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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
LACO in collaboration with Four Larks
Feb 28th at Mack Sennett Studios, Silverlake
Usually, when I go see the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, I am prepared to be reminded why the traditional concert format works: Sit quietly, face forward, let the nuance of an excellent performance do the work. Their programs include some new pieces and commissions, sure, but the effectiveness of the experience typically resides in a solid understanding of curating time and attention through a rather traditional approach to programming. And there is nothing wrong with that—Los Angles is already saturated with series interested in re-shaping the concert experience, from the experimental and timbral WasteLAnd, to intimate Tuesdays at Monkspace, to genre-dissolving Equal Sound. Hell, the Los Angeles Philharmonic itself is producing some of the most interesting concert experiences of any orchestra in the country between Noon to Midnight, and Green Umbrella. So, a collaboration with the relentlessly creative Four Larks to be held in a studio in Silverlake with a program that would make even the most insufferable hipster blush beneath a mustache of craft beer? Not typically what you would associate with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
But then, there was nothing typical about LACO’s event Thursday night. I’ll be clear at the outset: This was the most effective musical event I have been to in Los Angeles. In truth, it is one of the most outstanding performances I have seen anywhere, to such an extent that had it taken place in Berlin I would have left disheartened by the seeming impossibility of replicating its impact here in Los Angeles. But it did happen here, at the Mack Sennett Studios in Silverlake, and every element of the performance, from the space itself, to the guides, visuals, and music, tapped into something quintessentially and organically Angelino.
The direction and design of Four Larks immersed the audience in a detailed bohemian soiree. Floor mats and a perimeter of chairs focused inward towards the center of the room, with a gentle tropical soundscape and olden-hollywood “guides” whose choreographed interactions helped dissolve any sense of waiting. Instead, the pre-concert period generated a calm curiosity and receptiveness among the audience. Materializing out of the pregnant quietness, the percussive rumblings of Grisey’s Stèle shifted back and forth from opposing corners of the room, and just like that, without the fluster of last-minute coughs and unwrapping lozenges, the program began.
Matthias Pintscher, who curated the evening, spoke briefly before the remainder of the program, suggesting that the through-line of the evening was a certain receptiveness of the works themselves to the audience. This was certainly true, each work in the program was set in the space like a detailed yet reflective surface, taking on the atmosphere of its specific staging, the personality of the performers, but also the mood and mindset of the listener. Pintscher’s own contributions to the evening were particularly stunning. His shimmering, delicate string trio, Study II for “Treatise on the Veil,” was performed below textural, geometric projections, and utilized extremes of technique and quietness that demanded an unremitting focus on the part of the performers. His Uriel, a touching and personal duo for cello and piano, was set against a wash of white walls and lights in another partitioned space with a more traditional block of seating.
The Audience shifting their chairs 180 degrees, the rear partition became home to live video projections, unveiling text from Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé imprinted across the guides’ bodies as the music unfolded under the direction of Pintscher and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. Providing a sense of organic conclusion, audience returned once more to the opening space of the studio, this time the solo percussion for Xenakis’ Rebonds a set in the center of the room. As the most transparent in its development, Rebonds a was a fitting end to the evening’s general trajectory from the senses to the brain: from the more abstract atmospheres of Grisey and Berg, through the reflective intimacy of Pintscher, to Ravel’s evocative vocal settings, Xenakis’ work elicited the first true sense of anticipatory structure as the percussive elements stacked and hastened. Progressing in a linear way to increasingly virtuosic and bombastic gestures, it was the perfect final work and reflected that LACO’s knack for programming was at work in the background, once again.
There were far too many visual elements, outstanding musicians, and collaborators involved in making the evening so successful to mention each here. But in taking the lead on this event, LACO, Pintscher, and Four Larks should be congratulated for the incredible degree of artistry and cohesion they created in SESSION. This was an event I will not soon forget, and that will challenge even the most adventurous program of any series in Los Angeles this year.
