Monday Evening Concerts is the longest running contemporary music series in the world. The series began in 1939, and has programmed the world premieres of pieces by Stravinsky, Boulez, Sciarrino, and Kurtag, as well as U.S. premieres of just about every major 20th century composer you can think of. Their concert on April 16th was not a momentous occasion for premieres, but it was my first time hearing Isabel Mundry performed live, and first time hearing a Sciarrino performance in the United States. I was giddy with excitement. Spoiler alert: the concert lived up to expectations. I am absolutely amazed by the talent of the performers, and I wish to commend concert curator and conductor Jonathan Hepfer on a marvelously selected and executed program.
Aptly named “Labyrinths and Enigmas,” the concert offered intricate, intimate works by Isabel Mundry (b. 1963) and Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947). First, Mundry’s Dufay Bearbeitungen [translation: Dufay Machining or Machination] (2003/4) delivered familiar Dufay chansons (familiar if you’re into Renaissance motets, at least) in a 21st century way. The text and musical motifs themselves were largely unchanged from the original – the staging and light work made the performance new. In the first section, the instrumentalists sat around the reciter in the dark. The lights only rose when the clarinetist played his first note, swelling and brightening like a sunrise. When the music fully enters, it manifests in ways Dufay never could have dreamed: on bass marimba, on fluttering alto flute, on dulcet chimes. Mundry used quite a bit of low end to make the music feel substantial, but also delicate touches and staccato to give it an ethereal lightness. In each section, the instrumentalists moved farther away from the reciter. First they moved to the edges of the stage and almost into the audience. For the third section, they went up into the balcony surrounding the stage and audience, playing down like angels from on high. As the musicians moved farther from center stage, the music moved farther from the original Dufay sound. And yet it felt less like the musicians moving away and more like the audience zooming in on the reciter. Mundry applied dissonance, harmonics, and unfamiliar timbres and spectral techniques like plucking the strings inside the piano to gradually move Dufay to the present day. At the same time, the modern staging techniques moved the audience into Dufay’s world.
After the intermission to reset the stage and the audience’s ears, we were engulfed in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Perduto in una città d’acque (translation: Lost in a city of water) (1990/91). His program notes indicate that the piece is largely inspired by visiting the composer Luigi Nono in Venice near the end of Nono’s life. He notes that death resonates through our hearts, like pitch resonates in our ears; the meanings of both are illusive. In Perduto, I felt like I was underwater as a rush of quiet notes flooded my ears. Occasionally, the flood was broken by an Ablinger-esque burst of notes. I imagined I could hear words in the piano, but I just couldn’t understand the language. Pianist Richard Valitutto managed to splash the keys and swirl the notes just right so to keep the illusion of treading water, swimming through the melody and eddying through the harmony.
This was not my first encounter with Sciarrino, but it was my introduction to his operatic work. The audience was provided with the Italian libretto and its English translation. It was still difficult to keep pace with the pointillist singing style. Eventually I gave up keeping track and finally relaxed into the music. Aspern Suite (1979) is a condensed version of The Aspern Papers, an opera based on the eponymous novella by Henry James about Lord Byron’s affairs. The surprisingly sassy songs include snippets of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and gondolier songs reworked into Sciarrino’s mystical compositional language. Alice Teyssier, the amazing soprano who brought these songs alive, sang from a cozy armchair, and sometimes from offstage. Whether she was sitting, standing, or backstage, the orchestra changed their timbres to match her vocal timbre and environmental filtering. It seems like a trick that can only work in certain spaces, but the ensemble pulled it off very well.
On the whole, the concert showcased incredible talent and a variety of compositional styles and textures. Clocking in at a full two hours, it wasn’t for the faint of heart or the tepid contemporary music aficionado. For those seeking the cream of the crop in late 20th – early 21st century music programming and performance, you will not go wrong with Monday Evening Concerts.
