I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?
A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.
The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.
Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.
Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.
After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.
Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.
Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.
Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.
I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.
Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?
Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.
Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.
Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)
These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.
You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.
The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).
Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.
Like many operas, David Lang’s anatomy theater (with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion) – presented by the LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects – ends with a woman dead on stage. Unlike many operas, said woman is dead when the curtain goes up, and her status has little impact on her ability to sing. Set ambiguously around the start of the 18th Century in England, the premise of the work is that the audience is the audience for a medical dissection. At the time, the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and anatomists believed that the organs of a law-breaker were marked by their crimes, turning public dissections into moral spectacles where law-abiding citizens could see purported marks of evil in a criminal’s corpse. (Needless to say, there was also an element of inflicting further punishment on the convict even after death.)
And so we have our criminal: Sarah Osborne (played masterfully by Peabody Southwell) who, in an aria on the gallows before her execution in the lobby before the show proper begins, confesses to murdering her children and abusive husband, defiantly expresses her expectation that God will forgive her and receive her soul into Heaven — or, failing that, “if [her] Lord and Savior will be so cruel to [her] as men and women have been, [she] had rather burn in the flames of Hell.” The executioner is Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), who also happens to be the impresario for the dissection that is to follow. “Don’t you feel safer?” he bellows at the gathered crowd, gesturing at the limp corpse of the hanged Osborne. The crowd — treated to complementary sausages and beer to better recreate the atmosphere of a public execution — laughed nervously, the first of many deliberate disconnects between the attitudes of the 21st–Century Americans we actually were and the 18th–Century Englishmen (and men were the only people allowed at “public” dissections) the characters treated us as. In the theater itself, Crouch is joined by Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strang (Timur). Strang does the work of cutting up the body and extracting its organs, while Peel pontificates about the nature of evil, the balances of the Four Humors, and other such sundries.
Not surprisingly, this is a gristly affair. Most of us would likely find a human dissection unpleasant to watch under the best of circumstances, but here the air is soured still further by the undercurrent of female objectification taken to its most literal extreme; Sarah Osborne’s body is a literal object for men to toy with, cut to pieces, and condemn. And yet, much to Peel’s chagrin, Strang finds each organ removed immaculate, describing Osborne’s stomach, spleen, heart, and uterus in hagiographic terms and utterly thwarting Peel’s quest to find the mark of Satan’s handiwork. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is only Strang who seems to hear Osborne when she shudders back to a ghostly simulacrum of life towards the opera’s final third.) After Peel concedes failure and departs, Crouch offers to continue the dissection informally “around the back” — for a fee, of course.
Gristly as these proceedings are, the score is a far cry from a relentless stream of horrors. There are certainly moments of strident dissonance, but there are others of transcendent radiance — much of the dissection itself falls somewhere uneasily in between, torn between the marvelous inner workings of the human body and the raging misogyny and hypocrisy that surround this particular exploration of them. The bulk of the music flits lightly between twitchy recitative and more languorous arioso passages, with hints of minimalism and art pop lurking just out of sight, but there are a few moments towards the beginning that seem to veer closer to pastiche: One, Baron Peel’s first introduction, borrowing the caustic updating of early English operetta found in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the other, a long and bizarre ensemble number announcing the pending description of the anatomist’s tools, poking gentle fun at certain excesses of Philip Glass.
Directed by Bob McGrath and Music Director Christopher Rountree (the Artistic Director of wild Up, which served as the pit orchestra for the show), the four singers brought their roles to powerful life. Southwell’s Osborne was by turns defiant, distraught, and desperate, displaying the full range of the human heart and showing with countless subtleties the overpowering forces that might make someone conclude that murder was their best and only means of escape from an unconscionable situation. Crouch, as played by Kudisch, is a lecherous scoundrel, driven by nothing more than the desire to line his own pockets. Timur brought an air of dazed reverence to the role of Strang, a young man, clearly out of his depth, but standing firmly by what he knows to be true in pronouncing each organ unblemished even in the face of Peel’s considerable displeasure. And Robert Osborne, in turn, was a thunderously self-righteous Peel, genuinely convinced of the justness of his cause and unbending in the face of any possible contradictory evidence. In his final aria, he sends the audience away with a dire warning to be on the lookout for omnipresent evil. “Where is evil?” he snarls, “There it is! There it is! There it is!”, jabbing his finger every which way. He points everywhere except himself.
Hungarian showstoppers took center stage at Disney Hall last night, in the second performance of the last concert program the LA Philharmonic is presenting in their 2015–16 season. The evening opened with Kodály Zoltán’s charming Dances of Galánta from 1933. Written on commission for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the Dances draw on Hungarian folk tunes collected from the area around the town of Galánta (which is now located in Slovakia, not Hungary), where Kodály’s father worked for many years as a station–master. An elegant work that combines rustic vigor with neoclassical grace, Dances of Galánta falls into two sections: a plaintive, lyrical introduction lush with delicate woodwind solos, and a breakneck dance that leaps and tumbles with endless agility. The Philharmonic covered this territory with supreme élan, making its numerous virtuosic pyrotechnics seem transparently effortless.