As the guy who runs the concert calendar website, I’ve been in a unique position to both hear a lot of musicians and help them connect with each other. Helping deserving music get heard has always been a passion for me, so I’m starting up a series of essays that I’m calling Notes Under The Underground. I hope to capture the essence and the energy of this LA scene that is thriving yet rarely reported on, and to show the deep connections between superficially disparate segments of it. In short, I’d like to make the Los Angeles I live in, the one where musicians and listeners are open minded, free spirited, hard working, friendly and supportive of each other, and ready and willing to take risks, one that anyone reading this can find and enjoy for themselves. You can check out all of the essays in this series at newclassic.la/notes-under-the-underground.
Winter in Los Angeles this year has been a dreary couple of months of oil-slick streets from first rains causing more traffic than usual, wildfires destroying homes, a mass shooting (maybe two or three?), shabby-chic holiday parties with friends you rarely see, austerity measures in personal finance to recover from travel season, and staying home to catch up on Oscar contenders and year-end best-of lists, sometimes punctuated by the sunny days we use to justify via Instagram what we pay for housing. Against this grey backdrop it’s easy to imagine musical life burrowing underground for warmth like so many Seattle indie bands in basements, making plans for spring.
That’s not Los Angeles, though, or at least it’s not my Los Angeles. Politics in America being what they are, the artists and institutions here seem to take the dour weather—both figuratively and literally—as a chance to say “let’s show everyone else how this is done,” like an art-making version of the way California handles environmental regulations. Through this winter many groups in town, from the established and well funded (the LA Phil, The Industry, wild Up) to the scrappy pick up bands playing in warehouses and lofts where all the musicians take home $7, free beer, and artistic fulfillment, have put on concerts and events on a weekly basis that would be the high point of many other cities’ cultural years.
The difference here? LA’s major cultural institutions, even our civic bureaucracy, are extremely well attuned to and prepared to advocate for the underground, and underground/independent/whatever-word-you-want-to-use artists are surprisingly well organized and seem positioned to take advantage of many of the opportunities this town provides.
Let’s look at a few examples of this. Way back in November the LA Phil, with Christopher Rountree’s curation, kicked off their Fluxus Festival with FLUXCONCERT, an evening featuring the works of Fluxus composers such as Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Ken Friedman (and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which made complete sense in context). Ken Friedman’s Sonata for Melons started the event, with watermelons being dropped off the roof of Disney Hall onto a small wooden platform covered in contact mics. The effective sound was like hitting a steel oil drum with a brick fired out of a cannon, reminding me of Pauline Oliveros’ Burst. Burst, however, doesn’t end with a tropical cocktail made out of the piece.
Inside the hall, visitors were asked to take part in Rountree’s piece Commitment Booth, in which they could make a commitment to “hear all of this as music,” or decide not to, though I think those folks are missing out. Copies of Chris Kallmyer’s DIY-style zine Jelly (Journal of Ecstatic LListening Y’all) were on hand with essays by Allison Knowles, Ryoji Ikeda, and an epic visual guide to the Fluxus movement. The concert itself vacillated between the performance art practices we’ve come to expect from Fluxus composers and their lineage (smashing a violin, bopping one’s head on a wall, all delivered with aplomb) and frankly stunning music, including a building-wide performance of John Cage’s Apartment House, 1776. The whole evening was, in short, a bold, joyous mess. Any attempts to reign it in in the name of decorum would have undercut the mission and the effect.
Compare that with what happened a few nights later in the same hall when the same organization (the LA Phil) presented Kubrick’s Sound Odyssey, a live performance of score excerpts to picture cataloguing much of the master filmmaker’s career, cleverly hosted by Malcolm McDowell. Everything about the evening was as tightly controlled as a Kubrick montage, as was necessary for the literal montage of Penderecki scores pulled from the soundtrack of The Shining, in which Kubrick had layered five pieces on top of one another. Conductor Jessica Cottis was virtuosic in her execution, and I’ve rarely felt as much energy in that hall as I did during her Also Sprach Zarathustra with the opening of 2001 projected above.
What do these evenings have in common (aside from the obvious “same hall, same band”)? It seems to me that the unifying theme between seemingly diverse programs and concepts, and perhaps the unifying theme of our scene, is complete dedication to craft and end goal and the practical resources to pull off said end goals. Kubrick is known to have funded and toured films himself and had such a complete investment in his vision that he burned the models used for the spaceships in 2001 so that no one else could make the same magic. Anyone can throw watermelons off of a roof, but the practical and craft-related skills necessary to making such an action worthy of artistic consideration (re: the contact mics, the cocktails, the schedule, the marketing, and most crucially, the genuine belief that throwing watermelons off of a roof is important and worthy of serious contemplation) only comes with deep dedication and years of practice.
