turns. This was followed by Le Cahier Romand (1923), a suite of sentimental piano miniatures penned by Arthur Honegger during his time in Switzerland. The highlight of the second half was Alexander Mosolov’s seldom–heard Turkmenian Nights (1928), a ferocious volley of Russian Futurism that nevertheless made me want to dance. Holt then closed with Leonard Bernstein’s transcription of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México (1936), revealing the transparency and delicacy underlying the orchestral version, and providing a tidy symmetry to the concert as a whole.
Over and above the explicit thread of “Places” that linked these works, I found myself drawn to a deeper tie between the two halves. We’re living in a time of great stylistic plurality, a time when certain older systems of composing have lost the sway they once enjoyed and new ones haven’t quite arisen to take their place. Shpachenko’s half helped show that — there are definitely styles that she didn’t have room to feature, but no two of the works she played take the same approach to melody, harmony, and form. It’s a tumultuous time, but it’s also an exciting time, and Holt’s half hearkened back to another time of similar tumult, as composers sought new means of expression after the psychic shock of World War One. It was a fitting reminder that masterworks do come out of this bubble and strife, and a subtle affirmation that some things being written now may well be touchstones of the repertoire in another ninety years.
At one point towards the middle of Theatre of the World — a new opera with music by Louis Andriessen and a libretto by Helmut Krausser that received its world première on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic playing under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw — Pope Innocenzo IX asks cantankerously “how long is this going to last?,” followed not long thereafter by a petulant “I just want to leave!” Setting such lines in a contemporary opera always seems a bit like tempting fate, as there’s a very real chance some members of the audience will genuinely feel the same way. But the house was free of nervous chuckles at that moment, and no one seems to have taken it as their cue to leave.
Not that there wasn’t laughter at other points over the bizarre course of the evening. The Pope (played by Marcel Beekman) says those lines shortly after being transported to Egypt around 1400 BC, along with Athanasius Kircher (Leigh Melrose), a German Jesuit polymath of the 1600s; a twelve-year-old boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who later turns out to be the Devil; and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen), Kircher’s publisher in Amsterdam. This follows mercurial scenes set variously in Rome and Amsterdam, and is followed in turn by a visit to Babylon, a phantasmagorical lovers’ duet, and a gristly scene where the Boy/Devil eats Kircher’s heart — just cut out of his recently deceased body — only to discover that Kircher’s soul has escaped his clutches and gone up to Heaven. If this sounds a tad bewildering, it was, though perhaps not unintentionally. In an extensive program note, the composer is quoted explaining that his score “is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque.’”
Demanding sense and orderliness from this, then, is probably a fool’s errand. The historical Kircher was a man of many interests, and over the course of his life published dozens of monumental tomes in a determined effort to summarize every piece of knowledge known at the time. Much of this “knowledge,” being based on 17th–Century methodologies, hasn’t exactly been supported by subsequent inquiry, but his works were wildly popular in his day, and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his books, not the least because of their beautiful illustrations. The opera ostensibly takes Kircher as its subject, pairing his scholarly interests with the Jesuit conception of the world as a stage on which a cosmic play authored by God unfolds (hence the title), but the character of Kircher Krauser and Andriessen present takes the historical person more as a starting point for fantasy than as a goal to capture. They gives us a Kircher plagued by visions and demons, and while this seems like a clear reference to tropes associated with various Christian mystics, I can’t find any evidence that Kircher would be an appropriate fit for such things. The staging (by Pierre Audi) adds another uncomfortable wrinkle, with Kircher twitching and stimming as though he has some (unspecified) mental illness. It was a strange decision, and one I don’t really understand.
Regrettably, it wasn’t the only questionable staging choice. At numerous times, both Kircher and the Pope grope, grind up against, and otherwise molest both each other and various other characters. Only once is this even mentioned in the libretto, and even then has no impact on the rest of the plot, such as it is. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the director was using sexual content in a cliched attempt to be shocking and outré, with no deeper meaning in mind. The nadir for this was probably when three witches entered to disrupt the love scene in the second half. If you were deliberately setting out to write a scene to illustrate various Queer Theory ideas about how non-normative sexualities have been demonized in media, you could hardly come up with a clearer example than this. The two lovers — identified only as He and She (Martijn Cornet and Nora Fischer, respectively) — sing a rustic, folksy duet of rapturous devotion, the picture of monogamous heterosexual bliss. They are then set upon by the three Witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, and Ingeborg Bröchler) who, dressed in dominatrix garb, sing a jazz–inflected diatribe against the male gender, urging the female lover to join their decadent world of liberated female sexuality and ultimately striking the male lover dead. (He gets better.) To drive the point home, the Witches are working directly for the Devil himself, and make their first entrance by climbing up out of a trapdoor in the center of the stage. Subtle.