Underappreciated instruments tend to stick together, so as a bassoonist, I’ve always had a soft spot for works for solo viola. I felt quite vindicated in that stance with the next work on the program, Bartók Béla’s viola concerto, completed posthumously from 1945–49 by Tibor Serly, the solo part here covered by the LA Philharmonic’s principal viola, Carrie Dennis. Following a similar pattern to many of Bartók’s later works, the viola concerto begins mired in snarling dissonances and progresses over the course of its twenty–minute span through a transcendent hymn–like space to a rousing finale blazing with life–affirming energy. The scoring is thin, almost ghostly at times, but this only makes the tutti passages even more thrilling when they arrive. I have been impressed with Dennis’s playing on numerous previous occasions at the Phil — her sinuous interpretation of the solo in the passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes stands out in particular in my memory — but last night outclassed them all. Dennis played like a woman possessed, swaying and dancing with the music, at several points all but leaping into the air with the intensity of her playing. Bartók’s craggy chromatic lines can sometimes sound stagnant in less capable hands, but Dennis sculpted each of them into a gripping utterance, by turns lashing out, sulking away, and bursting forth with manic exuberance. Summoned repeatedly back to the stage by roaring applause, Dennis played an improvisatory paraphrase of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as an encore — it may have seemed an incongruous fit for the rest of the program, but given Gershwin’s interest in European modernism, I thought it was subtly, and cleverly, fitting. If you ever get the chance to see her live, take it.
Next, after the intermission, came Apparitions (1959), Ligeti György’s breakthrough work of midcentury European Modernism. If the Bartók was sparse, the Ligeti was almost not there at all — the piece is built from scraps of sound of almost vanishing quietude. The strings whisper a twisting line of microtones, the winds hold a pungent chord, silence punctuates everything. Even in the livelier second movement, which includes moments of loudness indeed, there’s still a sense of breathlessness, a sense that the music is only just barely clinging together, a hair’s breadth from disintegrating into nothing. For all this, though, there’s a profound feeling of cheeky joy just beneath the music’s surface. This is something of a signature in Ligeti’s works; even at his most severe and strident, I always have the feeling that he’s simply overjoyed to be able to play with such a malleable thing of endless possibilities as musical sound. Stuffy purists might have turned up their noses at the quiet chuckles that ran through the audience at numerous points during its unfolding, but I think they had the right idea.
Ghostly textures were cast aside in the finale, Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (1919/24). The story of the original ballet, with its blatant orientalism and undercurrent of sexism, hasn’t aged well, but the concert suite has held up somewhat better, even if the trombones at the Chinese Man’s entrance are still uncomfortably pentatonic. Unlike most of the rest of the program, this is a dense score, bristling with multi-layered textures and aggressive discords, summoning up a disintegrating world on the brink of collapse. (The scandalous première may have taken place in 1926, but the bulk of the composition was done in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, a time when artists of all stripes were reeling from the psychic shock of the blood–drenched pointless horror of that conflict and still grappling with what it meant to make art in its wake.) With shrill woodwinds imitating car horns and jittery percussion marking an unconscious body being tossed down a flight of stairs, this is not a comforting score, and the Phil brought it to life with a grim brutality that matched the ballet scenario’s grime. Shortly after beginning the work, Bartók opined that the score “[would] be hellish music”; nearly a century on, the demons have not lost any of their power.
At one point towards the middle of Theatre of the World — a new opera with music by Louis Andriessen and a libretto by Helmut Krausser that received its world première on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic playing under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw — Pope Innocenzo IX asks cantankerously “how long is this going to last?,” followed not long thereafter by a petulant “I just want to leave!” Setting such lines in a contemporary opera always seems a bit like tempting fate, as there’s a very real chance some members of the audience will genuinely feel the same way. But the house was free of nervous chuckles at that moment, and no one seems to have taken it as their cue to leave.
Not that there wasn’t laughter at other points over the bizarre course of the evening. The Pope (played by Marcel Beekman) says those lines shortly after being transported to Egypt around 1400 BC, along with Athanasius Kircher (Leigh Melrose), a German Jesuit polymath of the 1600s; a twelve-year-old boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who later turns out to be the Devil; and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen), Kircher’s publisher in Amsterdam. This follows mercurial scenes set variously in Rome and Amsterdam, and is followed in turn by a visit to Babylon, a phantasmagorical lovers’ duet, and a gristly scene where the Boy/Devil eats Kircher’s heart — just cut out of his recently deceased body — only to discover that Kircher’s soul has escaped his clutches and gone up to Heaven. If this sounds a tad bewildering, it was, though perhaps not unintentionally. In an extensive program note, the composer is quoted explaining that his score “is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque.’”
Demanding sense and orderliness from this, then, is probably a fool’s errand. The historical Kircher was a man of many interests, and over the course of his life published dozens of monumental tomes in a determined effort to summarize every piece of knowledge known at the time. Much of this “knowledge,” being based on 17th–Century methodologies, hasn’t exactly been supported by subsequent inquiry, but his works were wildly popular in his day, and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his books, not the least because of their beautiful illustrations. The opera ostensibly takes Kircher as its subject, pairing his scholarly interests with the Jesuit conception of the world as a stage on which a cosmic play authored by God unfolds (hence the title), but the character of Kircher Krauser and Andriessen present takes the historical person more as a starting point for fantasy than as a goal to capture. They gives us a Kircher plagued by visions and demons, and while this seems like a clear reference to tropes associated with various Christian mystics, I can’t find any evidence that Kircher would be an appropriate fit for such things. The staging (by Pierre Audi) adds another uncomfortable wrinkle, with Kircher twitching and stimming as though he has some (unspecified) mental illness. It was a strange decision, and one I don’t really understand.
