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LA Phil at 100: A birthday concert remembers institution’s history.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s very first performance, Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted (among other events) a Centennial Birthday Celebration Concert this past week.

The concert was foremost a celebration of the philharmonic’s past, bringing together conductors emeriti Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen to join Gustavo Dudamel, with short promotional videos linking each maestro’s turn at the podium. A last-minute program change pushed Salonen to the opening of the concert, with an excellent performance of Lutosławski’s 4th Symphony–a piece commissioned by the Phil under Salonen’s direction and premiered with the orchestra under Lutosławki’s own baton in 1993. The 4th symphony is one of the LA Phil’s great contributions to the orchestral repertoire; the work understands how to make the orchestra resonate, while also exploring new territory both for the musicians and conductor. In that way, its success reminds me of the relationship that the LA Phil’s has built with Andrew Norman over the past few years.

Mehta followed Salonen, first with Wagner’s Overture from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and then with a somewhat unconvincing performance of Ravel’s La valse. Still, the audience of this particular event seemed more interested in Mehta’s mere presence than Ravel’s intricate layerings. Further, had these works opened the concert (and so preceded the Lutosławski) as planned, the flow would likely have been less awkward.

Current music director Gustavo Dudamel led the final set, starting with Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, which had some excellent moments, including a stunning lullaby, and featured several of the ensemble’s talented soloists. Dudamel was then joined by Mehta and Salonen for the premiere of a new commission by Daníel Bjarnason: From Space I Saw Earth. The piece, which uses all three conductors by splitting the ensemble into groups, is interesting in concept, exploring timelines and the compression and stretching of material (the piece was inspired by space exploration and the moon landing). In practice, though, while the choreography between the three conductors was interesting to watch, I’m not convinced that the three fully bought into the piece. As a result, there were interesting smears of texture, but the performance never quite achieved the level of detail or balance needed to give the audience much-needed landmarks to grab onto.

That being said, for what it was–a celebration with some music–the event was quite successful. It would have been hard to look around at all the talent, history, investment, and direction of the LA Phil without a heartfelt recognition of their significance to local and national arts community. At the same time, I could not ignore a thought which has become familiar this season: while there is certainly value to remembering its history and making bold marquis statements with famous names, works, and soloists, ultimately it is innovation that serves as the life-blood of the LA Phil, and which makes it relevant and important today.

LA Phil at 100: Looking Backward & Looking Forward

Thursday evening is the LA Phil’s Centennial Birthday Concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Recovering from a whirlwind previous season that saw volumes of new works, artists and commissions, this birthday concert looks to distill the Philharmonic’s past, present, and future into a tidy package. By bringing together conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta, and Dudamel, the program highlights Los Angeles history from Stravinsky to Lutosławski, culminating with a bold glance into the future in the premiere of a newly-commissioned work by Daníel Bjarnason.

Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth comes highly-anticipated, and rightfully so: the Icelandic composer has produced outstanding work in his residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as well as in his collaborations with the LA Phil itself. But this new work pushes even those bounds, with all three of the towering conductors of the evening performing simultaneously on the new piece—a logistical undertaking rare in its conception, and made even more rare by the caliber of musicians involved. The idea is bold and beautiful, local and global, nostalgic and forward-looking, in a way that lends a sense of “ah, there she is” to the LA Phil that we know and love.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly to Bjarnason about the commission for From Space I Saw Earth, which is inspired (as many of his works are) by science and space. He says the piece plays on perspectives, the same musical material being stretched and compressed into parallel timelines which intersect and diverge over the course of the piece–me makes the analogy of how fermatas bring the breath back together in chorales, before they depart again. This effect is an interest reflected in much of his music, so the idea for multiple conductors presented a way to achieve it quite organically, albeit magnified by the considerable amount of freedom Bjarnason offers each conductor in how they move through the material. With this whole complex routine contained to the stage, the natural choreography of the performance, Bjarnason says, reinforces and dramatizes the effect of these independent sections diverging and converging.

The new work’s role in the program as a whole is well thought out. The freedom and resulting cumulative effect pairs well with the ad libitum sections granted to the conductor in the Lutosławski’s symphony (commissioned and premiered by the Phil in 1993 under the composer’s baton), which alternates smeared orchestral textures with tightly-coordinated passages. And, compared to the narrative drive of Stravinsky’s Firebird, I anticipate that Bjarnason’s rich sense of space and knack for detailed, bubbling orchestrations may wrap up the night with an opulent sonic blanket. Before any notes are even played, this concert already promises to be a fitting celebration of 100 years, to the day, since this philharmonic sprang to life, and a statement that it plans to lead us into the next 100.

LACO Season Opener: Martín makes new work feel like a classic, and a classic feel brand new.

Saturday’s opening concert inagurated a new era at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra—one not only marked by a new conductor in Jaime Martín, but also a season that feels almost startlingly fresh in everything from its commissioning projects to its slick new logo and updated website.

