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Concert reviews

Synchromy’s Urban Birds made for a musical scavenger hunt at Debs Park

This past Saturday afternoon found me hiding from the heat under a tree at the base of a small hill listening to cellist Jennifer Bewerse playing composer Brandon J. Rolle’s Call and Echo, inspired by the call of the Hermit Thrush. While Rolle’s piece didn’t incorporate the bird’s call directly, it imitated and built upon its structure of distinct phrases and interruptions, with alternating textures of arpeggios, high harmonics with quiet singing, and slowly developing more lyrical material in the cello’s low end. And this was only one composer/performer duo’s take on one bird from the flock of ten that Synchromy presented in their program Urban Birds.

The concert was spread throughout the Audubon Center at Debs Park, just south of the 110 in Montecito Heights, a hidden gem of trails just northeast of downtown LA. Performers perched along said trails, repeating their pieces at intervals so as not to overlap with their immediate neighbors, but to create a sensation of distant sounds to search out—not unlike the bird call hunting theme of the entire event. Guests were handed not programs, but “musical birding field guides,” and children who managed to find all ten birdsong-inspired performers were rewarded with stickers reminiscent of a junior ranger program at a national park.

Behind the aforementioned tree — shade was at a premium — trails wrapped up the hill to the left and right. On the first plateau, one came to a clearing with bassist Scott Worthington performing Jen Wang’s Monster, with sliding harmonics imitating the call of the Mourning Dove. Alongside him stood composer/performer Christopher Adler with a khaen, a southeast Asian mouth organ for which Vera Ivanova had written Mockingbird Hopscotch, a piece that grew from the uncertainty of a nervous bird learning a new song into a filled out tapestry of synth-like repetitions.

Across a bridge at the other side of the clearing stood an oboist Robert Walker, leaning hard into Diana Wade’s Pyschopomp. Inspired not by the song of the Common Raven, but of the raven’s status as a guide to the underworld, the piece’s fast and high ostinati alternating with aggressive multiphonic material made for a piece that should become a staple of the solo oboe repertoire. Behind the oboe, coming from somewhere below, one could pick out virtuosic runs on the high end of a flute (Dante De Silva’s Heat Thrasher performed by Rachel Beetz), and occasional growls through the underbrush above from Brian Walsh’s bass clarinet performing Pamela Madsen’s Owl’s Breath.

Suddenly the whole event clicked. Intentionally or otherwise, trying to take in the diverse approaches to birdsong inspiration in the height and space of the venue brought to mind the legendary clashing marching bands Charles Ives listened to in his youth, the vertical symphonies of Henry Brant, or, to state the obvious—an uncomposed version of Messiaen’s own Exotic Birds. I found myself looking for places between performers to hear interesting and perhaps unintended combinations of sounds and melodic lines, an outdoor polyphony of monophonic instruments.

The spread throughout the park was a welcome way to dip toes back into real concerts after months of isolation—it certainly felt better than diving back into a crowd, and bridged the individual experiences we’ve become used to with a communal live one with sensitivity. What more there is to say should be heard, and to this end, Synchromy has developed a website with videos of all of the pieces, spread around a map of the park (just click on the birds) at synchromy.org/urban-birds.

Welcome Back: LACO at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Saturday, June 26 at 7:00pm

On Saturday, June 26, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra invited vaccinated supporters to gather at Walt Disney Concert Hall for a celebratory performance—a musical victory lap of sorts for having emerged from the pandemic’s deafening silence. The scheduled program was of a familiar LACO construction: something old, something new, something showy.

The Old: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, “Italian,” which closed the scheduled program, was performed with the incredible degree of precision and musical nuance we have come to expect from LACO. Music Director Jaime Martín has an incisive musical intuition for bringing unexpected details to the foreground of the music, which breathes new life into even the most well-known and loved works in the canon. Here was no exception, the intricate details of Mendelssohn’s rapidly-animated textures emerging in the spaces of longer melodic lines. As an accomplished performer himself, Martín brings a natural sense for stepping back and entrusting the musicians to do what they do best; the Mendelssohn, as a result, felt fresh and immediate, while always mantaining an unambiguous coherence.