On February 3, 2017 wasteLAnd presented the second in a series of four concert appearances – titled 4:7 – by master violinist Mark Menzies. A long time presence on the Los Angeles new music scene, Menzies was in town on a visit from his native New Zealand and the four concerts also marked the violinist’s 47th birthday. The spacious downtown Art Share venue was filled to capacity despite a rainy Friday night on the local freeways. Three solo pieces were heard, by Ching-Wen Chao, wasteLAnd resident composer Erik Ulman and the Italian utopian Luigi Nono.
Elegy in Flight by Ching-Wen Chao was first, inspired by Buddhist sacred texts and the ‘wheel of life,’ as described in the program notes: “This piece starts with a statement of a 59-note set, which is derived from a 59-syllable mantra used in recitation for the dead. The set subsequently expands itself through the multiplication of its own intervals… This expansion/compression process is stated 6 times over the course of the piece with variations of speed and emphasis.” Elegy in Flight opened with a strong, declarative statement followed by a series of softer runs. Menzies is extremely adept at dynamic contrast and this added to the underlying sense of anxiety and building tension in the complex passages. A stretch of soft, sustained tones followed that changed the feeling to one of a quiet remoteness, only to change again with a series of rapid runs full of spikes and squeaks. In all of this Menzies was in full command of the intonation and expressiveness pouring out from his violin. Some lovely playing was heard in the lower registers while several short, stabbing phrases marked the finish. Elegy in Flight is a dynamic, evolving work that makes many demands on the soloist; all artfully met in this performance.
The world premiere of Lake, by Erik Ulman followed, and this solo viola piece was dedicated to Mark Menzies. Soft, sustained tones in a rich viola register filled the space, making for an elegant contrast to the preceding work. Lake has an introspective feel, nicely conveyed by the series of long tones that decrescendo to pianissimo. High-pitched phrases added a rhythmic movement that evokes a more alien feel, but this changed yet again to an active bubbling propelled by the pop of rapid of pizzicato notes. All of this was managed adroitly by Menzies, and as the final notes faded quietly away, sustained applause filled the room. Taking full advantage of the viola’s range and timbral possibilities, Lake is a worthy contribution to the solo repertoire.
After the intermission, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura by Luigi Nono was performed by Mark Menzies along with Scott Worthington at the controls of the electronics. This piece was seemingly inspired by a stray piece of graffiti that Nono happened to see while visiting Toledo: “Traveler, there is no pathway, there is only traveling itself.” Accordingly, several music stands holding copies of the written score were scattered throughout the venue – on stage and in or around the audience – and Menzies traveled, as it were, from stand to stand during the performance. Speakers were also positioned in various places effectively filling the space with the recorded electronic accompaniment.
La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura began with Menzies at a music stand on stage, violin at the ready, while the speakers filled the room with the ambient sounds of what seemed to be string players warming up or tuning. There was a few odd words heard, then some thumps and squeaks before a strong upward glissando unleashed a series of complex runs that established an air of mystery and tension. Menzies then added short bursts of high, anxious notes and rapid passages that increased the ominous feel. The recorded sounds often came from single speakers in opposite corners of the space, and this added spatial perception to the overall experience. More rumbles and rattles came from the speakers as if large cases or cabinets were being moved. Menzies walked slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, settling at another music stand, and began playing a new set of quietly anxious tones along with the electronics.
The piece proceeded in this manner – the sounds from the recording continuing, full of riddles, while the soloist contributed variously fast phrases or slow, sustained tones. There was little form or structure evident – at times the sounds were fast and intense while at other times slower and softly atmospheric. The overall result was a remarkably good blend of electronics and live playing, with excellent fidelity from the speakers that perfectly matched the soloist. The dragging and thumping sounds in the recording were most convincing and the violin playing was controlled and precise throughout. Menzies made his way around to the various music stands at certain defined points in the score, but not in any preset pattern. There was a microphone at the final music stand and the piece concluded with a strong, steady violin pitch that persisted for a moment, then faded away as Menzies slipped offstage. La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is a journey unto itself, full of mystery and uncertainty, yet always inviting the listener to formulate context from multiple combinations of sonic clues.