LACO Director Jaime Martín with Andrew Norman PC: Michelle Shiers Photography

The season opened with the first installment of an Andrew Norman commission, aptly titled Begin. Norman’s writing was, expectedly, sensitive and immensely creative, with hocketing lines across the orchestra dissolving into a timbral stew before swirling and bubbling up into moments of coalescence. Norman’s particular brand of magic is creating a sense of impossible inevitability from even the most exploratory ideas, and Begin was no exception, arriving at intense, coordinated thrusts of sound that seem somehow simultaneously unimaginable and unavoidable. Like with his recent Sustain, in Begin Norman shows incredible maturity and restraint, always leaving a hint of his material devolving back into chaos. The orchestration was especially effective in articulating the drama of the piece, with quiet moments smeared thinly across the stage while tutti gestures are brought forward with thick, rich resonance; a conversational approach which helped reinforced the spirit of a concerto for chamber orchestra.

LACO director Jaime Marín with Anne Sofie von Otter PC: Michelle Shiers Photography

The performance by LACO was so lively and convincing that a newcomer might well have wondered what Berlioz and Beethoven were doing on the program of a new music ensemble. Anne Sofie von Otter was charming, but the Berlioz (and encores) that concluded the first half were effective, if unexceptional.  Martín managed the balance with von Otter’s soft mezzo-soprano voice quite well, lending the piece an easy nonchalance, and from a programming perspective, it was a sensible choice to follow the Norman (and seemed to resonate with many in the audience). Musically, though, it did not showcase the ensemble’s technical or musical potential, save a few of the cycle’s softest moments.

The performance of Beethoven Symphony No.7, on the other hand, was extraordinary. Martín brought his experience in the woodwinds section to his interpretation, bringing out Beethoven’s subtle lines and details as they move through the orchestra with incredible clarity. The work was precise and raucous, intimate and boisterous—all the dramatic contradictions that make Beethoven, well, Beethoven. And it was in this performance that Martín really showed the musical sensitivity that is his own magic, each adjustment he showed from the podium elicited a (somehow) more perfect music. From the minute details to the overarching form, LACO and Martín’s performance on the Beethoven was simply exquisite, and might be the best performance of it I have ever heard, live or recorded.

LACO conductor Jaime Martín PC: Michelle Shiers Photography

There are small things I could critique: the position of the second violin section really needs to be adjusted slightly to face the audience as they were much too quiet, and their sound, even when it cuts through, is muffled from being angled back towards the orchestra. The lack of young (or even middle-aged) audience members is also concerning, though LACO seems to be doing their part to reach out to younger audiences, and the Royce Hall performances certainly attract more young people to attend. But overall, what we learned from Saturday’s performance is that under Martín, LACO is an ensemble capable of making new works feel like established classics, and established classics feel brand new. Paired with an administration which is proving to have a nuanced understanding of the LA music scene and a real plan for the future, LACO is certainly the organization to watch this season.

Jaime Martín, flute virtuoso and conductor, takes the reins of LACO

LACO Music Director Jaime Martín PC: Ben Gibbs

LACO Welcomes Jaime!
Jaime Martín, Conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
September 28th, 8:00 pm at Glendale’s Alex Theater
September 29th, 7:00pm at Royce Hall

*See LACO.org for more information on open rehearsal, reception, and pre-concert festivities in honor of the opening of the season


On September 28th, flute virtuoso and conductor Jaime Martín will officially take the baton as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO is one of the institutions at the heart of the Los Angeles music scene, balancing excellent traditional programming with the commissioning of new works and a wildly adventurous SESSION series. The commencement of Martín’s role is, on the surface, a sensible import of the European tradition for an ensemble which shines in that repertoire—and certainly, this season does not shy away from tried-and-true major works, nor from utilizing Martín’s relationships with world-class soloists like Anne Sofie von Otter and Christian Tetzlaff. But there is more to this appointment than simply a conductor with deep ties to the global classical music scene: Martín is a sensitive and curious leader, whose passion for collaboration is already coming into focus for LACO. And in a moment when Los Angeles has an abundance of musical talent, creativity and energy, this combination might make Martín just the person to harness west-coast excitement into world-class refinement.

In anticipation of LACO’s opening concerts on September 28th and 29th, I was able to sit down with Martín to talk about his appointment as Music Director. He is charismatic and energetic, and he speaks about the ensemble and Los Angeles with a genuine spark in his eyes. Over the course of our conversation, the importance of relationships, trust, and freedom in his music-making emerged as clear through-lines. Looking at the programs and music of this coming season,  you get the sense that these are not just ideals, but foundational to the way he engages with and creates music.

With his background as a performer, it is natural that Martín treats his role at the podium with a deep sense of trust for the musicians in front of him. One of the things he values most, he says, is “if the musicians tell me after the concert that they had the feeling of being free; that they feel I let them breathe with the music.” And with a chamber orchestra of LACO’s caliber, that freedom has created some wonderful moments, already, under Martín’s baton. “There are no passengers in an orchestra, everybody is driving in a way,” Martín explains–and this core belief is evident in his responsiveness while leading the musicians, as well as in his commitment to bring world-class soloists and commission works to celebrate the ensemble.