In spite of all this, there is much that is attractive in this score. Andriessen weaves together numerous influences with a deft touch, producing something that feels like a thoroughly integrated whole for all the disparate sound worlds it integrates. If some contemporary composers have opted for a path of pastiche, blithely pasting patches of different styles together without evening out any of the seams (a choice which, needless to say, can be powerfully effective at times), Andriessen instead seems to be bending his masterful craftsmanship to smoothing over the gaps until it’s impossible to tell just where one style stops and the next begins. At one point, a brass fanfare that could have been quoted directly from Gabrielli bypasses centuries of music history in mere seconds to morph effortlessly into a figure Copland could have penned — this fanfare being built around the drooping, all but atonal trombone motive that opens the work, and that elsewhere is transfigured in the woodwinds into a march that keeps threatening to become the passage from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen Mahler recycles in the first movement of his first symphony. And yet it all feels like one; the unity of the musical fabric never feels in danger of coming unwoven.
Even more astonishing is the balance Andriessen has struck between the density of his orchestrational colors and the underlying transparency of the texture. Many of the sounds Andriessen deploys are gnarly composites of several instruments, rich treats for the ear to unpick as they pass by, duets for bass and contrabass clarinet alternating with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a large percussion battery, among many other sonic resources. And yet the complexity never goes to far; the score is never muddy, even in the ferocious tutti passages that erupt at various climax points. This music is a virtuosic display of the compositional dexterity needed to balance an intricate net of details at the smallest level against overarching clarity at the largest.
Still, at times it felt like I was listening to an incredible orchestra piece that someone had, for some reason, pasted an opera on top of. There’s a long tradition of composers cobbling together instrumental suites from their operas, and I sincerely hope Andriessen continues that practice. Theatre of the World is full of attractive music, any of which I would very much like to listen to again without having to watch a Baroque Pope dry humping one of Europe’s last Renaissance men while a sarcastic publisher looks on with a Devil wearing a Batman shirt and exercise pants. Unlike Innocenzo IX, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to close my eyes.
[NB this review discusses Fascism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault. The views expressed are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of New Classic LA]
A gentle undulation in the strings, a murmur of woodwind melodies, the suggestion of burbling water under a quiet, rural sunrise. So begins Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1919 tone poem that opened Friday night’s concert at Disney Hall and helped secure the composer’s fame. Under the baton of John Adams, whose “dramatic symphony” with solo violin Scheherazade.2 comprised the second half, the LA Philharmonic gradually blazed to majestic life as Respighi’s focus shifted from dawn to morning to high noon before ebbing back into the stillness of night. Perhaps because of the conductor, I found myself focusing less on Respighi’s sweeping dramatic gestures (though the low brass were truly electrifying at the Trevi fountain’s climax) than on the small repeated figures that make up much of the musical texture. The Fountains of Rome is not a minimalist piece by any stretch of the imagination, but under Adams’s baton, it felt like it could easily be rewritten as one.
Dispensing with the opening tranquility of Fountains, the next work on the program was the second of Respighi’s Roman pieces, The Pines of Rome (1923–4). Despite its reputation as a flashy, even trashy showstopper, the Phil found a remarkable depth of feeling, the ghastly collapse from the giddy Villa Borghese to the gaunt Catacombs opening a yawning chasm of grief and loss. Between Tom Hooten’s offstage trumpet and Burt Hara’s delicate-as-breath clarinet solo, the Janiculum offered a harrowing path to acceptance and resolution before the Appian Way returned to end the first half with brilliant splendor.
Adams made a point to refer to this ending as an act of aggression in his speech to the audience after intermission, as though to imply that The Pines of Rome is part of the world of male violence against women that Scheherazade.2 is supposedly pushing back against. If so, it would be the only specific instance he pointed to outside the Middle East, a choice with an uncomfortable tinge of Islamophobia to it. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Middle East is a feminist utopia, but listing Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the only specifically named places where men commit violence against women plays into a pernicious trope that pits a more “civilized” West against a more “barbaric” Islamic world, blaming a religion for the evils of patriarchy and ignoring the history of Western intervention and destruction of progressive regimes in the area. It was not the only regrettable moment in the talk — at one point Adams seemed to imply that rape can develop into a healthy, consensual sexual encounter, which is a notion that cannot be condemned strongly enough. I’m not sure if that was Adams’s intent — I sincerely hope it wasn’t — but that it was unclear was one of many things that offered reason to doubt Adams’s full understanding of the feminism he is claiming to espouse.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that his piece was less charged that his rhetoric. The first movement was a slalom of irregular plonks and quiet rumbles, with the solo violin carving out jagged, irregular lines above the fray. In continuing his evolution away from minimalism, Adams seems to be picking up the mantle of texturalists like Unsuk Chin, though her tapestries cohere more and gleam with greater transparency than Adams’s offering — fans of his Naïve and Sentimental Music will be familiar with this language, even if the accent is altered somewhat. Towards the end, the music coalesces into a violent convulsion, the first obviously continuous line in the work.
Soft, overlapping string chords started the second movement, projecting less the violence Adams described than the religious ecstasy of Bernini’s Theresa. Likewise, the movement’s end was less a warm and heartfelt intimacy than a wan and colorless exhaustion. The third movement picked up where the first left off, violent unisons for the full orchestra alternating with inert lines from the violinist and discordant interjections from smaller sections of the orchestra. These included everything from a happily burbling conference of bassoons and oboes to a xylophone–led percussion display that could have come from a less avian Messiaen. This quasi-programmatic depiction of a group of “bearded men” condemning Scheherazade to death (because apparently beards correlate with misogyny?) was certainly rousing at times, but even by the end, Josefowicz’s lines were too abstract and disjointed to convey much in the way of noble resistance to an unjust fate.