Regrettably, it wasn’t the only questionable staging choice. At numerous times, both Kircher and the Pope grope, grind up against, and otherwise molest both each other and various other characters. Only once is this even mentioned in the libretto, and even then has no impact on the rest of the plot, such as it is. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the director was using sexual content in a cliched attempt to be shocking and outré, with no deeper meaning in mind. The nadir for this was probably when three witches entered to disrupt the love scene in the second half. If you were deliberately setting out to write a scene to illustrate various Queer Theory ideas about how non-normative sexualities have been demonized in media, you could hardly come up with a clearer example than this. The two lovers — identified only as He and She (Martijn Cornet and Nora Fischer, respectively) — sing a rustic, folksy duet of rapturous devotion, the picture of monogamous heterosexual bliss. They are then set upon by the three Witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, and Ingeborg Bröchler) who, dressed in dominatrix garb, sing a jazz–inflected diatribe against the male gender, urging the female lover to join their decadent world of liberated female sexuality and ultimately striking the male lover dead. (He gets better.) To drive the point home, the Witches are working directly for the Devil himself, and make their first entrance by climbing up out of a trapdoor in the center of the stage. Subtle.
In spite of all this, there is much that is attractive in this score. Andriessen weaves together numerous influences with a deft touch, producing something that feels like a thoroughly integrated whole for all the disparate sound worlds it integrates. If some contemporary composers have opted for a path of pastiche, blithely pasting patches of different styles together without evening out any of the seams (a choice which, needless to say, can be powerfully effective at times), Andriessen instead seems to be bending his masterful craftsmanship to smoothing over the gaps until it’s impossible to tell just where one style stops and the next begins. At one point, a brass fanfare that could have been quoted directly from Gabrielli bypasses centuries of music history in mere seconds to morph effortlessly into a figure Copland could have penned — this fanfare being built around the drooping, all but atonal trombone motive that opens the work, and that elsewhere is transfigured in the woodwinds into a march that keeps threatening to become the passage from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen Mahler recycles in the first movement of his first symphony. And yet it all feels like one; the unity of the musical fabric never feels in danger of coming unwoven.
Even more astonishing is the balance Andriessen has struck between the density of his orchestrational colors and the underlying transparency of the texture. Many of the sounds Andriessen deploys are gnarly composites of several instruments, rich treats for the ear to unpick as they pass by, duets for bass and contrabass clarinet alternating with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a large percussion battery, among many other sonic resources. And yet the complexity never goes to far; the score is never muddy, even in the ferocious tutti passages that erupt at various climax points. This music is a virtuosic display of the compositional dexterity needed to balance an intricate net of details at the smallest level against overarching clarity at the largest.
Still, at times it felt like I was listening to an incredible orchestra piece that someone had, for some reason, pasted an opera on top of. There’s a long tradition of composers cobbling together instrumental suites from their operas, and I sincerely hope Andriessen continues that practice. Theatre of the World is full of attractive music, any of which I would very much like to listen to again without having to watch a Baroque Pope dry humping one of Europe’s last Renaissance men while a sarcastic publisher looks on with a Devil wearing a Batman shirt and exercise pants. Unlike Innocenzo IX, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to close my eyes.
Say the word “lied” to the average classical listener, and they probably won’t think of a post-tonal heavy metal band roaring about gay sex in front of lurid, psychedelic projections. But audiences were treated to just that — among many other raucous, exuberant offerings — at last night’s 21c Liederabend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Conceived by the Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt and co-directed by Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the 21c Liederabend project seeks to update the 19th–Century tradition of Schubertiads and liederabends for contemporary audiences, bringing in not just living poets and composers but also visual artists to create an immersive multimedia experience. Updatings of this sort sometimes feel like painful pandering to passing fads, but the 21c Liederabend was nothing of the sort. Rather than a gimmicky shoehorning-in of disparate elements, the evening was a gripping celebration of the possibilities of song at the start of a new century, an exploration of the range and capabilities of music and the human voice.
On entering the hall before the show, the audience was greeted not with the “instrumental warmups overlaid with chitchat” that usually precedes a classical concert, but instead with a pre-recorded playlist of the sort usually reserved for plays, rock shows, and other less stuffy occasions. It was a perfect choice. Without calling undue attention to itself, it set a relaxed atmosphere of openness, and, with a few carefully selected pop numbers mixed in with the rest, foreshadowed how far the concert would venture away from standard classical fare. A brief video skit involving a muppet and Deborah Voigt introduced the project, and then it was on to the first piece of the program, the world première of Juhi Bansal’s “Begin”, a setting of a text by Neil Aitken and the only work of the evening scored for voice and piano alone (performed exquisitely by Peabody Southwell and Richard Valitutto, respectively). Beginning with barely a murmur in the piano and the quietest of hummings, it is a leisurely, lyrical piece that takes full advantage of the time it has to build to its impassioned climax. Drawing inspiration from the life of Charles Babbage, the piece conveys the yearning desire of dreaming of a world half seen, as well as the loss that getting lost in such dreams can cause to the people around you. Radiant and transcendent in its final passions, “Begin” is a testament to the continuing possibilities of the voice+piano art song.
Next was a set of songs from John Adams and June Jordan’s 1995 “song play” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. These selections focused on the arc of Dewain, a black man arrested on trumped-up charges whose prison cell is rent asunder by the shaking earth. This was the first piece with amplification on the program, and it took a while for the balance to settle; from where I was sitting, the backing ensemble came close to overpowering the singers at times, though by the end balance had been restored. Adams’s music was at its dynamic, twitchy best, and felt constrained by the limits of a concert hall. During the “Song about the On-Site Altercation,” especially, the stillness of the actors felt like a let-down next to the tension and forcefulness of the music. Still, “Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise,” a slow ballade from the second half of the show, gave me goosebumps for its entire duration, not least because of the plaintive clarity of Cedric Berry’s voice. (The slow transformation of the backing projection from a drab, decrepit wall to a pure and open sky didn’t hurt either.)