Martín conducting LACO
PC: Jamie Pham

Which brings us to another facet of Martín’s relationship-building: Composers. Besides an impressive lineup of soloists, the new works presented this season include the beginning of a prolonged collaboration with Andrew Norman, a commission and SESSION curation for Missy Mazzoli, and collaborations with Juan Pablo Contreras, Christopher Rountree, and Derrick Spiva Jr., among others. An emphasis on Los Angeles talent is clear, but the half-dozen commissions (one for each of the six concerts Martín will conduct this season) articulate an overall support for living composers that itself feels Angeleno at heart. Of course, placing new works alongside staples of the canon risks the forced, awkward juxtapositions that other orchestras have tried in recent years, where intermission is marked by donors leaving and students arriving. But somehow LACO’s 2019-2020 program feels genuine in putting forth new and established works with equal esteem.

This sense of genuineness comes in part from an emphasis on building longer-term relationships with composers like Norman, Reid and Mazzoli, who are already becoming widely accepted as worthy companions to the great masters of old. But the intent to find and support new masterworks is also a broader impulse on Martín’s part, who hates the word “routine,” and sees what is happening in Los Angeles right now as a unique opportunity to bring great new works forward:

I don’t think we need to find excuses to program. We have to make people excited and curious; I think that is the starting point. In the end, the ideal situation is when you create a relationship of trust with the audience. Then, that audience looks at the program in five years and maybe they don’t recognize any of the pieces, but they say “you know what, I’m going to go because if they’re performing that, it must be worth listening to—and maybe I’ll be surprised!” If we could achieve that, it would be fantastic. But you cannot demand that trust, you have to earn it.

Martín conducting LACO
PC: Jamie Pham

The opening concert of the season is a clear signal of Martín’s seriousness about earning this trust: Andrew Norman—a Los Angeles composer who probably knows LACO better than any other—will premiere the first part of a three-year collaboration with the orchestra, alongside Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été  (featuring renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Fusing old and new, local and global, this season at LACO is poised to pick up the baton left by the LA Phil’s astonishing centennial season, and in doing so, it may help define the livewire that is the Los Angeles music scene today.

A note on the future of New Classic LA

Hi everybody. Nick Norton here, founder, editor, designer, and sometimes-subject-of-reviews of New Classic LA. And I just signed the necessary documents to transfer ownership of the website to Equal Sound. This post is to explain why that is, and let you, dear readers and supporters, know what I’ve got planned for New Classic LA’s next decade.

DECADE?!

Yeah, decade. I set up New Classic LA more than ten years ago now. When I moved home to LA after my first round of grad school for composition and started trying to make connections in the new music scene, the first thing I noticed was that there was no central concert calendar. While I was in college I had written for a site called San Diego Punk that had a calendar of every punk or hardcore show in San Diego. You could check the site every Monday and decide what bands you were going to see that week. It made it incredibly easy to get connected with the punk scene.

I’ve always thought that shows are the bread and butter of any music scene. In addition to being the main outlet for artists, they’re also a place for musicians and community members to meet, hear something new, make connections to people who might inspire them, have their ideas and preconceptions challenged, and—increasingly important in this age of daily political terrorism—do something enjoyable.

Writing for San Diego Punk, and having their calendar as a resource, introduced me to a ton of musicians in the San Diego scene when I first moved there. When I got to LA and needed to meet musicians, I thought “hey, I’m passable enough at building websites to throw a basic calendar page together, and that would be a good way to meet people.”

So I did it. Mostly on downtime at my day job. Within days I received emails from five or six ensembles asking me to list their shows and offering me press tickets.

“Whoa,” I thought, “this is actually working!” But as a composer, this presented me with a massive conflict of interest. Could I accept free tickets to shows if I didn’t write about them? If I wrote about them, would that turn me into a critic rather than a composer? If I said nice things would they be interpreted as syncophantic attempts to get my pieces played? If I said mean, or at least critical, things, would that keep my pieces from getting played?

My solution was to ask people who seemed interested in the New Classic LA if they wanted to write for it. I didn’t have a budget, so the payment was free tickets to shows or free CDs (this was when CDs were still a thing). That way we could post things regularly to keep traffic up, they could struggle with the inherent conflicts in reviewing their peers, and I could focus on the calendar aspects of the site.

This model worked pretty well for a while. For a long while, actually—it’s more or less what we still use. At one point I think I had ten writers contributing semi-regularly, and two friends helping out with maintaining the calendar. Things were cool. But as I grew and found more opportunities as a composer, I had less and less time to pay attention to all of the review and interview requests and necessary updates and maintenance to the site. Plus I had a new project to which I was devoting the large majority of my free time and energy: the concert series Equal Sound.