Returning to a looser sense of narrative constraint, the last movement was the strongest of the four by far. Even so, despite Josefowicz’s consummate playing and some deftly intriguing klangfarbenmelodie between the tuned gongs and the cimbalom, the music felt sluggish and bedraggled. The whole piece clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and it does not make good use of that time. There are many excellent moments scattered throughout the score — surprising timbres, spot-on chord changes, intricate rhythmic games — but they don’t add convincingly to a larger whole. In fact, they don’t really add at all. They merely happen, in sequence, continuing on with no clear goal or direction. The moments are fresh enough to keep the piece from being boring, but they don’t gel well enough to make it actually interesting.
Even though Adams seemed to be being rather tongue-in-cheek when he described “The Pines of the Appian Way” as being an act of aggression, I think he’s absolutely correct in this. In 1922, the year before Respighi began writing that piece, Benito Mussolini marched his army into the city of Rome to stage a Fascist coup d’état. In that historical context, it’s not hard to understand why Respighi’s militaristic celebration of imperial triumph was often co-opted as propaganda by the Fascist regime. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this triumphal conclusion — all doubts are swept aside in an unstoppable wave of cymbals and brass — and it’s only later, on reflection, that the chilling realization of how easy it is for music to sweep away such doubts casts the resolutely upbeat ending in a more sinister light. (It is comforting to imagine that we would be able to see through propaganda and remain unseduced by its charms, but a piece like The Pines of Rome should give us pause.)
Sadly, Adams misses this subtlety. His villains aren’t the heroes of their own story, they’re just villains. There is no equivalent, in Scheherazade.2, of beginning to be moved by a rousing speech only to pull back in horror when we realize its central argument; everything is marked clearly from beginning to end. In a piece ostensibly about a clever, wily figure who uses plot twists and cliffhangers to change her fate, there is precious little wit indeed. It’s not exactly a moralizing piece, but it does move with some of the same plodding predictability, motivated less by guile and cunning than a worn–out sense of dutiful obligation. Adams has done better in the past; let’s hope he does better yet again.
Poland got off to a rough start in the twentieth century, what with back-to-back Nazi and Soviet invasion and control, but with the founding of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1956, Polish musicians and composers rapidly began making up for lost time. The early years of the festival helped launch Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Górecki, and Krysztof Penderecki to international prominence, and it’s still going strong to this day, providing an annual showcase of new voices in the contemporary Polish music scene. The LA Phil’s Green Umbrella concert on Tuesday 19 January at Walt Disney Concert Hall allowed us to sample some fruits of this prodigious tree.
Opening with the US Première Krzysztof Meyer’s intricate Musique scintillante (2007), the concert got off to a dazzling start. For those primed to expect a wash of dense microtonal sonorities by the program notes’ repeated references to earlier Polish works that deploy them to great effect (think Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima), this opening foray would come of something of a shock, with its bright, almost frothy musical lines that frequently coalesce into striking unisons. As soon as they come clearly into view, however, a sharp shock dashes them to pieces, and something new starts growing in turn. In this way, the work moves easily thru dances and hymns, including a plaintive interlude for trumpet, here played movingly by Stéphane Beaulac. Eventually this energy dissipates into a series of ever diminishing chords, bringing the piece a close with a playful wink after some exactingly conducted measures of rest.
Leaving aside the thunderous opening tom-tom strike, Paweł Mykietyn’s 3 for 13 (1995, here receiving its West Coast Première) opens more or less where the Meyer left off, with sparse, quiet flecks of sound dotting an otherwise vacant canvas. This is music that makes Anton Webern sound unbearably dense, but it never loses its cohesion. The entire work is based on a four-voice fugue Mykietyn wrote in the style of JS Bach, though the subject is never stated outright, let alone the entire fugue itself — in this opening section, it has been blasted into pointillistic smithereens. Slowly, these atomized flickers begin to collide, and suddenly functional tonality snaps into focus as the entire ensemble comes to rest on a blazing diminished seventh chord. The unconventional resolution is deliberately obliterated by an eruption from the tam-tam, leaving the central section’s beginning shrouded in decaying echoes. If the first section kept the fugue fragments clipped short, this new section suggests that it did so because they simply can’t withstand being played for longer: There are contiguous lines here, but they are stretched and warped, with constant string glissandi destabilizing everything. An upbeat final section ensues, with bright, pulsing minimalist rhythms and short sequences that run wildly beyond any tonal norms, shooting off towards infinity like a glider in Conway’s Game of Life. The material is recognizably the same as the first two sections, suggesting a rewinding video tape, and by the end it begins to wear a bit thin, as though Mykietyn had squeezed everything out of his fugue with several minutes left on the clock. But recognizing this, the tom-tom — which serves as a kind of master of ceremonies thruout the piece — begins to interrupt the proceedings at ever shorter intervals, the orchestra flicking between two different textures like TV channels with each stroke. When it becomes clear that there would only be two choices, and not particularly inspiring choices at that, the tom-tom bursts out in a frenzy of frustration, ending the piece with a percussive roar.