Going slightly astray from the printed order, this was followed by the world première of Jacob Cooper’s “Ripple the Sky.” The text was by Greg Alan Brownderville and incorporated snippets from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet alongside quotes from Robert Schumann’s personal diary from around the time of his 1854 attempt at drowning himself in the Rhine. Unsurprisingly, then, the music had much to do with death by water, but it was far from a programmatic depiction of ripples and currents. Backing the singer Theo Bleckmann was an ensemble of strings and electronics (including some pre-recorded vocals by Mellissa Hughes), and together they spun a sere, arid landscape, devoid of any breath of air. It was paradoxical, but it worked, capturing something of the vacancy and inertness of a deep depression — including that strangest of states where the world seems brimming over with undirected feeling and yet action is a hopeless proposition. Built on a foundation of uneasy drones and skittery gymnastics from the strings, “Ripple the Sky” is a gaunt voyage across a landscape of sun-bleached fragments.
Ending the first half were two songs from David T Little and Anne Waldman’s Artaud in the Black Lodge, an experimental music theatre piece imagining a meeting between Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, and David Lynch in some kind of afterlife or otherworldly plane. Little described the work as his imagining of what would happen if a heavy metal band tried writing art songs, and the performance (by Timur and the Dime Museum) lived up to that, complete with punk-inspired haircuts and distressed and re-sewn black clothes. Timur was a captivating frontman, standing way out at the lip of the stage, embodying the spirit of Burroughs while singing about the modernist author’s cut-up technique and the time that he cut off part of one of his fingers to impress a man he had a crush on. In keeping with the heavy metal influence, there were moments of overwhelming grunge and noise, washes of white noise that spoke to the fury of war and the urgency of desire, but there were also moments of intimacy and tenderness, as when Timur/Burroughs crooned a delicate “take it – take it – take it” (referring at times to his finger and to his body in the guise of a sexual offering), echoing the gentle yet irresistible urgings of Peter Quint in Britten and Piper’s Turn of the Screw. At one point, lights above the stage shone out into the audience, and on seeing the still figures in upholstered chairs, I found myself doing a double take and biting back surprised laughter — I had quite forgotten my surroundings and was half expecting to gaze out on a stadium full of cheering, dancing bodies.
Variety was a hallmark of the second half as well. Leaha Villarreal’s “Never Not” (text by Adara Meyers) brought us back from intermission with a pensive, cryptic meditation. The projections for this featured what looked like decontextualized shots from 1950s makeup commercials and nature documentaries, which blurred together with the music to create an unusual atmosphere — it was as though we had traveled back from the distant future, turning our eyes on the 20th Century much the way we in the present look back at civilizations before the invention of writing. We have tantalizing fragments that suggest echoes of continuity with how we live today, but shorn of context, their secrets and stories are lost, and we grope towards their meanings forever in the dark. In a similar vein, this piece and its video seemed to make the present distant and unreal, shrouded in the mists of forgottenness.
Excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Sound from the Bench (text by Jena Osman, pulled together from court decisions and ventriloquism manuals) followed, with members of the Los Robles Master Chorale presenting snippets concerning the fiction of corporate personhood and the financial ventriloquism of the current campaign finance landscape. Then came the world première of Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. Inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope, Aokigahara Forest, and the Nazca Lines in Peru, the piece felt unfocused and also a little long for its surroundings. Even so, there were some arresting moments, as when a blown conch shell melded seamlessly into the breathy whisper of a solo flute, or the searing passage where Nathan Gunn sang of a desperate hope to find someone beloved after an unspecified disaster: “I wanted to find you./Even in pieces,/I wanted to find/And assemble/Those splinters of you.”
Next and last were two excerpts form Jefferson Friedman’s album On in Love, where he worked with poet and singer Craig Wedren to create a set of songs that each did one single thing, instead of his previous, more complex approaches to structure and content. First was the rowdy “Fight Song” that seemed somewhere between a hyped–up encouragement to a football team and a jingoistic incitement to actual war, complete with vicious sections in 5 and imagery of blood and conquest. Then, to close the evening, came “Tarrying”, an achingly simple paean to the Christian conception of divine forgiveness. After the dizzying complexity on offer elsewhere in the evening, such a turn to the plainspoken might have seemed an odd choice to conclude things, but in Friedman’s hands, simplicity became transcendence. The final stanza of Wedren’s text is an unadorned repetition of the word “please”, a condensed prayer sent heavenwards with no caveats or conditions. A request for forgiveness, shorn of all explanations of extenuating circumstances. Earnest, despairing, profound. The projections overflowed their screens, painting every surface in Disney Hall red, blazing with holy fire.
I have groused in the past about concerts that don’t plan anything to cover extensive set changes, thus losing the audience’s attention and promoting tedium, so it seems only fair that I give praise when a creative team avoids that trap. To cover for each of the (many) set changes throughout the evening, pre-recorded videos of the composers talking about their work played, keeping the audience’s attention and providing interesting and illuminating context and commentary on what we were about to hear while stagehands scurried around moving chairs, stands, and pianos. The result was a truly integrated concert experience, one that felt like it had been consciously designed on every level from start to finish; I wasn’t watching a bunch of pieces that might be good in their own right surrounded by buffers of boredom, I was watching a show. This also had the curious effect of lifting my enjoyment of some of the program’s weaker pieces; since everything flowed seamlessly along a clear trajectory, each individual piece on the program became part of a greater whole instead of having to stand or fall on its own merit. There were a few glitches here and there (usually when the audience clapped long enough to produce a second round of bows, forcing the lights crew to hastily rewind back out of the set change lighting), but I hope that those don’t dissuade others from taking this approach. Planning out the logistical details at this level can be tedious, but it makes a difference, and I hope I see more groups embrace this level of thoughtfulness and artistic integrity.
