On Friday, the LA Opera’s Off Grand initiative hosted a concert version of Matthew Aucoin’s 2015 opera, Crossing. The performance took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with the composer at the podium in front of members of the LA Opera Orchestra, a men’s chorus, and the work’s principal cast. “In-Concert” performances of opera rely to some extent on enlisting the audience’s imagination to fulfill the drama, and this presented some difficulties for a work more contemplative than physical. Among a few misses, however, were dazzling moments brought to life by talented leads.
Looking around the audience during the opening moments of the opera, you might have been surprised to learn that Off Grand’s stated mission is to encourage diversity in music and audience. Any effort to “embody the diversity, pioneering spirit and artistic sensibility unique to Los Angeles through the art of opera” was lost on me—especially when compared with the success of The Industry and the LA Phil to exactly this end (War of the Worlds, in particular, comes to mind). Of course, performing any major new work is an accomplishment in itself, and the audience response suggests that it was an undertaking worth the effort.
Aucoin’s language in Crossing reflects a love for the sprinkled voyeurism of operatic form; from lush swells to anxious minimalist passages, the music oscillates between atmosphere and introspection. There was a fair coherence and smoothness in the progression of material, suspending the audience in a death-stenched tranquility, reflecting the opera’s inspiration from Walt Whitman’s volunteer work with battle-worn soldiers during the Civil War. The emotional palette occasionally felt somewhat two-dimensional, missing the orchestral characters that usually distort, lead, and reflect tacit internal drama in romantic opera. In a full staging, such emotional communication might have been assisted through attention on the choreography, lighting, or stage design, but in this particular performance the messiness of the orchestra obscured the musical and dramatic intention at times.
The principal cast were excellent, with Rod Gilfry (Walt Whitman) and Brenton Ryan (John Wormley) maintaining the storyline with strong performances throughout. Most striking was Davóne Tines’ extraordinary performance as Freddie Stowers—a role he created for the opera’s 2015 premiere. Tines was deeply engaging, with a rich bass-baritone voice, and a sense of musicality both singular and personal. The Messenger comprised the sole female role of the opera, performed by the talented Liv Redpath with soaring soprano lines that aptly marked the concluding sections. A strong chorus of a dozen men complemented the soloists, and together they brought to life Aucoin’s vision of human intimacy and tenderness amid the inhumanity of war.
As Pauchi Sasaki and Claire Chase meandered toward stage in darkness from the back of Walt Disney Concert Hall, handheld lights dimly illuminated their dresses. The sparse flickering revealed patchwork sonic robes, constructed of speaker arrays and emanating curious noises from the far reaches of the hall. Their spatial wandering journeyed patiently towards a flute and violin resting on opposite flanks, corralling our attention towards the stage—a bare landscape minimally ornamented by luminous geometries. Spiraling grains of light dance on the dramatic, escaping curves of the hall’s organ, which only adds to the immense sense of space. Like the staging, the sounds of Sasaki’s “Gama XV” emphasize texture and space, drawing the audience into the quiet details of disembodied speech and sound fragments. In this suspended sound world, time was marked only by the choreography, most of all a brief intersection on stage before scattering outward toward the wings. A few (rare) moments might have betrayed the modes of audio processing, but overall the atmosphere was maintained to stunning effect, culminating in a final, pulsing gesture of sound and visuals.
Admittedly, the marriage of sound, performance, and visual art left me a little saddened to see the stage invaded with chairs and music stands for the following work. This feeling dissolved quickly, though, as high-octane bass lines drove the shifting, minimalist tapestry of Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together.” Continuing in the theme of evolving textures, Rzewski sets the text of a prisoner letter from the Attica prison rebellion; in a sort of cyclic re-synthesis, new passages of text and music intersect with each pass. Dudamel led the LA Phil New Music Group in an effective performance, behind narrator Davóne Tines who enraptured the audience with the weighty tone and intelligent nuances in his voice. The second section, “Attica” offered a gentle, somber antidote to the first movement’s relentless and fragmented energy.
After an intermission to digest the mysteries of sound garments and a long ride in a fast machine, we return to Ted Hearne’s “Law of Mosaics.” Musical excerpts are divorced from their original context before being reimagined, layered, distorted and stretched by Hearne. The results are complicated transformations that yield a completely new sound world. But while “Law of Mosaics” clearly draws inspiration from the standard repertoire, in it’s DNA lies a formal cleverness and self-awareness akin to Johannes Kreidler—an aspect highlighted by the projecting of descriptive section titles during the performance. Written for string ensemble, Dudamel once again led a clear and controlled performance here, though the gritty interjections of the final section were allowed to relish in all their wildness for a dramatic conclusion.
I found all three pieces to be unusually memorable, and was left with a sense that the concert as a whole balanced being intimate and casual while ambitiously modern. The choice to break traditional performance practice with the very first piece helped the rest of the evening feel exploratory and inviting. Perhaps more than anything, the programming allowed us to explore, to feel, but then reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously; that great art can come from unexpected places and processes, even from breaking apart the very canon and conventions the classical concert hall so reveres.