As the stagehands re-arranged the chairs before the next piece, I wished that Veronika Krausas had stepped onto the stage to give the rest of her pre-performance talk, which had been cut short by a malfunctioning fire alarm in the Disney Hall complex. It would have been nice to have something to hold the audience’s attention for the transition; as it was, several listeners in my section left the hall during the changeover, never to return. But when Krzysztof Penderecki’s second sinfonietta, transcribed for clarinet and strings from a 1993 chamber work, got under way, the focus was firmly back on stage. The first movement serves as something of a prelude, with distant, isolated fragments hanging frigid in mysterious stillness. Scored primarily for the unaccompanied soloist, the few string interjections do little to add warmth or movement. The second movement inverts this arrangement, with rapid string lines — many in unisons and octaves — dominating the texture. A scherzo in feeling if not form, the music hints at Stravinsky while living in a world of surprising diatonicism. The next two movements follow without pause as the piece gradually unwinds from a high point near the start of the second movement. As it does so, it becomes increasingly lyrical, though never truly melodic. At times, the strings call to mind Shostakovich’s slow movements, though the music lacks the Russian composer’s unexpected modal inflections. A stratospheric violin solo returns the piece to the fragmentary, inert mist of the first movement. Something of note has passed before us, the music seems to say, but it is gone from view now, and all we have are swirls of fog fading into night.
Next, after the intermission, was the World Première of Agata Zubel’s Chapter 13, a setting of a chapter from The Little Prince in which the title character encounters a Businessman who spends all his days counting stars because he thinks he owns them. Zubel herself sang the soprano part, doing triple duty as the Narrator, Businessman, and Little Prince, sometimes adopting different stances and positions on stage to clarify which she was embodying at any given moment. Those who attended the performances of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland in the Phil’s last season would be on familiar territory here, tho Zubel seems less interested than Chin in textural transparency and timbral purity, instead using densely interwoven polyphonic lines to build up a homogenous mass of sound. Unfortunately, while the effect was certainly memorable, it did little to serve the text. Antoine de Saint-Euxpéry’s words are certainly cutting, but they are witty and whimsical too, and Zubel’s setting largely misses these qualities, flattening the parable into something drab and one-dimensional. The stasis of the music is perhaps fitting for the non-urgency of the story, but it seems short on the poignant simplicity that has made the source text so beloved.
Despite serving as the (freely acknowledged) model for 3 for 13, Paweł Szymański’s quasi una sinfonietta (1990), which received its West Coast Première after another interminable set change, offered a great deal that hadn’t been covered earlier in the program. A composer who is fond of “playing games with tradition”, Szymański gestures at older styles of making music without fully embracing them. After a long, unmeasured piano trill, the piece begins with a lilting dance in the strings, punctuated by a woodblock that never quite lands in the same place two times in a row. There are many shifts away from and back to this texture, resulting in a sense of gradual even evolution despite the many disjunctions visible on a smaller scale. As the program notes suggest, Beethoven lurks just under the surface of much of this music, though never quite as expected. Motor rhythms outrun the feeble melodies above them, and at one point the entire ensemble breaks into what can only be described as a Viennese tango. Also in line with Beethoven, the opening section ends with obsessively repeated chords, though here taken beyond the realm of tonic affirmation and into patent absurdity. The stream of chords is interrupted, at first comedically by the cowbell and then disastrously by the tam-tam (accompanied by full-arm piano clusters), paving the way for a quieter central section full of klangfarbenmelodie handoffs. There are repeated attempts at getting a chorale going, but the music has great difficulty settling into it, and the result is rather like watching someone try to build a house with lumber supplied by Salvador Dalí. Unexpectedly, the whole thing snaps into focus in a strangely affecting passage of aching beauty. But a motoric minor third launches the helter-skelter finale, with jagged arcing lines interrupted by brief pillars of irregular, unexpected silence. The music is pointillistic, but deeply engaging all the same. In one of the clearest gestures echoed by the Mykietyn, the work ends with the music flipping between manic string vamps at each stroke of a tom-tom. But here, instead of erupting in petulant frustration, the music simply winds down like a broken toy, the strings slowing and sliding down freely into silence with an exhausted slump.
Needless to say, none of this is particularly easy to perform, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under the baton of Łucasz Borowicz. Whether executing tricky interlocking rhythms with exacting precision or melding disparate sounds into longer single lines, the players performed with graceful aplomb. It’s easy (and perhaps accurate) to compare the music on this program to mechanical devices, but more than some intricate machine, the ensemble felt like an organic unit, a natural conglomeration of different timbres that nevertheless cohered into a seamless whole. Special commendation must go to Burt Hara, who covered the demanding solo clarinet part in the Penderecki with remarkable grace and agility. On the whole, an excellent evening of music, and an intriguing glimpse at recent trends in one of Europe’s compositional powerhouses.
From July to November of 1917, some five hundred thousand troops slaughtered each other over a scrappy Belgian ridge in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One. The stated goal of the Allied attack was to break through the German lines and clear a path to the coast to disrupt Axis naval operations. But mistaken assumptions about German morale and heavy rains that reduced the already decimated battlefield to a wasteland of clinging mud dashed these plans, and by the campaign’s bitter end five months after it started, the battle lines remained almost unchanged — the deepest incursion into German-held territory was less than five miles from the starting point. While other battles of the War had higher death rates, few compare to Passchendaele for sheer futility and misery of conditions.