[NB this review discusses Fascism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault. The views expressed are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of New Classic LA]
A gentle undulation in the strings, a murmur of woodwind melodies, the suggestion of burbling water under a quiet, rural sunrise. So begins Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1919 tone poem that opened Friday night’s concert at Disney Hall and helped secure the composer’s fame. Under the baton of John Adams, whose “dramatic symphony” with solo violin Scheherazade.2 comprised the second half, the LA Philharmonic gradually blazed to majestic life as Respighi’s focus shifted from dawn to morning to high noon before ebbing back into the stillness of night. Perhaps because of the conductor, I found myself focusing less on Respighi’s sweeping dramatic gestures (though the low brass were truly electrifying at the Trevi fountain’s climax) than on the small repeated figures that make up much of the musical texture. The Fountains of Rome is not a minimalist piece by any stretch of the imagination, but under Adams’s baton, it felt like it could easily be rewritten as one.
Dispensing with the opening tranquility of Fountains, the next work on the program was the second of Respighi’s Roman pieces, The Pines of Rome (1923–4). Despite its reputation as a flashy, even trashy showstopper, the Phil found a remarkable depth of feeling, the ghastly collapse from the giddy Villa Borghese to the gaunt Catacombs opening a yawning chasm of grief and loss. Between Tom Hooten’s offstage trumpet and Burt Hara’s delicate-as-breath clarinet solo, the Janiculum offered a harrowing path to acceptance and resolution before the Appian Way returned to end the first half with brilliant splendor.
Adams made a point to refer to this ending as an act of aggression in his speech to the audience after intermission, as though to imply that The Pines of Rome is part of the world of male violence against women that Scheherazade.2 is supposedly pushing back against. If so, it would be the only specific instance he pointed to outside the Middle East, a choice with an uncomfortable tinge of Islamophobia to it. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Middle East is a feminist utopia, but listing Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the only specifically named places where men commit violence against women plays into a pernicious trope that pits a more “civilized” West against a more “barbaric” Islamic world, blaming a religion for the evils of patriarchy and ignoring the history of Western intervention and destruction of progressive regimes in the area. It was not the only regrettable moment in the talk — at one point Adams seemed to imply that rape can develop into a healthy, consensual sexual encounter, which is a notion that cannot be condemned strongly enough. I’m not sure if that was Adams’s intent — I sincerely hope it wasn’t — but that it was unclear was one of many things that offered reason to doubt Adams’s full understanding of the feminism he is claiming to espouse.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that his piece was less charged that his rhetoric. The first movement was a slalom of irregular plonks and quiet rumbles, with the solo violin carving out jagged, irregular lines above the fray. In continuing his evolution away from minimalism, Adams seems to be picking up the mantle of texturalists like Unsuk Chin, though her tapestries cohere more and gleam with greater transparency than Adams’s offering — fans of his Naïve and Sentimental Music will be familiar with this language, even if the accent is altered somewhat. Towards the end, the music coalesces into a violent convulsion, the first obviously continuous line in the work.
Soft, overlapping string chords started the second movement, projecting less the violence Adams described than the religious ecstasy of Bernini’s Theresa. Likewise, the movement’s end was less a warm and heartfelt intimacy than a wan and colorless exhaustion. The third movement picked up where the first left off, violent unisons for the full orchestra alternating with inert lines from the violinist and discordant interjections from smaller sections of the orchestra. These included everything from a happily burbling conference of bassoons and oboes to a xylophone–led percussion display that could have come from a less avian Messiaen. This quasi-programmatic depiction of a group of “bearded men” condemning Scheherazade to death (because apparently beards correlate with misogyny?) was certainly rousing at times, but even by the end, Josefowicz’s lines were too abstract and disjointed to convey much in the way of noble resistance to an unjust fate.
Returning to a looser sense of narrative constraint, the last movement was the strongest of the four by far. Even so, despite Josefowicz’s consummate playing and some deftly intriguing klangfarbenmelodie between the tuned gongs and the cimbalom, the music felt sluggish and bedraggled. The whole piece clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and it does not make good use of that time. There are many excellent moments scattered throughout the score — surprising timbres, spot-on chord changes, intricate rhythmic games — but they don’t add convincingly to a larger whole. In fact, they don’t really add at all. They merely happen, in sequence, continuing on with no clear goal or direction. The moments are fresh enough to keep the piece from being boring, but they don’t gel well enough to make it actually interesting.
Even though Adams seemed to be being rather tongue-in-cheek when he described “The Pines of the Appian Way” as being an act of aggression, I think he’s absolutely correct in this. In 1922, the year before Respighi began writing that piece, Benito Mussolini marched his army into the city of Rome to stage a Fascist coup d’état. In that historical context, it’s not hard to understand why Respighi’s militaristic celebration of imperial triumph was often co-opted as propaganda by the Fascist regime. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this triumphal conclusion — all doubts are swept aside in an unstoppable wave of cymbals and brass — and it’s only later, on reflection, that the chilling realization of how easy it is for music to sweep away such doubts casts the resolutely upbeat ending in a more sinister light. (It is comforting to imagine that we would be able to see through propaganda and remain unseduced by its charms, but a piece like The Pines of Rome should give us pause.)
