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.
The virtuosic Aperture Duo (Adrianne Pope and Linnea Powell) will be performing at Tuesdays at Monk Space this coming Tuesday, February 27. I had the opportunity to ask Adrianne Pope (violin) and Linnea Powell (viola) about the upcoming show, working with composers, and more. Here’s what they had to say:
Our Monk Space program has been incredibly fun to put together, as it features some of our favorite composers and people whose works center around memories, reunions, and reflections. Sciarrino’s short and fleeting “La Malinconia” and Georges Aperghis’ enthusiastic “Retrouvailles” are pieces that we’ve wanted to perform for years. The program also features two Aperture Duo commissions: a world premiere by Sarah Gibson and a commission by Nicholas Deyoe from 2015. These two commissions give a window into our wide ranging interests as a duo, as they are very contrasting in sound and style.
From whistles to claps, beautiful lyricism to deafening scratches, we aim to create programs that challenge the assumptions of what a violin and viola duo can sound like. This will show be no exception!
You’ll be premiering Sarah Gibson’s piece, tiny, tangled world at the concert. What has your experience been like with this new work?
Whether it’s performing, teaching, or composing, working with Sarah is always a joy for us. As a composer, Sarah has a perfect balance of clear ideas and flexibility. We got to workshop new sounds, different notation options and extended techniques from the very beginning stages. We have loved seeing it evolve each step of the way!
When Sarah gave us the final draft, we were thrilled to see how virtuosic and unique it is from our other rep. She even included a specific extended technique that was new to us! Her title, tiny, tangled world, has been in place from the beginning sketches, and it has been intriguing to see the work really come to fit the title perfectly.
How often have you worked with LA composers Sarah Gibson and Nicholas Deyoe in the past? Can you tell us a little about these experiences?
With Sarah, we have performed as colleagues, performed her works in other ensembles, and worked with and performed her composition students’ works. Tiny, tangled world is the first piece Aperture has worked on solely with Sarah.
With Nick, we have performed a little bit together, and we’ve played many of his works with different groups in LA. We recently got to work with his students at CalArts on new works, and we recorded 1560 for his most recent album, for Duane. 1560 was one of our first commissions and we can’t wait to play it again at the end of this month.
Besides being colleagues, both Sarah and Nick are good friends of ours and we jump on any opportunity to collaborate with them.
Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?
In April, Aperture Duo is ensemble in residence with the Black House SoCal New Music Workshop at UC Irvine. We’re very excited to work with the selected composers and musicians there, it’s going to be a wonderfully creative workshop! In May we’ll be in residence in Northern California at Las Positas College and in June we’ll be performing at Bread and Salt in San Diego, where we’ll be premiering a new work by Courtney Bryan. It’s going to be a great spring! More information can be found on our website.
Next Tuesday, December 12, violist Diana Wade will be performing a solo recital at Monk Space, with some guest appearances from violist Linnea Powell and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie. I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions about the program, working with composers, and thoughts about performing and composing. Here’s what she had to say:
The title of the program is “You Made It Weird.” So, how weird is it?
SO WEIRD! HA. Actually, I think weird is in the eye (or ear, as the case may be) of the beholder and on some level I don’t think anything on my program is weird. It’s only weird if you make it weird. That being said, there’s some pretty strange stuff on the docket: I don’t imagine most people have heard an entire vocal duo in vocal fry, let alone anticipate hearing that at the top of a “viola recital.” What I love about this program is that no two pieces really embody the same aesthetic, so I’m really trying to go down the rabbit hold of each sonic world so far that maybe the strange, at very least, starts to make sense? I get bummed out when I hear that people feel alienated by new music or classical music, in general. I’m not at all planning on doing a lecture-recital, but I have taken into consideration the entertainment value of what I’ve programmed as well as thinking about what is an effective way to communicate and present these strange beautiful sounds to the connoisseurs and newbies, alike.
