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.
With this week’s kickoff of LA Fest and the LA Phil’s centennial season, the country’s most ambitious orchestra offered a program reflective of the past, as well as an ambitious glance into the future.
Sandwiched between two modern works, a casual and tight-knit performance of Beethoven’s triple concerto (Op. 56) featured Martin Chalifour on violin, Robert deMaine on Cello, and Joanne Pearce Martin on piano. The soloists conversed easily with a Dudamel-led orchestra, and what the performance may have lacked in theatrical sparkle it gained in a focus that highlighted its more intimate chamber elements. It was a fitting pairing with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations, which itself constituted a study of clever orchestrations navigated as only a conductor could, but which was particularly notable for the chamber groupings that evolved within the sizable aggregate forces of his instrumentation. Salonen’s work betrays a deep love for romantic orchestral music, but with a modernist vision that sometimes growls, sometimes shimmers in stunning, delicate, intimacy.
The second half was dedicated to the premiere of Andrew Norman’s Sustain, a monumental work of fresh, forward-looking ritual in the deconstruction of sound. While the sound world of Sustain gives a nod to the mid-century orchestra, the form throughout feels daringly original—not necessarily singular in its approach, but in Norman’s ability to immerse in the hypothetical and, more importantly, to trust in his own musical instincts once there. The result is a music that is nostalgic for a time unknown; a remembering from the future where some fiber of our concert experience remains, becomes sacrosanct, while others dissolve away in the solvent of time and relevance. What remains is something primal in its force and refined in its treatment, a reimagining of how our relationship to communal listening might evolve. I, for one, hope I am around to see that day; to reminisce of Sustain and what came after in a newly-antiquated, corrugated steel shipwreck on the corner of 1st and Grand.
I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.
Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?
Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.
Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.
Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)
These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.
You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.
The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).
Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.
This program was the epitome of newness. Nothing old enough to be enrolled in first grade and three world premieres, Synchromy and The Argus Quartet‘s February 27 concert achieved a rare level of innovation, with the presenter and ensemble working together to build an effective, feasible, and enjoyable program to showcase all their talents. Like a sonata, it built up, developed, had some themes come back, and ended on a sort of cadenza with a new theme -that of the voice. We had heard the voice before; the narrator, Chelsea Fryer, had also been introducing the pieces. One could say this non-performance voice became integrated into the program. Or perhaps it had been part of the performance all along, that as soon as the doors closed and the lights when down everything that happened on or near the stage was performative.
The concert opens with a sunrise in Andrew Norman’s Sabina, from the Companion Guide to Rome, for solo violin. It begins with a whisper, not even a note. When the sound finally starts, it sounds far away, almost like an echo in a canyon. It creaks into existence, broken by bird calls and wind. The violin finally begins a kind of fiddling over a drone and splitting high notes so pure. The sun is finally high enough to be seen through the window of the church that inspired Andrew Norman, and the violin plays a single, pure melody. No birds, no wind, nothing but a sweet melody.
Following the sky theme, the sunrise is clouded over by Kaija Saariaho’s “Cloud Trio,” which adds a viola and cello to the violin soloist but is still not the full quartet yet. This work depicts four types of clouds, and the audience is invited to imagine which clouds they are. Like many, I can identify cumulus as the fluffy ones and that’s it. Regardless of lacking the vocabulary to name the clouds, the types were clearly depicted in the music. Each has its own identity, utilizing thick harmonies or sparse counterpoint or the rhythmic shush shush of col legno.
Staying within the theme of Rome, one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world, Zaq Kenefick’s funeral song of the people of the ruined cities, speaks to the beauty and brokenness of the ruins. The violin plays a trembling solo and the viola strums chords dissonant with the cello. The video of folding black cloth was surely a beautiful artistic choice, though I must admit I and many other audience members I talked to afterwards were uncertain what to make of the visuals. The piece was over almost as soon as it began, the length itself a reflection of the lost ruins.
Immediately before intermission, the concert changed gears and addressed the modern: Skronk. A word thrown around in various musical genres and circles, it is a thick onomatopoeia. The introduction defines it in many ones, and generally as “not a thing you are, but a thing you do.” The piece features strong pizzicati and a syncopated rock rhythm and melody, some fiddling tossed between the different instruments, and overall frankly smoother string playing than I would have expected from a word that can mean the skronk of an electric guitar. This one was a fast crowd pleaser and kept everyone on their toes. Ending as though someone suddenly turned up the volume and then plucking away into nothingness like the fade-outs of rock songs of the ‘90s, John Frantzen captured the many facets skronk may and can represent.