Producing concerts with Equal Sound is, for me, an artistic process akin to composition. In fact, I believe running New Classic LA is a form of composition as well. Music, for me, is a way of listening, and unique to every listening individual. My job as a composer, then, is to help people hear things. I always ask myself what the best way to do that is in any given situation: if there’s something that I want people to hear that doesn’t exist yet, perhaps I have to write that piece and have it performed or recorded. If that thing that I want them to hear already exists, then maybe the best way for me to help a listener hear it is to put on a concert of that thing, or to make a mixtape with that thing on it, or, in the case of New Classic LA, to write about that thing or get some publicity for an event featuring it.

With this in mind, more and more of my time and energy has been going to Equal Sound. Last year we received our 501c3 letter from the IRS, and I went all in on trying to grow the series. Realizing I didn’t have time for both, I started asking trusted friends if they’d be interested in taking over New Classic LA. I even looked into having bigger music sites acquire it. While I was putting effort into this, the site itself began to flounder as I wasn’t chasing down writers for updates. You might have noticed that things here have been lacking lately. I simply didn’t have time for both Equal Sound and New Classic LA. One had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Equal Sound.

But I didn’t, and don’t, want New Classic LA to die. It just needs a better infrastructure and more resources to continue to run well and serve our community.

Thankfully, we came up with a solution. The lawyers who got Equal Sound’s 501c3 set up advised us to make our mission broad so that we could partake in a wide range of musical activities. Equal Sound’s mission, as it were, is “to introduce listeners to new music by breaking down the traditional confines of musical genres.”

In case you don’t see where this is going, writing about music and running a concert calendar is a great way to introduce listeners to new music. Equal Sound has an infrastructure, and a bank account, and a board. And the board just approved Equal Sound taking ownership of New Classic LA.

Now, instead of splitting my attention between projects, I can refocus it to make New Classic LA work within the context of Equal Sound’s mission.

So I’m rebuilding the site. The concert calendar will still be front and center, but it will live alongside a public database of LA musicians, ensembles, venues, presenters, and resources, which many people in the scene have said they want. The reviews and features will continue with our staff writers, though to facilitate better journalism we will also create a separate set of community pages where people can post their own reviews and interviews, to give other concert series and musicians a platform to say what they want to say. We will also solidify a fundraising program to help cover the site costs and pay the writers. We’re going to grow this thing to be sustainable and to help our music community thrive.

This is going to be a huge project. It will take time. Things might look dead for a while while I build the new site on a testing server. But this is something I am extremely excited to work on, which is something that I haven’t felt in a while about working on the site. I believe this will be better for all of us in the LA scene. If you have thoughts or comments or ideas, I’d be very pleased to hear them too. Just comment below, or use the contact page. If you’re into making a now TAX DEDUCTIBLE contribution toward the site expenses, visit this page.

I really appreciate your taking the time to read this, and can’t wait to share the next decade with you.

Yours,
Nick Norton

TL;DR: Equal Sound now owns and operates New Classic LA. I’m making a massive overhaul and the site will look a bit outdated until it’s done, at which point it will again become the best resource for new music in LA.

Diagenesis Duo: Hands and Lips of Wind

Diagenesis Duo
Diagenesis Duo: Hands and Lips of the Wind

First things first: this is a beautiful record.

The Diagenesis Duo is comprised of soprano Heather Barnes and cellist Jennifer Bewerse.  Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bewerse have been performing as a duo since 2011.  Though I have been familiar with both excellent musicians for some time, I was not aware of this particular configuration until I was asked to review this record.  Together, they are magnificent. 

A duo of voice and cello, you say?  Perhaps you’re thinking, “what an odd, if interesting, combination?!”  Indeed, there is undeniably a surfeit of music for voice and piano, especially soprano and piano.  So much so that the Los Angeles-based unSUNg concert series (a fine one, that showcases LA living composers) specifically requested compositions that were NOT for soprano and piano.  While certainly fewer in number than voice/piano offerings, there are of course more than a handful of works for voice and various other instruments.  But I can’t recall when, if  ever, I’ve heard music for voice and cello.  If there was any doubt as to the viability of such an ensemble, this record should lay them to rest.

Hands and Lips of Wind presents the music of 4 composers: Mischa Salkind-Pearl, Harrison Birtwistle, Stephen Lewis, and Adam Scott Neal. 

The album is bookended by two movements of Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Wind, whence comes the album’s title.  The text of these two movements are poems, in English translation, by Octavio Paz.  The composer describes his piece thus:

Octavio Paz’ poems often display enormously evocative imagery contained in few words. I wanted to bring that spirit to my setting of the five poems in this piece. In particular, these poems move effortlessly between images of light and darkness, motion and stillness. These ideas are potentially very musical. My settings approach the poems as complete entities, emphasizing the prevailing affect of each poem.

The opening track, In the Lodi Gardens, is a meditation on this New Delhi garden, park, and burial place.  (Paz lived in India when he was the Mexican ambassador to that country in 1962-68.)  The music itself, thankfully, in my opinion, does not invoke anything Indian, per se – if anything it reminds me of Hebrew cantorial – but evokes, through Ms. Barnes’ powerful singing, an omnipotent goddess, both warning and welcoming.  It is a glorious and intrepid introduction to the power, but also the emotional range of her vocal prowess. 