Can you tell us a bit more about your own piece, fry on fry? What was the inspiration behind it?
fry on fry was borne out of a “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if….” situation: I met Jen Beattie (who will be performing with me) at New Music on the Point, a new music festival in Vermont. Jen mentioned that she was talking to the singers there about vocal fry and I just said “hey, what if there was a piece in vocal fry, solely notated in types of fries?!” She and I giggled about it and over a beer (or three) came up with the general performance practice- a french fry will sound like this, a curly fry like that, etc. I didn’t think I would write the piece ever. Fast forward a few months and I get an email from Jen “I’m coming to LA, write the fry piece!” So I did, and it has strangely taken off. It’s been performed a handful of times on both coasts and just recently had its Australian premiere! While it is certainly a funny piece, from the minute I started writing I couldn’t get out of my mind some old podcasts and npr stories I’d heard about people complaining about the sound of women’s voices on the radio and, in particular, any use of fry in their voice. This just added a layer for me: considering all of these complaints about women’s voices and then choosing to write a piece that just bombards the listener with this supposed awful sound for a few minutes is really empowering. The last thing I’ll say about that is that Jen and I premiered the piece, but she has also performed it with a male duo partner and the Australian premiere was with two men: it’s so cool to experience the piece in each iteration. It takes on a new life with each combination. I will be projecting the score while Jen and I perform it, so everyone can see all the fries!
You’ll be performing the world premiere of a piece by Adam Borecki for viola, electronics, and projection. Can you tell us more about the piece?
Ok I don’t want to give away all the craziness that is Adam’s piece BUT I’m really excited about it. This is the first time I’ve had a solo piece so specifically written for me. Adam and I started working together on it in the summer – he recorded those early conversations and some of the movement titles are actually quotes of things, or references to things I said. Most of this piece was written with me sitting in the room next to Adam which was a luxury to both of us and led to a really beautiful collaboration. The piece is in 5 movements and some of the parts I’m most excited (and nervous) about require me doing things beyond playing the viola. I want to remain mysterious so I will just list things that are involved: video camera, lazy Susan, two pocket synthesizers, an mbira, office supplies, a quarter sized violin bow, a wooden frog and SO MUCH MORE.
In a way, this is a dream program for me: for example, I’ve wanted to play Viola, Viola (Benjamin) for a decade, but at first at seemed too daunting and then it was hard to find the right time and place to do it. I’m super thankful to my friend Linnea Powell for learning it with me, we’ve been chipping away on it for a few months and it’s been so fun to work with her.
I mean, all of these pieces are rad but the Sciarrino was one of the first pieces I knew I wanted to program- I had heard recordings of it and was completely enamored with sounds and textures I was hearing and I immediately knew I wanted to use them as connecting material throughout a program. Then, I got the music, and realized how wickedly hard this beautiful music was. So, there was an extended banging my head against the wall phase of learning it, but I think they are going to be a really special feature of this program.
In many ways, this program is incredibly personal and represents a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s going on in my mind right now from the beautiful to the completely bizarre.
What are your thoughts about working with and/or playing the music of living composers?
Whether it’s playing music by a friend or a living composer I’ve never met (like Sciarrino), I think it is of the highest importance to be playing music of our time. I absolutely love playing the “standard” repertoire, but being able to have conversations with composers: whether about a specific piece, or just getting to know them, informs so much about how I want to approach their music. Having the opportunity to bring a piece to life for the first time is an extra special thing to be a part of- getting to see and hear abstract ideas turn into a reality is completely thrilling.
What do you enjoy most about solo performance versus working with ensembles, such as Wild Up, Jacaranda, and others?
Well, this concert feels like a stepping out for me as an artist. For the majority of my professional life, I have seen myself in reference to an ensemble whether that’s an orchestra or chamber ensemble and so it’s really exciting (and a little scary) to take full ownership of a program to let people know who I am and what I’m about. I don’t have schemes or illusions that I’m on the road to becoming a famous viola soloist (I know, that’s sort of an oxymoron), but I see this as a step in the direction of carving out a little space for my voice in Los Angeles and, hopefully eventually, in the greater musical world.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the December 12 concert or to purchase tickets.