Juan Pablo Contreras’s chamber arrangement of his orchestral work, Mariachitlán, roused the hall with an energetic juxtaposition of musical textures that drop the listener into the vibrant intersection of traditions, styles, and sounds of Guadalajara. An unmistakable tribute to mariachi  overlaps with passages evoking the guitar, soloistic moments for the brass, strings, and harp, and a startling whistle which initiates a chant for which the piece is titled. There is a romanticism and a grit to Mariachitlán that both performers and audience responded to: Contreras’s writing feels fun and serious, fractured and coherent, modern and traditional.

The program’s opening work, Variaciones Concertantes was the showy one. Written by the great Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera, in the middle of the 20th century, the work is beautiful, effective, and haunting, revealing a strong influence by Aaron Copland not only in its orchestration, but also in the personal approach to incorporating folk material. Principal Cello Andrew Shulman and harpist Elizabeth Zosseder performed a stunning and intimate duet that opens the work, which unfolded into episodes of lively, shimmering episodes that showcased most of the ensemble’s principal musicians including notable solos by Erik Rynearson (Principal Viola), Ken Monday (Principal Bassoon), Sandy Hughes (Acting Principal Flute), Claire Brazeau (Principal Oboe) and David Grossman (Principal Bass), among others. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer’s virtuosic performance on Variaciones was truly extraordinary, with impeccable musicianship and phrasing that enraptured the audience throughout the concerto-like violin solo. Martín managed the considerable technical aspects of Ginastera’s writing while threading the variations with a sense of continuous, fluid development that anchored the choreography of solos moving through the ensemble.

After the scheduled program, Martín returned to an enthralled audience to thank those supporters who made this year—and this concert—possible. A touching, personal flute performance by Martín of Telemann’s Cunando, accompanied by Shulman on cello, was followed by an upbeat performance of Gerónimo Giménez’s Intermedio de la Boda de Luis Alonzo by the ensemble. But I was particularly struck by the sincerity and depth of gratitude evident in the hall, not only from the musicians towards their audience of supporters, but from the audience towards their musicians. These two pillars of our music community, LACO and Walt Disney Hall, remind us that making art is not just entertainment. After a year of prolonged isolation, the immeasurable loss of loved ones, and a persistent sense of uncertainty, making art reminds us what we do still have, what we do still share. Seeing that reminder worn on the faces both on and off stage assigned real weight to the words we have been waiting to hear:

Welcome Back.

LACO’s second live performance since the pandemic will be happening on Thursday, July 1 at The Huntington in San Marino. The program includes the original 1915 version of de Falla’s extraordinary sung ballet El amor brujo conducted by Music Director Jaime Martín and featuring 

LA’s own celebrated mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzmán. Martín also leads Debussy’s iconic Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune” and the world premiere of KiMani Bridges’ The Flower. For more information go to www.laco.org

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.

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.

SESSION pintscher: How LACO Produced the Best New Music Concert in Los Angeles

Matthias Pintscher, curator
PHOTO CREDIT: Timothy Norris

SESSION pintscher

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.

Alex Frederick, percussion, performing Grisey’s Stèle
PC Timothy Norris

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.

(L-R) Gloria Cheng, piano, and Andrew Shulman, cello, perform Matthias Pintscher’s Uriel
PC Timothy Norris
(L-R) Margaret Batjer (back of head visible), violin, Andrew Shulman, cello, and Erik Rynearson, viola, perform Matthias Pintscher’s Study II for Treatise on the Veil
PC Timothy Norris

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.

Matthias Pintscher conducts Ravel’s Three Poemes de Stéphane Mallarmé, featuring Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano 
PC Timothy Norris

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.

Kenneth McGrath, percussion, concludes the SESSION program with Xenakis’ Rebonds a,
for solo percussion
PC Timothy Norris

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.