Post-intermission, we were given something of a variation on a theme. The music kicked off with three excerpts from Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome for string trio, featuring swirling harmonies, birdlike whistles, crackling glitches, whispering on the bows, and plucked pizzicato like rocks skipping on a pond. This was followed by Nick Norton’s String Quartet No 1., in which chords slid like skates on ice and the melody bounced between the four instruments in a playful game of keep-away. The second section was frantic, reminding me of a car race – the way the upper strings chomped rhythmically at the notes and the cello made engine revs pealing past the stage, going so far as to imitate the Doppler effect, it seemed. The third ethereal movement felt like flying in a dream. The dramatic violin swelled alongside the pastoral lower strings, all slowing until they ran out of steam. The perfect end to the day that Norman’s first piece began. But a false ending gave way to screeching and tapping. The spell was broken. Composers have great power over the audience, and with great power comes great responsibility. Norton made the daring choice to shatter the beauty he built.
After Norton came the second Kenefick piece, harvesting tunes of the people of the rope-tree towers, this one featuring the viola practically crunching itself in half to sound like white noise on an old CRTV, a dark melody in the violin with dissonance in its twin, and the cello rumbling beneath it all. This video panned the length of a red cloth rope. Again, I will not pretend to have understood or fully appreciated the visuals provided, but the piece was an intriguing exercise in tension and release, and well placed in the middle of the second half of the program. It is experimental enough that I might experiment with it on a Spotify playlist someday, just to see how it goes.
Gabriela Frank’s excerpts from Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout gave a breath of fresh air from the concert hall by taking the audience on a pastoral journey through the Andes via “Tarqueada,” a piece imitating the split tone flute played in quartal and quintal harmony, “Himno de Zampoñas,” or panpipes, and “Chasqui,” the messenger runner who relies on small instruments light enough to carry on journeys, particularly small guitars. Each section was magnificently portrayed by the quartet, making the flutes and panpipes sing and drums thwack and guitars strum, all on bowed strings. For brief moments I was transported to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival of 2013 when a Quechua band played on the instruments the strings were portraying. The effect was astounding and beautiful, and I felt nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, only heard.
The concert ended with Eve Beglarian’s Testy Pony, which featured the cellist, a video and prerecorded sounds, and the narrator. A charming story of a girl who gets a pony and learns a life lesson, the pleasant tale is backed by a constantly rolling cello playing in time with the prerecorded sounds. If you don’t think this is technically challenging, try cooking while watching a chef on TV, and you’ll get some idea of the balancing act at play. This work seemed to finally end the “day” we started, as we watched the back of a horse gallop out of sight and out of mind.
The brief descriptions and interpretations of the pieces reveal a variety of ways in which music can be “new” and concerts can showcase facets of interest. Composition can show off new techniques, new subject matter (or old, in the case of the ruins, but in a new way), or use new orchestration. Synchromy is a collective of composers showing off recent works, and the Argus Quartet specializes in modern techniques. The New Classic LA facebook page has a rule that only ‘new’ music may be posted. 15th century madrigals are not new, but perhaps the way in which they are performed is new. Film music is not a new genre anymore, but a fresh composition is new. ‘New’ is such a tiny word packed with so much to interpret and interpolate. Regardless of how you take any of it to heart or choose to think about music, last Friday’s concert was a fair epitome of newness.
Andrew Norman’s star has been on the rise recently, and last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, curious listeners got a taste of what all the fuss is about. The LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, opened their program with the first movement of Play, a work he wrote for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2013. (The Phil will be playing the complete work in their next season.) While the movement’s designation as “Level One” may seem whimsical, the music is anything but. Without preamble, it plunges into a skittish, disjointed soundscape, an inhuman maelstrom of digital glitch and grain. There are no electronic instruments in the orchestra, but there might as well have been: the Norman is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to making live players sound like MIDI simulations.