Thankfully that dedication and years of practice isn’t hard to come by here. As I type this from the cafe at the downtown Whole Foods I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when Archie Carey and Saul Alpert Abrams, the musician-artist-founders of Solarc Brewing, held a beer release in this very room that featured keg gamelan and amplified cactus (full disclosure–I played on that concert). Archie, a bassoonist, as well as his wife the experimental vocalist and composer Odeya Nini, are strongly connected with Rountree’s work through wild Up, and thus now connected to the LA Phil. The institutions, it seems, aren’t going around picking pieces and people they like at random or by whatever might fit on an event, but are actively trying to support the artists who have found their own ways and developed their own voices for a good long while.
Perhaps we’re focusing too much on one group of people, though as we talk about connections one may start to see that we are indeed talking about one giant, decentralized group of people. Six degrees of separation in music in LA are, in most cases, more like one or two. Returning from my holiday travel at the beginning of January I was treated to a week of shows in which every single one was a stand out—I recognize the problem with that concept—and which started to expose the scene’s connective tissue of ambitious, demanding, and unapologetic art-making by people who support each other.
This started with Monday Evening Concerts’ presentation of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla, for four pianos, alongside composer Sarah Hennies’ Contralto, for a mixed ensemble with electronics and video. Musically speaking Gay Guerrilla hit my taste a bit better (I do like minimalism and multiple pianos quite a bit, plus some friends were back in town to play it), but both pieces showcased the endurance of the performers or composers. The pianists in Gay Guerrilla certainly went home exhausted after the large scale, cathartic soundbath they hammered out nonstop for thirty minutes, while contralto brought home the exhaustion of merely trying to get by in a rigid society as a trans person through frustratingly repetitive—I mean this as a sign of the piece’s effectiveness—videos of trans womxn’s sessions in speech therapy to learn “how to talk like a woman.” Perhaps society at large could take a hint from the success of these artistic pursuits and simply support people doing what they do, rather than focusing as hard as we do on the edges of the boxes we so often categorize people or ideas into (I’m looking your way, “classical” music).
Two nights later found me at REDCAT for Vicki Ray and Carole Kim’s collaboration entitled Rivers of Time, inspired by the Daniel Lentz piece River of 1000 Streams featured on the program and the premiere of Ben Phelps’ Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long . Vicki is the head of performance at Cal Arts and a mainstay musician throughout the scene. Carole is a visual artist working with projections. The Lentz piece was an inverted waterfall of piano tremolo, rising from the depths of the instrument while the stage and audience were washed in compelling light from Kim. But the real story on that concert was the Phelps piece. Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long is a massive gospel spiritual for piano and electronics. Ben had used a recording of the titular spiritual from the Lomax catalogue as the basis for a virtuosic but lyrical piano part. Each time the recording repeated it was slowed down, and each repeat was exponential, so while the first copy was perhaps less than a minute long, the final one came in around twenty. The astounding thing was how clearly Phelps expressed that idea in every part of the whole. The listening experience was like being inside of a fractal–as you zoomed in on musical gestures in the piano, you’d find more related gestures inside of them. It was like hearing on multiple time scales at once, while being warmly hugged by Ben’s traditional harmonic sensibilities and Vicki’s unquestionable performance abilities. Or like Charles Ives on LSD. It’s a major work, and one that deserves more performances and much more attention.
The same could be said of the Miller Wrenn Large Ensemble, who held their first show the next night at the mortuary, a loft space in Lincoln Heights that invites artists to try out works in progress and have conversations with focused listeners afterwards. Miller, a bassist and composer (more full disclosure: we’ve played in bands together. This “everything is connected and that’s cool” thing is kind of the point of this whole essay) came up in the jazz and improvisation world, went to Cal Arts, played in Vinny Golia’s band, recently did an improv show with the aforementioned Vicki Ray presented by Synchromy and Tuesdays at Monk Space, went to Banff to work with Tyshawn Sorey, and came home to start a few projects related to conduction, a mode of improvising as a conductor developed by Butch Morris. The guy does a lot, and it showed during that concert, which was the premiere of A Family History of Floods, a 90+ minute structured improvisation for 19 musicians.