Sadly, Adams misses this subtlety. His villains aren’t the heroes of their own story, they’re just villains. There is no equivalent, in Scheherazade.2, of beginning to be moved by a rousing speech only to pull back in horror when we realize its central argument; everything is marked clearly from beginning to end. In a piece ostensibly about a clever, wily figure who uses plot twists and cliffhangers to change her fate, there is precious little wit indeed. It’s not exactly a moralizing piece, but it does move with some of the same plodding predictability, motivated less by guile and cunning than a worn–out sense of dutiful obligation. Adams has done better in the past; let’s hope he does better yet again.
Andrew Norman’s star has been on the rise recently, and last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, curious listeners got a taste of what all the fuss is about. The LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, opened their program with the first movement of Play, a work he wrote for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2013. (The Phil will be playing the complete work in their next season.) While the movement’s designation as “Level One” may seem whimsical, the music is anything but. Without preamble, it plunges into a skittish, disjointed soundscape, an inhuman maelstrom of digital glitch and grain. There are no electronic instruments in the orchestra, but there might as well have been: the Norman is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to making live players sound like MIDI simulations.
Mixed in with the frenetic tumult are several slower interludes, but even here tenderness is not forthcoming. These interludes feel like examinations of the seams of something that has been pulled apart, as though Norman has stripped away all the flashy graphics of a big-budget video game sensation to show us not the human beings who poured their hearts into making it but the dry code they had written instead. Nevertheless, towards the end something human does seem to be trying to emerge. Several times an aching, arcing line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, a warm gesture that struggles at every moment to retain its integrity in the face of the digital wash, a feeble signal repeatedly lost to onslaughts of noise. Towards the end there is a brief moment of triumph when the woodwinds and brass burst into a Higdon-esque fanfaric dance, but the percussion — who, as per Norman’s program note, have been “playing” the orchestra in much the same way that the conductor “plays” the percussionists and the score “plays” the conductor — join forces in a coordinated attack, forcing the dance higher and higher until it disintegrates into a panicked mess, leaving only a few blips and bloops to bring the piece to a grim, heartless close.
Exhaustion reigns at the start of the next piece on the program, Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto. (Sergio Tiempo covered the ferociously demanding solo part from memory with admirable panache.) The first movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and it shifts easily and casually between heavy, groaning interludes that barely move and whirlwind outbursts of helter-skelter activity. Although resolutely 12-tone in conception, there are repeated hints of late Romanticism peeking out from just below the musical surface. They never fully blossom — a harsh dissonance always drives them away — but their lurking presence adds an air of almost familiarity to an otherwise astringent score.
Rustled whispers dominate the second movement, which picks up in tempo but drops in volume to the very edge of audibility. Ginastera called the movement a “hallucinatory scherzo”, but given the way twists and winks out of sight, it’s more a mirage than a hallucination, the shimmer of air over asphalt on a scorching summer’s day. Disney Hall has the unfortunate effect of amplifying noise from the audience, and while that’s often inconsequential, here there were times where the music on stage was considerably quieter than the ambient volume of the house, causing several of the quieter flutterings to disappear completely, ghosts imagined instead of observed.
In the expansive third movement, calm reigns supreme. An opening viola solo leads to an impassioned outburst, but the subsequent music is sparse and quiet, a pointillistic wash of scattered tones. It is almost as if Ginastera has pulled apart a single one of Norman’s twitchy pixels and found an entire world to explore inside, stretching a single moment out towards eternity.
Coming directly on the heels of this gaunt meditation, the finale bursts forth with explosive vigor, a blistering, relentless toccata that calls to mind the thunderous scherzo of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The program notes quote Ginastera’s claim that “[t]here are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells” in the music of his piano concerto, but the music of the finale has more than a few echoes of his earlier nationalistic ballets. Many of its practitioners might push back against this claim, but serial music is confined to a narrow emotional range. Its powers of joy and catharsis are limited, and when it tries to overstep those bounds, it often falls flat. Ginastera recognizes how tightly he is hemmed in by the musical language he is using, and doesn’t try to burst out of this box. Instead, he explores every inch of it and insists, resolutely and unapologetically, that even in these tight confines, there is still room to celebrate, to dance.
After the modernist onslaught of the first half, the second was a bit of a let-down. This half opened with John Williams’s Soundings (initially slated to start the program, but switched with Play at the last minute), a piece written to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. I wanted to like it. Many in the classical community have an anti-populist bias that all film composers are inherently hacks, and I often find myself defending people like Williams, because I do think that much of his work is legitimately great. Unfortunately, Soundings isn’t. It feels half-baked, as though Williams couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the piece to be. At twelve minutes in length, it’s a little too long to be a simple celebration, but a little too short to fully grapple with all the material that Williams has in play. Especially with the Ginastera so fresh in our ears, the dissonances sounded wan and half-hearted, wrapped in cloying softness to avoid offending those with more conservative tastes. Had it opened the concert as originally planned, it might have held up better, but slotted in where it was it wound up falling rather flat. (If Soundings is ammunition for those dead set against film music, the encore was a strong rejoinder: A searing rendition of the “Love Theme” from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, an agonizing mix of loss and desire. I can’t help but wish that that had opened the second half instead.)
Still, Soundings did provide a nice transition from the caustic world of Ginastera to the diatonic evenness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I confess that I still prefer the lightness and transparency of the original chamber version, but there’s something to be said for the power that the full orchestra can bring to the brasher moments of the score. There were a few moments where the ensemble seemed on the verge of losing cohesion — despite its outwards simplicity, it’s a surprisingly tricky piece to put together — but on the whole the Phil gave a rousing account of an iconic work in the canon of American concert music.