Mixed in with the frenetic tumult are several slower interludes, but even here tenderness is not forthcoming. These interludes feel like examinations of the seams of something that has been pulled apart, as though Norman has stripped away all the flashy graphics of a big-budget video game sensation to show us not the human beings who poured their hearts into making it but the dry code they had written instead. Nevertheless, towards the end something human does seem to be trying to emerge. Several times an aching, arcing line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, a warm gesture that struggles at every moment to retain its integrity in the face of the digital wash, a feeble signal repeatedly lost to onslaughts of noise. Towards the end there is a brief moment of triumph when the woodwinds and brass burst into a Higdon-esque fanfaric dance, but the percussion — who, as per Norman’s program note, have been “playing” the orchestra in much the same way that the conductor “plays” the percussionists and the score “plays” the conductor — join forces in a coordinated attack, forcing the dance higher and higher until it disintegrates into a panicked mess, leaving only a few blips and bloops to bring the piece to a grim, heartless close.
Exhaustion reigns at the start of the next piece on the program, Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto. (Sergio Tiempo covered the ferociously demanding solo part from memory with admirable panache.) The first movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and it shifts easily and casually between heavy, groaning interludes that barely move and whirlwind outbursts of helter-skelter activity. Although resolutely 12-tone in conception, there are repeated hints of late Romanticism peeking out from just below the musical surface. They never fully blossom — a harsh dissonance always drives them away — but their lurking presence adds an air of almost familiarity to an otherwise astringent score.
Rustled whispers dominate the second movement, which picks up in tempo but drops in volume to the very edge of audibility. Ginastera called the movement a “hallucinatory scherzo”, but given the way twists and winks out of sight, it’s more a mirage than a hallucination, the shimmer of air over asphalt on a scorching summer’s day. Disney Hall has the unfortunate effect of amplifying noise from the audience, and while that’s often inconsequential, here there were times where the music on stage was considerably quieter than the ambient volume of the house, causing several of the quieter flutterings to disappear completely, ghosts imagined instead of observed.
In the expansive third movement, calm reigns supreme. An opening viola solo leads to an impassioned outburst, but the subsequent music is sparse and quiet, a pointillistic wash of scattered tones. It is almost as if Ginastera has pulled apart a single one of Norman’s twitchy pixels and found an entire world to explore inside, stretching a single moment out towards eternity.
Coming directly on the heels of this gaunt meditation, the finale bursts forth with explosive vigor, a blistering, relentless toccata that calls to mind the thunderous scherzo of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The program notes quote Ginastera’s claim that “[t]here are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells” in the music of his piano concerto, but the music of the finale has more than a few echoes of his earlier nationalistic ballets. Many of its practitioners might push back against this claim, but serial music is confined to a narrow emotional range. Its powers of joy and catharsis are limited, and when it tries to overstep those bounds, it often falls flat. Ginastera recognizes how tightly he is hemmed in by the musical language he is using, and doesn’t try to burst out of this box. Instead, he explores every inch of it and insists, resolutely and unapologetically, that even in these tight confines, there is still room to celebrate, to dance.
After the modernist onslaught of the first half, the second was a bit of a let-down. This half opened with John Williams’s Soundings (initially slated to start the program, but switched with Play at the last minute), a piece written to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. I wanted to like it. Many in the classical community have an anti-populist bias that all film composers are inherently hacks, and I often find myself defending people like Williams, because I do think that much of his work is legitimately great. Unfortunately, Soundings isn’t. It feels half-baked, as though Williams couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the piece to be. At twelve minutes in length, it’s a little too long to be a simple celebration, but a little too short to fully grapple with all the material that Williams has in play. Especially with the Ginastera so fresh in our ears, the dissonances sounded wan and half-hearted, wrapped in cloying softness to avoid offending those with more conservative tastes. Had it opened the concert as originally planned, it might have held up better, but slotted in where it was it wound up falling rather flat. (If Soundings is ammunition for those dead set against film music, the encore was a strong rejoinder: A searing rendition of the “Love Theme” from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, an agonizing mix of loss and desire. I can’t help but wish that that had opened the second half instead.)
Still, Soundings did provide a nice transition from the caustic world of Ginastera to the diatonic evenness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I confess that I still prefer the lightness and transparency of the original chamber version, but there’s something to be said for the power that the full orchestra can bring to the brasher moments of the score. There were a few moments where the ensemble seemed on the verge of losing cohesion — despite its outwards simplicity, it’s a surprisingly tricky piece to put together — but on the whole the Phil gave a rousing account of an iconic work in the canon of American concert music.