At times meditative and lyrical, with vertical chorale harmonies reminiscent of Messiaen, and at times violent in the way that only free jazz can be, the piece smoothly transitioned between musical subgroups, with noise/jazz/punk/something band with saxophones Off Cell occasionally taking lead for extended sections, and a solo bass cadenza that made me wish improvisation was still the norm among concerto soloists. A Family History of Floods was a serious musical accomplishment–and just a first run through in a room full of friends.
Perhaps the feeling of a room full of friends is the elusive thing I’m really trying to capture here. The night after Miller’s show a couple of other composers and I went to go hear wild Up’s show with Nadia Sirota at the ACE hotel. We knew it was some sort of live taping for Nadia’s new podcast and that Caroline Shaw and Andrew Norman were involved, but not much beyond that. The set up was a lot like a late night talk show: a living room with Nadia in an armchair (a mid-century modern armchair, of course), Caroline and Andrew on the couch talking about what they think about when they compose. Wild Up served up live examples and accompaniment, with a particularly sensitive take on Shaw’s looping four chord music the she said she’d developed on the road with Kanye, and the tightest performance of Andrew Norman’s Try I’ve yet heard.
Following the show the band and as many people as they could invite headed over to Mikkeller DTLA for drinks, and after wild Up’s recent return from tour it felt a bit like high fiving friends on what they’d built (in cases of high fives, it was exactly that). Here was Chris Rountree, the guy I mentioned at the beginning running a Fluxus festival for the LA Phil, reveling in the ongoing national success of the group he started in an Echo Park rec center with a bunch of musicians and a credit card. I have every expectation that before long we’ll be seeing Miller’s projects on the same major stages as the so called next generation fills in at the DIY venues and rental spaces all over town.
The thing that makes me constantly happy about all of this, and that I hope to leave you with, is how much the people in our scene love their work, are open to helping each other out, and how welcoming they are. When I first moved back to Los Angeles, knowing zero musicians in town, I cold emailed some artistic planners at the LA Phil and got not only a response, but an invitation in for coffee to talk about music. Along these lines, wild Up now runs a happy hour every couple of weeks at Highland Park Brewery in Chinatown (facebook event here), and even if you’ve never met any of them I can guarantee you they will be happy to see you. The same seems to be true of everyone in the audience or onstage at any Tuesdays @ Monk Space show, or Monday Evening Concert (founded by Stravinsky, still open to young upstart composers), or People Inside Electronics, or the blue whale, or Late Breakfast, or Triptronics Research Institute, or Art Share, or Basic Flowers, or Battery Books…this list could continue almost indefinitely.
One word that gets tossed around a lot to describe our city is “decentralized.” Geographically this may be accurate—artists have long been troubled by the lack of an obvious gathering place, and I will take any excuse I can get to link to this map—though the social geography says the opposite. To that end, I’d argue that a huge network of diverse musicians who have all found their own ways to negotiate this artistic megalopolis have found each other, and by working and playing together are in fact a centralizing force in the music scene in LA. It works because, in the words of James Murphy, “they’re actually really, really nice.” As listeners, and as people, we all get to reap the benefits.
Thanks, LA. I love you. See you at a show,
One Body, by Berkeley-based composer John Kennedy was performed February 15, 2019 at Boston Court in Pasadena as part of their Winter Music Series. This five movement cantata combines texts by Walt Whitman, St. Augustine, Native Americans and several contemporary poets with the formidable vocal skills of Timur, the masterful playing of the Isaura String Quartet and multi-talented percussionists Yuri Inoo and Sidney Hopson. Conducted by the composer, this five-part work explores the spiritual implications of the earth as a living entity, divisions by species, the limitations of race and stereotypes of gender. The composer writes that One Body seeks to create “a modern liturgy of secular humanism which joins spirituality with intellectual freedom.” There was hardly an empty seat in Boston Court’s Branson performance space despite the heavy Friday night traffic and a driving rain.