This is the landscape that Mark-Anthony Turnage turns to in his new work, Passchendaele, which was given its US première at Walt Disney Hall this past Sunday, January 10, by the Orange County Youth Symphony and Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestras under the baton of Daniel Alfred Wachs. And it truly is the landscape specifically he has in mind: In his program note, Turnage describes his work as “an orchestral essay exploring the memory of the landscape” rather than a programmatic depiction of the conflict itself. As such, the work begins not with an analogy to the actual battle’s opening artillery barrage but instead with a solo trombone singing out sad fragments of an almost familiar melody. Nudge a few notes here and there and it could be the Dies Irae or an old American bugle call, but it remains stubbornly warped beyond any one singular reference point. Between each of these fragments, the full orchestra interjects with shriekingly amplified echoes, suggesting the sounds of metal being rent asunder.
The last of these echoes is more subdued, and decays into a tumultuous, seething field of activity. Despite Passchendaele’s bitter nickname “The Battle of Mud”, the music is never heavy or sodden, but remains taut and wiry as it obsessively develops and passes around a two-note descending half-step motive shorn from one of the opening trombone fragments. At times, the result could be mistaken for a cut passage from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Waterfront, but for all the frenetic activity, the music retains a sense of stasis, of being trapped endlessly retreading the same ground over and over again in search of an escape that does not come.
Eventually, this undirected striving ebbs in exhaustion, and the brass instrument pick out gleaming chords with stacks of bell tones (calling to mind, perhaps, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra), but this quickly boils away to leave the trombone alone once more to pick out another sequence of scattered fragments. The woodwinds sneak back in with a few plaintive chords to bring the piece to a close, but the progressions are crumpled and painful, casting a pall over the otherwise conciliatory sonorities. The overall effect is a glimpse into the memory of an old soldier, desperate to salvage some scrap of meaning or purpose from the endless futile miles of shell craters and corpses, shying away from reckoning with the bleak and utter pointlessness of the entire endeavor. (Both of Turnage’s grandfathers fought in the War.)
The young musicians of the OCYSO and YMFDO handled this grim music easily. The program opened with Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, which set the bar high — the first entry of the strings was ethereally subtle and perfectly together, as if there really were some eternal, ineffable background music to the cosmos and we were just hearing someone turn the volume knob up slightly in the middle of a phrase. Next to Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony (which closed the program), Passchendaele was a cakewalk, seemingly presenting few challenges of solo dexterity or ensemble cohesion. Still, when the music offered opportunities to shine, the musicians rose to the occasion admirably, especially in the case of the solo trombonist, whose name is not clear from the program listing. On the whole, the evening was an impressive showing; these young musicians clearly have bright futures in front of them.
You might remember a couple of years ago, when New Classic LA was posting a few items a week, keeping totally up-to-date concert listings, and generally being an active website about our town’s scene. It was great. There was a lot going on to cover. So why did we stop?
In short, I moved out of town. I had to for the first couple of years of my PhD in composition. Going back to school was a great decision for me, and I’m glad I did it, but man did I miss what was going on here. I tried to keep active with our scene from Santa Barbara (a mere two hours North), but getting into town on weeknights was really challenging, as was finding time to write for the site with classes and projects and such taking priority.
By the end of the second year there, being away from Los Angeles was driving me nuts. There was SO MUCH going on here. The LA Phil had an LA composers’ concert, and wild Up got onstage at Disney Hall. What’s Next? Ensemble brought Jacob TV over from the Netherlands for a weeklong residency. Gnarwhallaby played Carnegie Hall. The Industry blew everyone’s collective mind with their interactive staging of Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station. Nick Deyoe, Matt Barbier, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, and Scott Worthington founded WasteLAnd (which is quickly becoming my favorite concert series). Populist records has been putting out amazing records left and right. Aron Kallay founded Brightwork newmusic. People Inside Electronics partnered with the Hear Now Festival for their largest festival yet. Julia Adolphe got a piece played by the New York Phil. Synchromy – which I’m now a part of – reconfigured themselves for a fantastic upcoming season. Oh, and Alex Ross said we had the best orchestra in the US. Not that this is a competition.
Why am I saying all this? Because I want to say thanks, and let everyone know that New Classic LA is back. Thanks for keeping the seat warm while we were gone. I moved back to LA last week, and intend to get the site going full steam again in short order. We’ll have a new, easier-to-navigate concert listing. We’ll post sounds way, way more often. We’ll plug your shows, and interview composers and musicians who are doing interesting things.
I was sitting at Intelligentsia in Pasadena today and thinking that, while this is the most-hyped coffee in the US, it entirely deserves and lives up to the hype. So does LA’s new music scene. It’s great to be back. See you at the Southland Ensemble’s all Pauline Oliveros show on Tuesday.