The next work is 9 Settings of Lorine Niedecker, by the English composer Harrison Birtwistle.  Birtwistle sets these epigrammatic poems in equally pithy, epigrammatic, at times enigmatic fashion.  (Most of the nine movements are under one minute in length, with the longest timing out at two minutes and twenty-four seconds.)  They are delicate, at times humorous, and rich settings quite worthy of their careful, sensitive, personal texts.  Ms. Niedecker, for those unfamiliar with her work (I had never heard of her), was an American poet, who lived from 1903 until 1970.  She was a member of the Objectivist poets (who are not related to the work or quasi-philosophical movement of the same name associated with Ayn Rand and other self-serving greedy bastards.) The Objectivists were influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, among others.  The scale of these works can’t help but remind one of the compositions of Webern and Schoenberg, specifically, in the case of the latter, the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19.  The harmonic language is, obviously, quite different.  But the overall cadence, the clarity of lines, the power of both the sounds and the silences, create a similar presence and emotional impact. 

Next is the three-movement Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua by Stephen Lewis. As its title (with the dead in a dead language) might suggest, it is an eerie trip to an underworld of foreboding spirits.  It is not offputting, not at all, but rather invites us to tread, however carefully, along unknown paths.  I can’t help but think of it as a musical equivalent of a Haunted House, where we feel a mix of excitement and fear.  We know, or at least try to remind ourselves, that the danger is not real, but we can’t help but be at least a bit afraid.  The three movements, Wail, Marche Funèbre, and Totentanz are of diverse character, but all showcase the precision and emotional range of the performers. 

Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua is followed by Adam Scott Neal’s five-movement work, Travels.  There is a time-honored tradition of various literary works portraying a character who wanders, seeks, encounters a wide range of situations and personages.  (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, even Partch’s Barstow, immediately come to mind.)  So here, as in the work of others, we meet a traveler and his meditations on his encounters.  The five movements begin with The Universe, and end with The Horizon. I particularly like the order as it resists a more cliché progression from the small to the grandiose and eternal.  If anything, it is the opposite.  While I suppose it could work in either direction, given the personal, modest and inward quality of much of Travels’ music, I found this order of presentation much more satisfying.  A small detail, small but worthy of mention, would be the extended techniques in the third movement, The Wayfarer.  These techniques are few and rather modest, just a few tongue clicks, breathy quasi-whistles and some percussive knocks on the body of the cello.  Subtle though they may be, I must say, their presence is still strong and immediately felt.  I’m loathe to say anything negative at all, but once I heard these sounds I realized that I could have easily taken in some more non-traditional sounds. 

The last track is the final movement from the work of Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Winds, the first composition of the album.  This movement is another setting of Paz, this time his Nightfall. It may be my favorite track, though with so many good works here, it’s really hard to say.  This setting is an austere, surgically careful nest of transparent, delicate pitch manipulations, a slowly downward-cascading acoustic construction, with dissonances harsh yet delicious, that give vivid sonic life to the dark, evocative poetry.  The piece, and the album, end as a nightfall extinguishes the light of day:

A bird falls,
The grass grows dark,
Edges blur, lime is black,
The world is less credible.

Allow me to say it again: Hands and Lips of Wind is a beautiful record.  The singing and playing, are sensitive, precise and, more importantly, inspired.  It is rife with poetry, in the best senses of the word, from the texts themselves to the composers’ settings of those texts, to the interpretations of Ms. Barnes’ voice and Ms. Bewerse’s gorgeous cello lines.  This music demands your concentration, to be sure.  But if you give it that, if you let yourself focus and then fall into the sounds that wash over you, your efforts will be wonderfully rewarded.

Hands and Lips of the Wind is available for purchase at iTunesCDBabyAmazon, and Google Play. Learn more about Diagenesis Duo at diagenesisduo.com.

Aliens, the tube, and the CIA: an interview with Spacepants

This Saturday, Spacepants perform on a bill alongside Electric Soundbath and Luther Burbank at the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or CIA, on a show presented by Synchromy. According to the pants, while Jennifer Beattie was singing and Diana Wade was playing viola at a music festival in Vermont, they met, realized they shared a life-long dream of wearing as many sparkles as possible, and ran joyfully out into a field to celebrate.  Their enthusiasm attracted the attention of some rad aliens who invited us to party and jam with them. As luck would have it, they were having a full-on sparkle party. When Jen and Diana woke up the next day, groggy and disoriented, they discovered the rad aliens had left us three parting gifts: a 25-foot long tube, a mission, and several pairs of spacepants. The tube would of course become a central focus of their music-making.  The mission, which they accepted, is to wear spacepants while bringing both their own and other earth-bound beings’ works of music, poetry, multi-media, storytelling and art to life. There was also something about crystals.

Ahead of the show Spacepants had time to answer a few questions and send us a photo of space whales cuddling.

Space whales. Photo provided by Spacepants.
Space whales. Photo provided by Spacepants.