The final wasteLAnd concert of 2015, Nocturnes and Lullabies, featured Richard Valitutto at the piano and was presented on Friday evening, December 11, 2015 at Los Angeles City College’s Clausen Hall in Hollywood. An enthusiastic crowd turned out on a chilly night to hear piano music by Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Bunita Marcus, Nicholas Deyoe, Timo Andres, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Linda Caitlin Smith.
NCTRN (2014) by Nicholas Deyoe started things off, opening with a sharp rap followed by a sudden, crashing chord. The piece immediately turned quiet and a series of dense, atmospheric chords drifted up, creating a shimmering undercurrent of anxiety. This continued and soon a quiet rapping was heard, as realized by several prepared keys in the uppermost notes of the keyboard. The rapping became more insistent as the piece progressed, adding another level of tension that contrasted nicely with the dark chords coming from the lower registers. The persistent knocking became louder – like a ghost trapped in a closet – ceasing suddenly at the finish.
Notturno crudelo no. 1 (2000), by Salvatore Sciarrino was next with a march-like rhythm dominating, almost mechanical in its repetition and regularity. Complex passages consisting of rapid runs and skips intervened – less strident and at times even tentative – but the forceful marcato texture invariably returned. Valitutto managed all of this with high efficiency, effectively portraying the vivid contrast between the sections.
Three pieces were then played continuously: Wiegenmusik (1963) by Helmut Lachenmann, Lullaby (2000) by Bunita Marcus and Plainsound Lullaby (2014) by Wolfgang von Schweinitz. The Lachenmann piece felt restrained, full of quiet notes and short stretches of silence. Some sharp, rapid figures were heard in the upper registers at times, but the overall feel was remote, tentative and mysterious. Lullaby by Bunita Marcus had an altogether more settled sound and featured repeating phrases combined with conventional chords, producing a more introspective feel.
The von Schweinitz piece called for Valitutto to play from the keyboard while depressing the sustain pedal and reaching inside the piano to pluck several of the strings in the lower registers. This required an awkward posture, but the results were amazing. A series of bell-like tones – almost electronic in timbre – issued out from the piano in a pleasant sonority, complimenting a quiet melody of conventional notes. This combination was both unusual and engaging and Plainsound Lullaby received sustained applause from the audience at the conclusion.
After intermission Heavy Sleep (2013) by Timo Andres began with a singular series of deep, questioning chords that were answered similarly in the higher registers. As the piece continued it became, by turns, warm, reaffirming, settled and connected until it arrived at an expansively grand sound. At times, Heavy Sleep exhibited great power, like a piano concerto without an orchestra. The playing here was accurate and the changing dynamics were negotiated effectively.
The final two pieces of the concert, A Nocturne (1995) by Linda Caitlin Smith and Lullaby 2 by Nicholas Deyoe were performed continuously. A Nocturne started quietly and there were long stretches of silence between the phrases that let the notes ring out and slowly die away. Familiar chords followed, producing a questioning, introspective feel. The stillness and quiet of this work made for a good segue to the Deyoe piece, and this began with deep, solemn chords in the lowest registers of the keyboard. Answering chords followed with higher pitches and the low chord returned again with added mystery and power. The fine touch by Valitutto brought out the delicate contrast here.
The prepared keys again made an appearance in the form of a rhythmic knocking that held the attention of the listener. This knocking dominated as the piece progressed and the supporting chords built up a dreamy atmosphere that terminated in a series of roiling runs up and down the keyboard and a sharp thunder clap. At one point the keyboard cover was closed and a soft rapping sound was made upon it. A dreamy fragment of a romantic melody appeared, conjured up so quietly and mysteriously that it seemed to be coming out of the mist in the far distance. A sudden closing of the keyboard cover brought Lullaby 2 to a final, satisfactory finish.
Richard Valitutto brought his many talents to bear on the wide variety of contemporary pieces in Nocturnes and Lullabies, consistently delivering just the right blend of passion and artful technique.