The Southern California Resource for Electro-Acoustic Music is putting on a show at REDCAT tonight that sounds completely awesome. Here’s the rundown from the event page:
The venerated annual music festival—begun in 1986—signs off in style, with works by four masters of the electro-acoustic idiom. The program opens withPacific Light and Water/Wu Xing—Cycle of Destruction(2005), which features solo trumpet by creative music luminary Wadada Leo Smith “overlaid” on a fixed electro-acoustic composition by SCREAM founder Barry Schrader. Next is Anne LeBaron’s Floodsongs (2012), a choral setting of three poems by Douglas Kearney performed by the Santa Clarita Master Chorale conducted by Allan Petker, with live electronics by Phil Curtis. Played by the Formalist Quartet, David Rosenboom’s Four Lines (2001) for string quartet and electronics experiments with “attention-dependent sonic environments.” The concert—and the series—concludes with the world premiere of three electro-acoustic movements from Barry Schrader’s opus The Barnum Museum (2009–2012) inspired by Steven Millhauser’s short story which describes a fantastical museum of the imagination.
Details are available at redcat.org/event/scream-finale
Hey! I’m hereby setting a record late notice announcements, but Leah Paul is playing a show at the Silverlake Lounge today at 5. It’s hosted by Classical Revolution LA, and I’m pretty sure it’s free.
The info is at facebook.com/events/382417651815035/
Just ignore the “Brooklyn style indie-classical” part of the tag line. This is LA, and while we love Brooklyn, and commend them on their achievements, guess what? We’ve got a scene too, and constantly comparing ourselves to our comrades-in-arms-in-Park-Slope makes for some kind of inferiority complex. Let’s be proud of what we’ve got, because it’s goddamn awesome, and couldn’t be happening anywhere else.
When I started this blog, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately, to thank me, in a way, for covering LA’s new music scene, but also, it almost seemed, to take up arms together, ask “what can we do to make things even better?” and then go out and do it. I am sure as hell glad that he did. In addition to becoming a friend, Ben has been an enormous advocate for new music here in LA, and we do, in fact, have some rad stuff in the works. Ben had talked about writing a post/essay in which to consider our local scene and offer some suggestions to take it from good to great to extraordinary. Man, am I glad that he came through and wrote what follows. Read on, then head to a concert and start talking. Here’s Ben.
Two anecdotes to set the stage:
An untold number of years ago, back when I was involved in my first upstart entrepreneurial new music project here in Los Angeles, one of my collaborators thought it would be a good idea to reach out to one of the older, more established new music groups in town to ask, you know, for advice on what the heck we’re doing. To seek any kernels of wisdom from those older and wiser on the highs and lows of striking out on your own to form a new arts non-profit.
The response: “we can’t help you, you’re our competition.”
This has stuck with me for years since because I can’t get over what a tragic answer it is. Not to get all Shakespearean, but it cuts straight to the core of one of man’s fatal flaws- the misperception of self interest. I get it: the scraps of money seemingly available to the new music musicians are so small, our instinct is to fight ever more viciously over the precious crumbs of audience members. It’s human nature. But in reality, this attitude is actually grossly self-defeating. It’s like the individual Easter Islander fighting for the right to cut down a tree in order to roll a massive stone statue miles away to erect it facing the ocean. Yeah sure it might make the individual chief seem totally awesome- until there are no more trees and the civilization collapses. It’s the tragedy of the commons – somebody should write an opera about it.
Composers in Los Angeles love to complain about never getting played by the LA Phil. They do have a point, at least in terms of the data. Esa-Pekka earned accolades and worship from New York critics for his adventurous programming of (mostly) Finnish composers + John Adams and the audiences that attended said concerts and applauded, but very few if any Los Angeles based composers ever received much (if any) love. As if adding insult to injury, The LA Phil now plans a “Brooklyn Festival” of new music, and the LA Chamber Orchestra continues to parade a familiar batch of young Brooklyn based composers across their stage.
On the other hand, we the Los Angeles composer might stand back a second and ask if we deserve it. We might individually believe our music more than worthy to grace the baton of our boy wonder conductor, but who collectively do we hold up as the best we have to offer? This should make apparent the bigger problem: there is no collective from which to choose our representative. I do believe Los Angeles and its new music makers have a wealth of exciting ideas and music. But it’s Balkanized. At least compared to the current gold standard of Brooklyn (cue choir “ahhh”), what I see is great potential in search of scene.
Maybe this is the reason why Brooklyn keeps poaching some of our best prospects. Young composers move to New York for the scene, not the weather.
So what do they got that we don’t? What are the components of a thriving new music scene? Starting from the assumption that New York has a thriving scene, as their PR people constantly tell us via twitter, we might think a good place to start would be to list all the things New York has.
1. Music publishers
2. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI and ASCAP)
3. Lots of New Music Ensembles
4. Centenarian composers with amusing stories about meeting Stravinsky
5. Lots of other composers
6. PR people
7. An audience (?)
8. Record Labels
9. Music Schools
10. Venerable blue blood investment in music
12. Agents and managers
OK. So there’s a bunch of random stuff. New York has a lot of things, neat. As the classical music business center of the country, it better. But actually this list is quite useless. It’s a business list, and Los Angeles is not about to compete with New York as the center of the classical music business, just as New York is not about to compete with LA as the center of the movie making business. Basic economic geography tells us that like businesses tend to cluster- there is mutual benefit to it. It’s why all the new tech companies are in Silicon Valley, it’s why there are all those furniture stores on La Brea. But I’m talking about artistic clustering- an art scene- and the number of agents your city has don’t matter. Basically, this list is utterly irrelevant to the fact of the LA Phil’s “Brooklyn” festival. What LA composers and musicians need to foster is a clustering of artistic creation. The agents will follow.