My understanding is that Spacepants found their beginnings in a field in Vermont with some aliens and a lot of sparkles. Could you expand on that?

The thing is, this was one. serious. party.   We were completely unprepared for the life-changeingness of this party. At the party was the tube.  And honestly, nothing else mattered once we saw that thing. The aliens were maybe doing telepathy, but anyway they had this great welcoming attitude and inclusive energy, and there was this music that we just couldn’t ignore.  The aliens and the music were totally rad. We never wanted that Sparkle Party to end.

It seems like you’ve taken the 25 foot drainage tube they left you quite seriously, where some groups might do one piece with it and move on. I’ve heard you a few times and know what a range of sounds it can make…but can you sell us on tube?

Sales are not required. The tube is the perfect instrument. The tube is life.  Sounds of the tube will enter your dreams and re-arrange your subconscious formats so you can hear the sounds of the universe really really good.  We show our gratitude to our friends the rad aliens with tubular celebration at every show.

Periscope, your current live set that you’re playing this weekend, is anchored by the Spacepants arrangement of Garth Knox’s Jonah and the Whale. What went into making this arrangement? Are Spacepants down on whales?

Spacepants about to go on stage. Photo by Spacepants.
Spacepants about to go on stage. Photo by Spacepants.

We got the idea to make this arrangement by hearing the original version with tuba, and then we were like well, Jen could be a tuba too, so we called the aliens and they sent us a tube harness so we could strap the tube to our bodies, and then Diana slayed on viola and then we were pretty much there.  The existence of our best friends, Spacewhale 1 and Spacewhale 2, proves that we’re not down on whales.

The pants have one leg on each coast of the US. How do you prepare pieces? Are meetings most convenient in the loins?

Actually, there is an intergalactic rehearsal space, but it’s expensive, as you can imagine.  Spacepants gets a huge discount cause we know a guy.   We also like Miami, which is kind of like meeting in the foot, or Sea Ranch, which is in the shoulder-zone.  But yeah, it’s different! We often do that thing called planning ahead, which is weird; we dream up ideas on long phone calls, practice on our own, and delight in the unexpected. We have a huge amount of trust in each other on stage, and whatever happens, we’re wearing spacepants, so we know we’ll be fine.     

Before you met these aliens you were on what seems like a very traditional path in classical music, and now you are featured on prayer candles. This seems like a win to me. But you’ve certainly still got connections to the classical world. Are folks there, if there is a there, as receptive as you’d hope to this project?

Let’s get one thing straight: we’re not on the prayer candle, the tube is on the prayer candle.  Tube is life. 

It seems as though wherever we go, the reputation of the tube precedes itself. We’re surprised and delighted to say that many of our colleagues seem surprised and delighted by the tube.  We’re pretty sure cellists are into us, but we’re cornering the tuba market, so there might be some animosity there. 

Pre-alien sparkle party, were you as interested in performance art? That’s a major part of what Spacepants does.

It’s basically like this: after the Sparkle Party we realized that we had not only gained a tube and Spacepants, we had also gained a new perspective.  What the rad aliens had was curiosity, and in honor of that we are just letting our curiosity and enthusiasm direct the development of Spacepants.  So we’re pretty much interested in everything, and everything is an idea waiting to be celebrated and explored. 

Talk to me about the CIA.

Well, Diana’s dad was in it. 

Also, there’s a clown corpse, and you can drink beer in there! 

How can people find you?

@spacepantsmusic on Instagram; Facebook.com/spacepantsmusic

Anything else you’d like to add?

If you come to our show, you can make yourself a tinfoil hat.  Or, you can make yourself TWO tinfoil hats.  One to wear now, and one for later.  Also, we are lucky enough to be playing next to two other *fabulous* acts: Electric Sound Bath and Luther Burbank.  Doors are at 8:30, 18 and over, full bar at the venue.  We always encourage sparkles – get your best Sparkle Party outfits on and wear ‘em to the show!

You heard the pants. See you Saturday night. Details on the facebook event page at facebook.com/events/405850136893675.

LACO: New and Old, Contrasts and Through Lines

Kahane on Mozart, March 23 at the Alex Theater in Glendale

   

Saturday’s “Kahane on Mozart” program showcased all the nuance and detail that make the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra so enjoyable to watch. Bookended by Mozart (Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K.449 and the “Linz” Symphony No. 36), the program introduced two new pieces—a 2013 work for marimba and strings by Gabriella Smith, and the world premiere of James Newton Howard’s Concerto for Cello & Orchestra. In several ways, the program achieved an aesthetic balance by placing new and old works in opposition to each other, but it was the clever through lines that connected them which made the program so effective.

