At this Tuesday’s installment of the Green Umbrella series, Susanna Mälkki led the LA Phil New Music Group in a program of some of the freshest avant-garde voices from across the pond. Representing composers from Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Czech Republic, the works shared a certain foregrounding of detail and reservedness that resonated with the spirit of the mid-late century European avant-garde. And yet, each composer brought a distinct style and set of tricks to the night; the result was a well-curated program that was both challenging and rewarding.
The first two works of the evening defined the outer ends of the night’s spectrum. Francesco Filidei’s Lamento for organ offered a murky display of the sonic boundaries of the organ, from earth-rumbling lows to shimmering flourishes smeared by the hall’s natural reverberance. On the other hand were six (of the dozen) songs from Arnulf Herrmann’s chamber song cycle, The Call. Marc Lowenstein stepped in to conduct on the Herrmann, joined by baritone Sean Michael Plumb who was excellent, both in the quality of his voice and the artistic choices he made to convey the longing, fear, and paralysis of the text. Where the Filidei approached an abstract and observational piece of sound art, Herrmann’s work invoked a more traditional approach to both the overarching form and the vocal writing—an effective choice given the content and medium.
The remaining works lived somewhere between, distinguished less by difference of intention than by their subtle sonic magic tricks (partially responsible for the program conveying a strong sense of European rather than American avant-garde). Rounding out the first half was Lotta Wennäkoski’s Hele, an eccentric and energetic respite from the broodiness of the first two works. Wennäkoski utilized the slide whistle amid frantic and agile ensemble writing to sometimes atmospheric, sometimes cartoonish, but always surprising effect. In Miroslav Srnka’s Overheating, it was instead the sweeping percussion and the accordion sustaining through musical ebbs that charged the sound world of the ensemble with something extra. Both works demonstrated careful attention to orchestration and technique on the part of the composers, which the LA Phil New Music Group and Mälkki highlighted with clear, transparent performances.
The standout of the program was the final work, Yann Robin’s Übergang II. It too employed some tricks—not only in the use of the piano, percussion, and harp but also in the combinations of extended techniques used throughout the ensemble—but what enraptured the audience was the genuineness of its musical gestures and ideas; Robin’s writing felt less like an artifact of the potential sounds embodied within an instrumentation, and more an effort to musically approximate something more personal, emotionally complicated, and human. There was a lot of the composer in the work, so to speak, which is often absent in modern music (and perhaps why it can feel alienating to the audience), and the ensemble (too) seemed moved by this connection. The result was a performance equally poised, yet infused with a certain emotional weight that encouraged a bit more risk on the part of the ensemble. That risk combined with the score’s intelligent use of textures and careful timing of events to produce an outstanding performance that embodied so much of the tension embedded in the avant-garde; how (or if) to remember the past, how (or if) to proceed in a tradition.
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
A couple of days ago percussion quartet extrodinaire Sō Percussion premiered a new concerto, man made, by David Lang. It’s awesome, and was paired with Mahler 5, all conducted by Dudamel. If you missed it, NPR has you covered. You can hear the whole concert here:
Even better than sitting at home listening, you can hear the ensemble tonight on the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series, in a performance of Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature and Michael Gordon’s Timber. The show is at Disney Hall at 8, and tickets are available at http://www.laphil.com//tickets/green-umbrella-percussion-marvels/2014-10-07.