Poland got off to a rough start in the twentieth century, what with back-to-back Nazi and Soviet invasion and control, but with the founding of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1956, Polish musicians and composers rapidly began making up for lost time. The early years of the festival helped launch Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Górecki, and Krysztof Penderecki to international prominence, and it’s still going strong to this day, providing an annual showcase of new voices in the contemporary Polish music scene. The LA Phil’s Green Umbrella concert on Tuesday 19 January at Walt Disney Concert Hall allowed us to sample some fruits of this prodigious tree.
Opening with the US Première Krzysztof Meyer’s intricate Musique scintillante (2007), the concert got off to a dazzling start. For those primed to expect a wash of dense microtonal sonorities by the program notes’ repeated references to earlier Polish works that deploy them to great effect (think Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima), this opening foray would come of something of a shock, with its bright, almost frothy musical lines that frequently coalesce into striking unisons. As soon as they come clearly into view, however, a sharp shock dashes them to pieces, and something new starts growing in turn. In this way, the work moves easily thru dances and hymns, including a plaintive interlude for trumpet, here played movingly by Stéphane Beaulac. Eventually this energy dissipates into a series of ever diminishing chords, bringing the piece a close with a playful wink after some exactingly conducted measures of rest.
Leaving aside the thunderous opening tom-tom strike, Paweł Mykietyn’s 3 for 13 (1995, here receiving its West Coast Première) opens more or less where the Meyer left off, with sparse, quiet flecks of sound dotting an otherwise vacant canvas. This is music that makes Anton Webern sound unbearably dense, but it never loses its cohesion. The entire work is based on a four-voice fugue Mykietyn wrote in the style of JS Bach, though the subject is never stated outright, let alone the entire fugue itself — in this opening section, it has been blasted into pointillistic smithereens. Slowly, these atomized flickers begin to collide, and suddenly functional tonality snaps into focus as the entire ensemble comes to rest on a blazing diminished seventh chord. The unconventional resolution is deliberately obliterated by an eruption from the tam-tam, leaving the central section’s beginning shrouded in decaying echoes. If the first section kept the fugue fragments clipped short, this new section suggests that it did so because they simply can’t withstand being played for longer: There are contiguous lines here, but they are stretched and warped, with constant string glissandi destabilizing everything. An upbeat final section ensues, with bright, pulsing minimalist rhythms and short sequences that run wildly beyond any tonal norms, shooting off towards infinity like a glider in Conway’s Game of Life. The material is recognizably the same as the first two sections, suggesting a rewinding video tape, and by the end it begins to wear a bit thin, as though Mykietyn had squeezed everything out of his fugue with several minutes left on the clock. But recognizing this, the tom-tom — which serves as a kind of master of ceremonies thruout the piece — begins to interrupt the proceedings at ever shorter intervals, the orchestra flicking between two different textures like TV channels with each stroke. When it becomes clear that there would only be two choices, and not particularly inspiring choices at that, the tom-tom bursts out in a frenzy of frustration, ending the piece with a percussive roar.
As the stagehands re-arranged the chairs before the next piece, I wished that Veronika Krausas had stepped onto the stage to give the rest of her pre-performance talk, which had been cut short by a malfunctioning fire alarm in the Disney Hall complex. It would have been nice to have something to hold the audience’s attention for the transition; as it was, several listeners in my section left the hall during the changeover, never to return. But when Krzysztof Penderecki’s second sinfonietta, transcribed for clarinet and strings from a 1993 chamber work, got under way, the focus was firmly back on stage. The first movement serves as something of a prelude, with distant, isolated fragments hanging frigid in mysterious stillness. Scored primarily for the unaccompanied soloist, the few string interjections do little to add warmth or movement. The second movement inverts this arrangement, with rapid string lines — many in unisons and octaves — dominating the texture. A scherzo in feeling if not form, the music hints at Stravinsky while living in a world of surprising diatonicism. The next two movements follow without pause as the piece gradually unwinds from a high point near the start of the second movement. As it does so, it becomes increasingly lyrical, though never truly melodic. At times, the strings call to mind Shostakovich’s slow movements, though the music lacks the Russian composer’s unexpected modal inflections. A stratospheric violin solo returns the piece to the fragmentary, inert mist of the first movement. Something of note has passed before us, the music seems to say, but it is gone from view now, and all we have are swirls of fog fading into night.
Next, after the intermission, was the World Première of Agata Zubel’s Chapter 13, a setting of a chapter from The Little Prince in which the title character encounters a Businessman who spends all his days counting stars because he thinks he owns them. Zubel herself sang the soprano part, doing triple duty as the Narrator, Businessman, and Little Prince, sometimes adopting different stances and positions on stage to clarify which she was embodying at any given moment. Those who attended the performances of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland in the Phil’s last season would be on familiar territory here, tho Zubel seems less interested than Chin in textural transparency and timbral purity, instead using densely interwoven polyphonic lines to build up a homogenous mass of sound. Unfortunately, while the effect was certainly memorable, it did little to serve the text. Antoine de Saint-Euxpéry’s words are certainly cutting, but they are witty and whimsical too, and Zubel’s setting largely misses these qualities, flattening the parable into something drab and one-dimensional. The stasis of the music is perhaps fitting for the non-urgency of the story, but it seems short on the poignant simplicity that has made the source text so beloved.