On the surface, the 230-some-odd years between the works delineated a clear line: Mozart’s careful, partitioned musical architecture highlighted thematic hierarchy and development on a grand scale, where the modern works foregrounded texture in single, shorter, and more seamless trajectories. The landmarks conveyed with cadences and tonal shifts in the Mozart were instead signified with radical changes of technique for the marimba and strings in the Smith and Newton Howard. More than anything, though the balancing and juxtaposition of contrasts which defined the classical form were responded to with a static and meditative emotional purity that evolved patiently in the modern pieces. Based on the works’ respective lengths and styles, the program rightfully navigated a musical journey that—while briefly exploring new pathways—ultimately departed and concluded at the heart of the tradition.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Mancillas
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed the world premiere of prolific Grammy®-, Emmy®- and Academy® Award-nominated composer James Newton Howard’s Concerto for Orchestra & Cello, a LACO commission, led by Conductor Laureate Jeffrey Kahane on Saturday, March 23, at the Alex Theatre, and Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Royce Hall. Newton Howard’s work, underwritten by and dedicated to Maurice Marciano, was written for and spotlights LACO Principal Cello Andrew Shulman.

But beneath the surface were a number of connecting fabrics between the works. The soloist-driven nature of piano, cello, and marimba concertos all provided a similar, direct point of attention for the audience. The back-and-forth and layering in Newton Howard’s cello concerto suggested an appreciation of Mozart’s own conversational approach to the concerto. Perhaps most striking was the contemplative, textural exploration suggested in the inner “Andantino” of Mozart’s piano concerto, which evolved into shimmering, cinematic backgrounds in the Newton Howard, and then again into the lively, buzzing undulations in Smith’s Riprap. Having arrived at Smith’s assertive, cohesive textures of orchestration, a return to Mozart with the “Linz” symphony provided a natural sense of conclusion, employing the chamber orchestra, now, as truly a single instrument while also returning to Mozart’s bold gestural language and clear sense of form.

The performances themselves were clean, detailed, and respectful of each work’s nuanced language. Kahane performed and conducted the Mozart concerto from the piano, and while it provided some challenges—there was a lack of clarity in the piano sound (due to its positioning) and some disagreement between Kahane and the orchestra on the tempo of the third movement—it also provided for a few stunning moments of interaction, including a particularly moving performance of the concerto’s slow, inner movement. Andrew Shulman provided a sensitive performance of Newton Howard’s cello concerto, and while his sound occasionally had to battle the orchestration, his deep, rich tone and expressiveness commanded attention throughout, right through the breathtaking, dying murmurs of the work’s ending. Finally, Gabriella Smith’s Riprap balanced a modern aesthetic sensibility with a deep understanding of performative gesture: the music had a sense of studio composition, crossfading repeating, minimalist swaths, but the drama of the performance techniques (for both the marimba and the strings) made the performance impossible to take your eyes off of. Percussionist Wade Culbreath was perfectly tuned-in to this balanced approach by Smith, providing a virtuosic, physical performance while reinforcing the work’s sense of imperceptibly emerging and submerging textures.

The Mozart symphony was what you would expect for LACO: Clean, tight, pushing and pulling in all the right places. But it was also strongly highlighted by its context; the contemporary works demonstrated how challenging it really is to organize and develop a large-scale musical work, to present clear and concise musical ideas, to marry style with substance. Each composer took their own approach, but concluding with Symphony No.36 was an apt reminder of just how difficult it is to sound easy. For their part, LACO continues to make it appear effortless.

First Femme Frequencies Festival a powerful and inclusive success

Art Share LA opened its doors on March 8 for International Women’s Day, featuring music and the opening of the visual arts exhibit “Female Gaze.” The unified theme drew a packed gallery, with donations raised to support the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. Performances were organized by Femme Frequencies visionaries Breana Gilcher and Rachel Van Amburgh. The goal was to honor as many musical communities as possible, and, with two stages, the sonic spectrum was well represented. Gilcher admitted that free improvisers anchored her initial concept of the evening, and this could be heard in the lineup. The creations of these female-identifying artists were able to move in so many directions, from more formal arrangements to loops and patterns, beats, choreography, and spoken word, which made for a powerful and inclusive Femme Frequencies festival.

Highlights from the evening included a performance by Lauren Elizabeth Baba: violinist, violist, composer, and improviser. Her multi-media performance of “always remember to stop and play with the flowers” involved string scratch tones, dancing, and a hypnotic ostinato interlaced with double stops that worked in tandem with the live visuals by Huntress Janos. A computer rendering of an ant loomed large onto the projected main stage in a grid of purple. What could have been interpreted as a non sequitur worked well with the music as it crawled, danced, and rotated slowly through the air, equally hypnotic in its journey.

Bonnie Barnett’s “Femme HUM” turned listeners into singers as we gathered in a circle to meditate on a single pitch. The singular note blossomed as the overtone series was introduced into the hum, allowing for the sonic partials to take shape and move across the room. Performers contributed to the fundamental in a soft yet supportive fashion, remaining a part of the circle rather than occupying a solo space.

While experiences created by Baba and Barnett resonated on the main stage, the secondary room possessed a more intimate quality. Poetry and storytelling by Argenta Walther transported listeners to vistas containing farms and big sky; Topaz Faerie gave a soulful set of beats and rhymes; and Audrey Harrer’s experimental pop and amplified harp managed to be both folksy and edgy.