An art scene has a lot in common with the industrial clustering of Detroit or Boston or New York. But let’s think about what it is actually important to cluster. Seattle had a thriving grunge indie-music scene, and produced a lot of famous bands. The major record labels came to them. That should be the model.
So what is a thriving art scene? It’s a bunch of people clustering together and doing art. And then talking about it.
Here’s a new list:
1. Lots of new music ensembles
2. Lots of composers
3. Lots of people (mostly the same people from parts one and two) talking about it
4. An audience (?)
Now most likely this is something that happens organically, and can’t be prescribed for a city by a central planner writing an obscure blog article. But think of this as descriptive rather than prescriptive. And it’s already starting to happen. Enough elements of this list start firing, and what does it add up to? Hype. And what follows hype? All the other stuff from list one. Larger monied institutions. Audience members who aren’t actually musicians themselves. PR people. Hipsters. All looking to milk some of hype for themselves.
There’s something to this about the biological imperative for creating art in the first place. That’s another blog post.
Here’s what you can do to help: first, stop sitting in your room complaining that nobody is playing your music or that you have no where to play your instrument. Get out there and make it happen. We need a lot of ensembles looking to put on concerts. This is a lot of work. But as groups trail blaze a path, venues start to learn, and it gets easier. The next step is easy though: where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances. And the two actually form a symbiotic relationship. The composer looking to get his or her own piece played by an ensemble is a reliable audience member. In fact, they are probably the early adopter audience member. When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.
But don’t get depressed. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, one or two bands playing in isolation a scene does not make. Don’t forget about step three. It’s the most important. LA already has a bunch of groups and a bunch of composers.
Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It’s the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene’s activity.
It’s ok that your motives are selfish- you hope to get plucked out of the cutting edge scene by monied institutions who can help your music reach wider audiences. But to have any chance of that, you first need a hyped scene and you need to be an active part of that scene. Go to concerts! I simply cannot understand composers (and they are numerous) who do not go to concerts. Don’t you like music? Why the heck are you putting yourself through all of this work if you don’t? And once you do, be selfless in your promotion of others’ work. Especially if you like it.
The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.
The crazy thing about thinking of two small fledgling new music groups in the same city as each others’ “competition” is that a single group could never possibly meet the musical needs of any true music fan. We are bands, not soft-drink companies. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are not each others’ competition, at least not like Coke and Pepsi are. People might choose Coke exclusively over Pepsi as the cause of their Type II diabetes, but nobody chooses The Beach Boys as their band to the exclusion of all music. Nobody has ever said “Nico Muhly is my composer, please take your business elsewhere.”
It is through the confluence of artistic activity that aesthetic direction is established, a scene is hyped, and ultimately, young talented composers stop moving away from Los Angeles to start their careers but to it. So if you want a true scene, it’s time to come down out of your closely guarded aesthetic towers, your new music fiefdoms, and start attending each others’ concerts. It’s already happening. You are the audience and the creator. You are also the publicist. Talk about what you’re doing. Argue about it. Remember, you’re selling cool. It’s the perception of cool that the audience and money will follow.
And oh yeah, there might even be some great music made in the process. Who knows.
Ben Phelps is a composer and percussionist based in Los Angeles. Visit him at benphelpscomposer.com.
Julia Adolphe’s chamber opera, Sylvia, for which she wrote both the libretto and the score – and let’s be honest, she produced it too – was, in a word, killer. With lush writing for what could be sparse instrumentation, strikingly effective (and pretty damn clever) storytelling, and great performers (I was especially impressed by Matthew Miles’ handling of a challenging tenor part), Julia seriously hit her mark. (Full disclosure: she’s a friend, but so is pretty much everyone I talk to on here). I had hoped to talk with her about the opera shortly before its run at the Lost Studio Theater a couple of months ago, but she was so busy running things that we weren’t able to get it together in time. The good news: we held off until now so that I could use this opportunity to tell you that the entire thing is being broadcast on Sunday, July 8, at 7 PM on Kinetics Radio. Also, Julia’s band is playing tonight at Bar Lubitsch at 9. Listen in, and read on:
Sylvia is an opera set in psychodrama therapy, dealing with the repercussions of a young Jewish woman’s affair with a much older man, who is a family friend, and both of whom are descendants of holocaust survivors. This is heavy stuff. How did you go about approaching such a big, and perhaps sensitive, topic?
The story of Sylvia has been in the back of my mind since I was sixteen years old. It is based on a true story, on the experiences and struggles of a close childhood friend. It took me many years of sifting through the content to find the appropriate outlet, format, and structure to communicate such difficult and complex material. I wrote my first version of Sylvia when I was eighteen. At that time, the plot focused on how Sylvia’s past sexual abuse impacted her relationship with her boyfriend. It was mostly a play, with musical moments appearing alongside poetic dialogue. I did not realize at the time that I was trying to write an opera. Nor was I ready to really deal with the content head on. By emphasizing Sylvia’s current relationship with her boyfriend, I was leaving all of the dramatic, emotionally explosive material in the past, alluding to it but never exposing it. The character of Nathan, the family friend who abuses Sylvia as a teenager, was never mentioned by name and was not a character in the play. (He is still not mentioned by name in the chamber opera until the very end).