Despite serving as the (freely acknowledged) model for 3 for 13, Paweł Szymański’s quasi una sinfonietta (1990), which received its West Coast Première after another interminable set change, offered a great deal that hadn’t been covered earlier in the program. A composer who is fond of “playing games with tradition”, Szymański gestures at older styles of making music without fully embracing them. After a long, unmeasured piano trill, the piece begins with a lilting dance in the strings, punctuated by a woodblock that never quite lands in the same place two times in a row. There are many shifts away from and back to this texture, resulting in a sense of gradual even evolution despite the many disjunctions visible on a smaller scale. As the program notes suggest, Beethoven lurks just under the surface of much of this music, though never quite as expected. Motor rhythms outrun the feeble melodies above them, and at one point the entire ensemble breaks into what can only be described as a Viennese tango. Also in line with Beethoven, the opening section ends with obsessively repeated chords, though here taken beyond the realm of tonic affirmation and into patent absurdity. The stream of chords is interrupted, at first comedically by the cowbell and then disastrously by the tam-tam (accompanied by full-arm piano clusters), paving the way for a quieter central section full of klangfarbenmelodie handoffs. There are repeated attempts at getting a chorale going, but the music has great difficulty settling into it, and the result is rather like watching someone try to build a house with lumber supplied by Salvador Dalí. Unexpectedly, the whole thing snaps into focus in a strangely affecting passage of aching beauty. But a motoric minor third launches the helter-skelter finale, with jagged arcing lines interrupted by brief pillars of irregular, unexpected silence. The music is pointillistic, but deeply engaging all the same. In one of the clearest gestures echoed by the Mykietyn, the work ends with the music flipping between manic string vamps at each stroke of a tom-tom. But here, instead of erupting in petulant frustration, the music simply winds down like a broken toy, the strings slowing and sliding down freely into silence with an exhausted slump.
Needless to say, none of this is particularly easy to perform, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under the baton of Łucasz Borowicz. Whether executing tricky interlocking rhythms with exacting precision or melding disparate sounds into longer single lines, the players performed with graceful aplomb. It’s easy (and perhaps accurate) to compare the music on this program to mechanical devices, but more than some intricate machine, the ensemble felt like an organic unit, a natural conglomeration of different timbres that nevertheless cohered into a seamless whole. Special commendation must go to Burt Hara, who covered the demanding solo clarinet part in the Penderecki with remarkable grace and agility. On the whole, an excellent evening of music, and an intriguing glimpse at recent trends in one of Europe’s compositional powerhouses.
From July to November of 1917, some five hundred thousand troops slaughtered each other over a scrappy Belgian ridge in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One. The stated goal of the Allied attack was to break through the German lines and clear a path to the coast to disrupt Axis naval operations. But mistaken assumptions about German morale and heavy rains that reduced the already decimated battlefield to a wasteland of clinging mud dashed these plans, and by the campaign’s bitter end five months after it started, the battle lines remained almost unchanged — the deepest incursion into German-held territory was less than five miles from the starting point. While other battles of the War had higher death rates, few compare to Passchendaele for sheer futility and misery of conditions.
This is the landscape that Mark-Anthony Turnage turns to in his new work, Passchendaele, which was given its US première at Walt Disney Hall this past Sunday, January 10, by the Orange County Youth Symphony and Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestras under the baton of Daniel Alfred Wachs. And it truly is the landscape specifically he has in mind: In his program note, Turnage describes his work as “an orchestral essay exploring the memory of the landscape” rather than a programmatic depiction of the conflict itself. As such, the work begins not with an analogy to the actual battle’s opening artillery barrage but instead with a solo trombone singing out sad fragments of an almost familiar melody. Nudge a few notes here and there and it could be the Dies Irae or an old American bugle call, but it remains stubbornly warped beyond any one singular reference point. Between each of these fragments, the full orchestra interjects with shriekingly amplified echoes, suggesting the sounds of metal being rent asunder.
The last of these echoes is more subdued, and decays into a tumultuous, seething field of activity. Despite Passchendaele’s bitter nickname “The Battle of Mud”, the music is never heavy or sodden, but remains taut and wiry as it obsessively develops and passes around a two-note descending half-step motive shorn from one of the opening trombone fragments. At times, the result could be mistaken for a cut passage from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Waterfront, but for all the frenetic activity, the music retains a sense of stasis, of being trapped endlessly retreading the same ground over and over again in search of an escape that does not come.
Eventually, this undirected striving ebbs in exhaustion, and the brass instrument pick out gleaming chords with stacks of bell tones (calling to mind, perhaps, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra), but this quickly boils away to leave the trombone alone once more to pick out another sequence of scattered fragments. The woodwinds sneak back in with a few plaintive chords to bring the piece to a close, but the progressions are crumpled and painful, casting a pall over the otherwise conciliatory sonorities. The overall effect is a glimpse into the memory of an old soldier, desperate to salvage some scrap of meaning or purpose from the endless futile miles of shell craters and corpses, shying away from reckoning with the bleak and utter pointlessness of the entire endeavor. (Both of Turnage’s grandfathers fought in the War.)
The young musicians of the OCYSO and YMFDO handled this grim music easily. The program opened with Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, which set the bar high — the first entry of the strings was ethereally subtle and perfectly together, as if there really were some eternal, ineffable background music to the cosmos and we were just hearing someone turn the volume knob up slightly in the middle of a phrase. Next to Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony (which closed the program), Passchendaele was a cakewalk, seemingly presenting few challenges of solo dexterity or ensemble cohesion. Still, when the music offered opportunities to shine, the musicians rose to the occasion admirably, especially in the case of the solo trombonist, whose name is not clear from the program listing. On the whole, the evening was an impressive showing; these young musicians clearly have bright futures in front of them.