Percussionist and vocalist Gingee closed out the evening with a high-energy set that showcased her skill on the kulintang, a set of pitched gongs native to the Philippines. Her hands flew over the metallic kettles, creating patterns that interlocked with her pre-produced beats and projected visuals. While the crowd remained appreciative, it had naturally petered out over the course of the four-hour festival. The dancing that Gingee encouraged didn’t quite evolve the way it might have if placed earlier in the set, but that didn’t deter her from owning the space and providing a spirited conclusion to the Femme Frequencies evening.

In a series of delightful events, none stood out more than MAIA, renowned vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist on flute, harp, and vibraphone. She emerged from the back of the hall, using the flute to signify her presence. What came next was a rich blend of languages, songs, and modalities to express herself on harp and vocals that evoked a mix of jazz and world music. Call and response techniques brought the audience into her set, built around “Nature Boy,” first made popular by Nat King Cole. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn” she advised, “is just to love and be loved in return.” It was a poignant takeaway on Femme Frequencies, where the long-term goal is not to have an annual celebration of womxn in music but to make it more commonplace — certainly something to celebrate.

David Lang’s the loser Explores an Artist’s Inner World in Unexpected Ways

Baritone Rod Gilfry stars as the unnamed narrator of "the loser" at LA Opera, with pianist Conrad Tao performing on the stage in the distance. (Photo: Larry Ho / LA Opera)
Baritone Rod Gilfry stars as the unnamed narrator of “the loser” at LA Opera, with pianist Conrad Tao performing on the stage in the distance. (Photo: Larry Ho / LA Opera)

LA Opera presented the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s 2016 work the the loser in its Off Grand series last weekend. A spartanly staged one-man show, the production fit comfortably in the intimate space of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Indeed the theater’s cozy atmosphere promoted a personal relationship between audience—located entirely in the balcony—and the one and only singer, baritone Rod Gilfry, perched high above the stage in a booth. Head on, the audience faced Gilfry, himself ensconced in a shroud of darkness moderated by a shifting spotlight.

The work, more a soliloquy in song than an opera, was performed by the musicians who premiered it at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s New Wave Festival, including Gilfry and the Bang on a Can All Stars, of which Lang is a founding member.

Gilfry plays three parts: all pianists, all neurotic. A richly detailed narrative reveals the disillusionment and self-inflicted failure of two pianists in competition with Glenn Gould, “the most important pianist in the world.”

Gould dubs the narrating character, otherwise nameless, “the Philosopher,” because the word was “in his mouth at all times,” and their friend Wertheimer, “the loser,” who is “always busy losing.” Eventually, “the Philospher” gives up his piano, proclaiming he is “…no artist, absolutely no artist.” Later, Wertheimer commits suicide, partly to spite the sister who abandoned him to marry a chemical plant owner.

Obsessively, the narrator repeats superfluous clarifications with the relentless regularity of a litany, reciting “I thought,” or “he said” following most statements.

In addition to composing the music, Lang constructed the libretto out of excerpts from Jack Dawson’s English translation of Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel of the same name. The story is only superficially linked to Gould, Horowitz, and the subject of music, and deals primarily with existential questions of purpose, meaning, and moral worth.

The three figures met, we are told, in a (purely fictitious) masterclass with Horowitz in Austria. There it is clear that “Glenn is the best.”

Gilfry intoned such revelations with a haunting baritone resonance that at once thrilled, calmed, and convinced. Even mundane remarks seemed significant in Gilfry’s brilliant, penetrating tone. And Gilfry’s skillful acting, by turns joyful, reverent, and tearful, made the narrative come alive with sparkling clarity.

Rather than drawing attention to itself, Lang’s music served the role accompaniment to the vocal part. Delicate pizzicatos in the small string section, playing disjunct intervals dominated by minor seconds and tritones, spiced the otherwise lecture-like initial minutes of the narrative.

Like a slow-moving kaleidoscope, marimba and other instruments joined the strings, gradually marking the flow of time with progressive textural enrichments. Emotional moments found support in lyrical bowed melodies and long-lines in the winds. The “loser” motive, a distinctive three note figure in Sprechstimme, was echoed in the piano on the stage.

Pianist Conrad Tao, performing Lang’s minimalist-inspired figurative passage-work, seemed to conduct himself with his left hand, as Glenn Gould was famously known to do. But Lang’s piano writing bore only minimal resemblance to anything Gould ever played. The loser motive, an ascending perfect fifth resolved downwards by step, avoids any suggestion of major or minor. Rather, rippling arpeggios of quintal harmonies resounded unabated until the concluding moments, when some resolution finally presented as a major triad.

Attendees expecting a story about pianists might have been disappointed by the loser: “The story is not at all about Gould, Horowitz, or Classical Music,” wrote Lang. But the work achieves its aim of revealing the conflict and fear suffered by artists, hopelessly destined to live in comparison to one another. In that way, the loser occupies a unique position in contemporary operatic repertoire, to edify as much as to entertain.