As an undergraduate, I concentrated on expanding my musical language. I continued to rewrite the story, this time introducing a scene where Sylvia attends psychodrama. When I showed this draft to Dr. Stephen Hartke at the beginning of my Masters program at USC, he seized on the idea of psychodrama as the framework through which to tell the entire story. I began researching psychodrama extensively and found that there were fascinating parallels between the goals of psychodrama and the goals of opera. Both seek to open the creative mind, to provoke new thought patterns and solutions, and to evoke a collective memory. Both are larger than life and engage the wildest parts of our imaginations. With the psychodramatic format as my guide, the structure of the opera fell into place. I was able to move fluidly through past, present, and an imaginary future. Finally, it became clear to me that my friend’s background as a second generation Holocaust survivor, and my own identity as a young Jewish woman, could not be left out of the story any longer.
I only know you as a composer and singer, but for Sylvia, you’ve written the libretto. A few questions here: is it based on anything? And what’s your writing background like? Did you study literature or theatre formally at any point?
I did study English as a double major at Cornell. From age nine to thirteen I was in a youth theater company in New York City, so yes I do have a theater background. I did theater in high school and always loved its collaborative nature. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to write an opera: I missed collaborating. I loved that magic you feel in a theater when you’re making something new.
What was the experience of working on this like? Did you establish an emotional connection with your characters?
I had the opposite experience, actually. I came into this project extremely attached to the characters for they were real people to me. I had to cast aside all of my personal opinions and write what was best for the opera. The greatest challenge was overlooking my personal contempt for the man who Nathan is based on. I was forced to identify with him, to make him three-dimensional, to delve into what motivated him and how each person has the potential to get to that point where they abuse another. Again, the psychodrama helped: Nathan as a person doesn’t really exist in the opera; he is conjured up and embodied by the doctors and the patients in the therapy session. The fact that the four singers take turns portraying Nathan, showing him in different lights, helped me distance myself from him a single, threatening entity as well as demonstrate how we all have the potential to slip into the role of abuser.
Were you working on the music and the libretto side-by-side, or did one come before the other?
The libretto came first. I did not start any of the music until I was completely satisfied with the libretto and could not imagine changing it. Then of course I started the music and ended up cutting about a third of the libretto. It became astoundingly clear to me which sections needed to go once confronted with the task of setting it all to music.
Tell me a bit about what went into pulling this all together. How hands on have you been in the production?
My role as producer began a full year before the performance you saw on April 14, 2012. Soprano Sophie Wingland had signed on as early as the fall of 2010. First, I chose the Lost Studio, an intimate black-box theater, as the venue. I secured a grant from the Puffin Foundation and a Subito grant from the American Composers Forum. I then selected the director Maureen Huskey, my co-producer Lester Grant, and booked my friend and colleague conductor Eric Guinivan, who is a very talented composer in his own right. We held auditions for the remaining three roles and were thrilled with our selection of baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, mezzo-soprano Jessica Mirshak, and tenor Matthew Miles. The three of them were fellow Masters students at USC. I was very involved in the rehearsal process, perhaps too involved, but I had to wear a lot of hats since we were working on a tight budget.
How did you come into contact with Maureen Huskey? And what has it been like to work with her? Have you collaborated with directors before?
Maureen Huskey is a dream come true. The Dean of the Directing Program at CalArts put us in touch last summer. We began an email correspondence about Sylvia that transformed into long personal essays back and forth about the story’s content. Maureen had so many important questions for me that I had not yet answered. She had unbelievable insight into the characters, and she challenged me to think about them in a way I had not done before. Maureen brought the production to a whole new level. There was a tangible difference in the atmosphere once she entered the rehearsal process: she charged project with this fierce energy and excitement that brought the piece to life. Two of the singers told me that she was the director they had always dreamed of, and that she had changed them forever as performers.
Where do you see independent opera fitting into the scene here? Have you found an interested audience eager to hear this premiere, or have you had to fight to build one on your own?
I think as long as a story is compelling, engaging, and evocative, there will always be an audience, no matter the genre. As long as people can identify with the characters and change with them, even if only for the duration of the performance, the piece will be successful. I believe that independent opera needs to stop thinking of itself as a separate entity that is somehow more complex or higher than others. Opera is very simple: it’s drama, it’s music, it’s people, and the more inclusive opera becomes the greater an audience it will attract.
You’ve been in LA for a couple of years now, and (I believe) just finished your MM at USC. What’s next? Plan on sticking around?
I am actually staying at USC to get a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree. So I will be here for the foreseeable future!
Anything else you would like to add?
A full recording of Sylvia will be broadcast by Kinetics Radio, a station devoted to new music of all genres hosted by composer Thomas Kotcheff. Tune in at 7 PM PST on Sunday, July 8th to hear the performance!