The five movements of One Body are performed without pause and all have a similar form. There is a prelude of string solos, quartet music or percussion, followed by one or more sung texts. Kennedy’s music is calmly tonal. This work strives for the transcendental and succeeds convincingly. The opening movement begins with a sustained, but ragged tutti chord, suggesting a formless chaos at the beginning of creation. The sounds gradually become organized as Timur’s voice enters with two sustained notes that float airily above the strings and percussion. Texts by Walt Whitman and Kenneth Patchen were sung, at times in greatly differing registers. Timur’s amazing range is capable of full baritone, tenor, countertenor and higher – all seamlessly connected with no breaks or boundaries. There is a comforting and uplifting feeling that persists over the entire work, and the lush harmonies in the strings, the understated percussion, and the expressive vocals all come together flawlessly. The text by St. Augustine, preceded by an expressive viola solo, was particularly appropriate:
If we are members of one body, then in that one body
there is neither male nor female;
or rather, there is both;
it is an androgynous or hermaphroditic body,
containing both sexes.
As the five movements continued, Timur moved gracefully about the small stage, taking up different positions. Although barefoot, his tall stature made for an imposing but never intimidating presence. At certain points during the string preludes and solos, Timur stooped to light a series of votive candles arranged in front of the quartet. This added a ceremonial dimension to a performance that, although devoid of overt religiosity, imparted a decidedly humanist and secular spirituality.
Movement II featured a particularly lush low register cello interlude. Later, the gently animated string quartet embodied Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem text, sung in this section. Movement III contained an extended stretch of subtle percussion that perfectly complemented the Mohawk prayers in the text. The singing here was particularly impressive, with Timur changing registers on alternate verses, jumping effortlessly from baritone to countertenor, and back again. Movement IV was perhaps the most dynamic, with strong percussion that subsided into a sweetly calming string section.
The final movement was preceded by yet another lovely string interlude, full of quiet assurance. The final text was heard first in the baritone range, a formal and declarative summation with just the right amount of ringing in the accompanying triangles. The singing was completed in the countertenor range, slowing and with just a touch of melancholy. A projection of what seemed to be a goddess was seen on the rear of the stage as the strings quietly faded at the finish. The stage went dark, and a full 10 seconds of silence followed before enthusiastic applause and loud cheering rang out from the audience.
One Body, despite its manifest brilliance, is fated to receive few performances, depending as it does on the uncommonly gifted vocal soloist. There is no way to break the various texts into the conventional ranges; if there were soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, it would simply cease to be One Body. There was some speculative talk in the lobby afterwards about mounting another performance. Should that materialize, do not fail to miss it. One Body must be heard to be believed.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra sounded as good as ever under conductor Peter Oundjian on Sunday evening in Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles. Opening with the world premiere of Sarah Gibson‘s warp & weft served as a reminder of what LACO does so well: careful and consistent programming that feels balanced, approachable, and keenly aware of what repertoire best showcases their style and sound. Gibson herself proved to be a fitting choice for the commission of a new work, tempering the curious vocabulary of modern music with a thoughtful, intentional sense of timing and form. That sense of linear clarity in the work brought out the best in the ensemble, encouraging a commitment by the ensemble to even the most exploratory moments.
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings had a strong performance, though it may have suffered for the same reasons the Gibson succeeded; its more open approach to time and its compressed musical language sometimes were lost in translation (an issue shared with the original quartet form of this work, and which partially inspired its re-orchestration). Similar to the handling of Pärt’s meditative song on Dausgaard’s program with LACO earlier this season, Andante for Strings was emphasized by its pairing with a bold and formally-defined closer–this time Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Together these two works of the second half strengthened each other and reiterated a savvy attention to programming.
Guest pianist Jonathan Biss joined in a nuanced performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major (K.453). Sensitive and operatic, this concerto reminded the audience how strange and exploratory Mozart can be while remaining utterly polished and grounded by a musical language that is always conversational, always shimmering. Biss’ playing was precise and clear, particularly during the moments of Mozart’s treacherous–if subtle–rhythmic deceptions. Some of the details in the piano were lost in Royce Hall, though the intention of contrasts was clear in Biss’ playing; he might have benefited from some ears in the hall during rehearsal. Overall, though, the performance was well-balanced with the orchestra, and rounded out a program with a little something for everyone.