If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.
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.
Say the word “lied” to the average classical listener, and they probably won’t think of a post-tonal heavy metal band roaring about gay sex in front of lurid, psychedelic projections. But audiences were treated to just that — among many other raucous, exuberant offerings — at last night’s 21c Liederabend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Conceived by the Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt and co-directed by Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the 21c Liederabend project seeks to update the 19th–Century tradition of Schubertiads and liederabends for contemporary audiences, bringing in not just living poets and composers but also visual artists to create an immersive multimedia experience. Updatings of this sort sometimes feel like painful pandering to passing fads, but the 21c Liederabend was nothing of the sort. Rather than a gimmicky shoehorning-in of disparate elements, the evening was a gripping celebration of the possibilities of song at the start of a new century, an exploration of the range and capabilities of music and the human voice.
On entering the hall before the show, the audience was greeted not with the “instrumental warmups overlaid with chitchat” that usually precedes a classical concert, but instead with a pre-recorded playlist of the sort usually reserved for plays, rock shows, and other less stuffy occasions. It was a perfect choice. Without calling undue attention to itself, it set a relaxed atmosphere of openness, and, with a few carefully selected pop numbers mixed in with the rest, foreshadowed how far the concert would venture away from standard classical fare. A brief video skit involving a muppet and Deborah Voigt introduced the project, and then it was on to the first piece of the program, the world première of Juhi Bansal’s “Begin”, a setting of a text by Neil Aitken and the only work of the evening scored for voice and piano alone (performed exquisitely by Peabody Southwell and Richard Valitutto, respectively). Beginning with barely a murmur in the piano and the quietest of hummings, it is a leisurely, lyrical piece that takes full advantage of the time it has to build to its impassioned climax. Drawing inspiration from the life of Charles Babbage, the piece conveys the yearning desire of dreaming of a world half seen, as well as the loss that getting lost in such dreams can cause to the people around you. Radiant and transcendent in its final passions, “Begin” is a testament to the continuing possibilities of the voice+piano art song.
Next was a set of songs from John Adams and June Jordan’s 1995 “song play” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. These selections focused on the arc of Dewain, a black man arrested on trumped-up charges whose prison cell is rent asunder by the shaking earth. This was the first piece with amplification on the program, and it took a while for the balance to settle; from where I was sitting, the backing ensemble came close to overpowering the singers at times, though by the end balance had been restored. Adams’s music was at its dynamic, twitchy best, and felt constrained by the limits of a concert hall. During the “Song about the On-Site Altercation,” especially, the stillness of the actors felt like a let-down next to the tension and forcefulness of the music. Still, “Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise,” a slow ballade from the second half of the show, gave me goosebumps for its entire duration, not least because of the plaintive clarity of Cedric Berry’s voice. (The slow transformation of the backing projection from a drab, decrepit wall to a pure and open sky didn’t hurt either.)
Going slightly astray from the printed order, this was followed by the world première of Jacob Cooper’s “Ripple the Sky.” The text was by Greg Alan Brownderville and incorporated snippets from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet alongside quotes from Robert Schumann’s personal diary from around the time of his 1854 attempt at drowning himself in the Rhine. Unsurprisingly, then, the music had much to do with death by water, but it was far from a programmatic depiction of ripples and currents. Backing the singer Theo Bleckmann was an ensemble of strings and electronics (including some pre-recorded vocals by Mellissa Hughes), and together they spun a sere, arid landscape, devoid of any breath of air. It was paradoxical, but it worked, capturing something of the vacancy and inertness of a deep depression — including that strangest of states where the world seems brimming over with undirected feeling and yet action is a hopeless proposition. Built on a foundation of uneasy drones and skittery gymnastics from the strings, “Ripple the Sky” is a gaunt voyage across a landscape of sun-bleached fragments.
Ending the first half were two songs from David T Little and Anne Waldman’s Artaud in the Black Lodge, an experimental music theatre piece imagining a meeting between Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, and David Lynch in some kind of afterlife or otherworldly plane. Little described the work as his imagining of what would happen if a heavy metal band tried writing art songs, and the performance (by Timur and the Dime Museum) lived up to that, complete with punk-inspired haircuts and distressed and re-sewn black clothes. Timur was a captivating frontman, standing way out at the lip of the stage, embodying the spirit of Burroughs while singing about the modernist author’s cut-up technique and the time that he cut off part of one of his fingers to impress a man he had a crush on. In keeping with the heavy metal influence, there were moments of overwhelming grunge and noise, washes of white noise that spoke to the fury of war and the urgency of desire, but there were also moments of intimacy and tenderness, as when Timur/Burroughs crooned a delicate “take it – take it – take it” (referring at times to his finger and to his body in the guise of a sexual offering), echoing the gentle yet irresistible urgings of Peter Quint in Britten and Piper’s Turn of the Screw. At one point, lights above the stage shone out into the audience, and on seeing the still figures in upholstered chairs, I found myself doing a double take and biting back surprised laughter — I had quite forgotten my surroundings and was half expecting to gaze out on a stadium full of cheering, dancing bodies.
