This was my first time seeing a Jacaranda concert. I always look for an excuse to hear Messiaen and Debussy live, so I jumped at the chance to attend “Extrasensory.” Based on the title, I was expecting a focus on synaesthesia, and probably some multimedia works. After all, in the 21st century, one comes to expect some electroacoustic elements or re-tunings. I was a little surprised that the entire program used acoustic instruments in traditional systems with nary a quartertone or key-slap in sight. It was different to hear 20th-century music that does not rely on the bells and whistles of the modern era.
Only one piece on the program was younger than me, and the oldest isn’t even 20th century. The program notes provided a history lesson in a nutshell. Rather than giving each piece a paragraph or two, Patricia Scott provided an entire essay that tied together all the pieces on the program. She tied together Debussy’s compositions and audience reception to Messiaen’s early works and development, and how he, in turn, trained and inspired the next generation of composers, like Betsy Jolas.
Though the beginning of it all, Debussy was put at the end as the show-stopper. Debussy is often called the father of modern music, and his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) is touted the beginning of the twentieth century. As a flutist, I have a deep-seated adoration of Prélude and Debussy’s flute pieces in general, and it was a great joy to hear the 1920 arrangement for a smaller ensemble plus harmonium. To our 21st-century ears, Prélude can sound tame and a little sappy, but it was an absolute scandal to the 19th-century audience. Think “Victorian woman showing ankles” scandalous. The extended tonality and the unique timbres it built in addition to the erotic source material left listeners either appalled or ecstatic. And thus began the noble tradition of 20th-century music.
Besides the Debussy, the Messiaen was even better than I had hoped. I always enjoy Oiseaux Exotiques (1956), and it was just as good as any other performance or recording I have heard. I have to give Aron Kallay a gold star for his performance, as always. My absolute favorite piece of the night was Messiaen’s La Mort du Nombre (1928). It is an unequivocally stunning lament, and it felt as though the violinist (Jessica Guideri) were drawing her bow across my heartstrings rather than her violin strings.
Andre Jolivet’s Chant de Linos (1944) is a flute piece with accompaniment, in this case, harp and string trio, written for the famous Jean Pierre Rampal. Again, as a flutist, I was in love. Rachel Beetz is a master of Rampal’s French style, and a worthy successor to play this beautiful piece. The story Chant de Linos tells is that of Linus, the son of Apollo (who you all know is the god of music, poetry, art, medicine, the sun, light, and knowledge – so, just a few things). Linus himself is credited with inventing melody and rhythm, the two most fundamental elements of our Western music tradition. The story goes that Heracles killed Linus with his own harp after one too many tutoring sessions gone sour. The flute represents Linus, while the accompanying quartet performed a quasi-recitative part for plot points and mood changes. The trick in the piece is the continuously shifting tempo on top of wild rhythms and intricate melodies. The music flipped on a dime between calm repose and fleeing from an enraged god. It is an astoundingly trying piece, and a beautiful way to start the concert.
Next, Eric Tanguy’s Sonata for Two Violins (1999) was an intellectually stimulating piece. His spectral training shows in the way he treats sound versus music. The violins sawed away without a break, never allowing the audience’s ears to rest. Debussy once said music is the space between the notes, but there wasn’t much space to be had. The music was not so much the quasi-minimalist violin duet, but rather the difference tones that squeezed out between the violins like juice from a lemon.
The remaining piece did its part to fill out the narrative of Debussy’s influence on the twentieth century, but I could take it or leave it. Betsy Jolas’s Quatour III “Nine Etudes” (1973) is the product of several inspirations coming together in her mature period. It stems from her love of Josquin des Prez, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915), Messiaen and Milhaud, and finally Boulez’s improvisation and Cage’s aleatoricism. The result is a quilt of nine movements, each with its own identity based on techniques like harmonics and tremolo. The ninth movement, “Summing up,” combines the eight traits into one final etude. I like the concept behind the piece, and the quartet executed the notes well enough. But frankly, it didn’t do much for me. I think it was too many flavors in one pie, so to speak.
It’s great that Jacaranda is able to program less familiar 20th-century composers alongside the 20th-century greats. I love what Jacaranda is doing for the community in this way. I encourage anyone who wants to hear more acoustic 20th century works to check out the rest of Jacaranda’s series. The next concert, titled “Science,” features works by Xenakis, Messiaen, and Barraqué.
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.
I just received an invitation on Facebook to a neat looking event that’s part of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s Sounds and Spaces series. As you may have guessed from the title, they play music in cool places.
For this one, musicians from the LBSO will be performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at Belmont Heights United Methodist Church this Sunday at 4. There will also be a presentation on the space by architectural historian Timothy Kent Parker.
It’s a free show, but you do have to RSVP on their website at http://www.lbso.org/special-events/view/id/7/-/sounds-and-spaces. If you’ve never heard Quartet for the End of time performed live, all the way through, at least once, then you’re seriously missing out.
Conveniently, somehow, my family is all meeting up for lunch that day like two blocks from there, so if you see me at the show please do come say hello.