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.
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.