Variety was a hallmark of the second half as well. Leaha Villarreal’s “Never Not” (text by Adara Meyers) brought us back from intermission with a pensive, cryptic meditation. The projections for this featured what looked like decontextualized shots from 1950s makeup commercials and nature documentaries, which blurred together with the music to create an unusual atmosphere — it was as though we had traveled back from the distant future, turning our eyes on the 20th Century much the way we in the present look back at civilizations before the invention of writing. We have tantalizing fragments that suggest echoes of continuity with how we live today, but shorn of context, their secrets and stories are lost, and we grope towards their meanings forever in the dark. In a similar vein, this piece and its video seemed to make the present distant and unreal, shrouded in the mists of forgottenness.
Excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Sound from the Bench (text by Jena Osman, pulled together from court decisions and ventriloquism manuals) followed, with members of the Los Robles Master Chorale presenting snippets concerning the fiction of corporate personhood and the financial ventriloquism of the current campaign finance landscape. Then came the world première of Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. Inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope, Aokigahara Forest, and the Nazca Lines in Peru, the piece felt unfocused and also a little long for its surroundings. Even so, there were some arresting moments, as when a blown conch shell melded seamlessly into the breathy whisper of a solo flute, or the searing passage where Nathan Gunn sang of a desperate hope to find someone beloved after an unspecified disaster: “I wanted to find you./Even in pieces,/I wanted to find/And assemble/Those splinters of you.”
Next and last were two excerpts form Jefferson Friedman’s album On in Love, where he worked with poet and singer Craig Wedren to create a set of songs that each did one single thing, instead of his previous, more complex approaches to structure and content. First was the rowdy “Fight Song” that seemed somewhere between a hyped–up encouragement to a football team and a jingoistic incitement to actual war, complete with vicious sections in 5 and imagery of blood and conquest. Then, to close the evening, came “Tarrying”, an achingly simple paean to the Christian conception of divine forgiveness. After the dizzying complexity on offer elsewhere in the evening, such a turn to the plainspoken might have seemed an odd choice to conclude things, but in Friedman’s hands, simplicity became transcendence. The final stanza of Wedren’s text is an unadorned repetition of the word “please”, a condensed prayer sent heavenwards with no caveats or conditions. A request for forgiveness, shorn of all explanations of extenuating circumstances. Earnest, despairing, profound. The projections overflowed their screens, painting every surface in Disney Hall red, blazing with holy fire.
I have groused in the past about concerts that don’t plan anything to cover extensive set changes, thus losing the audience’s attention and promoting tedium, so it seems only fair that I give praise when a creative team avoids that trap. To cover for each of the (many) set changes throughout the evening, pre-recorded videos of the composers talking about their work played, keeping the audience’s attention and providing interesting and illuminating context and commentary on what we were about to hear while stagehands scurried around moving chairs, stands, and pianos. The result was a truly integrated concert experience, one that felt like it had been consciously designed on every level from start to finish; I wasn’t watching a bunch of pieces that might be good in their own right surrounded by buffers of boredom, I was watching a show. This also had the curious effect of lifting my enjoyment of some of the program’s weaker pieces; since everything flowed seamlessly along a clear trajectory, each individual piece on the program became part of a greater whole instead of having to stand or fall on its own merit. There were a few glitches here and there (usually when the audience clapped long enough to produce a second round of bows, forcing the lights crew to hastily rewind back out of the set change lighting), but I hope that those don’t dissuade others from taking this approach. Planning out the logistical details at this level can be tedious, but it makes a difference, and I hope I see more groups embrace this level of thoughtfulness and artistic integrity.
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.
I love it when a flyer actually contains all of the information that you might want to know about a given concert. Who’s playing, what the program is, the location, the date and time, how much tickets are, and where to get them. That’s it! You’d be amazed at how many fail to include this seemingly necessary information. Having spent some time working in concert marketing, I’ve discovered that people aren’t going to call or go to your website. They will, however, loudly complain about being uninformed. Put all of the info on the flyer, in the email, the facebook event invitation…basically, make it so that the person reading it doesn’t have to do anything else to find out what’s going on.
Having completed that minor rant, I’d like to share a superb example I received this morning, and encourage you to check out this concert. Amazing players, cool programs, friendly people, all of that good stuff. I might go just to thank them for making my job easy by sending such a well-designed and informative flyer. And on that note, here’s ALL of the info for the show (click to make it bigger/higher resolution):