On Wednesday, May 23rd, Los Angeles-based concert series wasteLAnd presented the premiere of Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s piece Cantata, or You are the star in God’s Eye at the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Originally composed for radio broadcast in 2002, Schweinitz recomposed the bulk of the material with an expanded instrumentation for wasteLAnd, featuring conductor Nicholas Deyoe, Sara Cubarsi on violin, Andrew McIntosh on viola, Scott Worthington on double bass, Matt Barbier on euphonium, Allen Fogle on french horn, Luke Storm on Eb tuba, and soprano Stephanie Aston. Throughout the piece, the ensemble resides within an overarching narration of the libretto, written and recited by poet Friederike Mayrocker.
The piece begins with a short prelude of narration, which is quickly emboldened by an immediately rich texture of contrapuntal gestures as the ensemble enters assertively. Schweinitz’ nuanced rhythmic material and wasteLAnd’s thoughtful phrasing presented the listener with the option to enter a space of fluid and unstable structure, with perhaps once familiar material placed on the far side of a distorted lens. Although aided by amplification, the acoustics of the hall were not entirely suited to the texture of the piece. The brass were often rendered somewhat obscured and the narration occasionally became a dominating presence.
Exceptional instrumental ability was on clear display, with Cubarsi, McIntosh, and Worthington generating a warm and articulate lattice of incredibly precise harmonics and dyads, and the brass trio of Barbier, Fogle, and Storm deftly maneuvering through a jigsaw puzzle of minutely shifting microtones and interlocking gestures. Aston’s vocal line served as an anchor for the instrumental material and voice-over, simultaneously contributing to the existing texture and gently presenting a clear path through the development of the epic 80-minute piece. Her performance was stunningly controlled, well-executed, and emotionally dynamic.
The lengthy piece — eleven distinct sections — was well-paced and generated a captivating environment for the listener and a subtle momentum of narrative that made the piece’s 80 minutes belie a work of smaller proportion. The intimacy of REDCAT seemed to engender a willingness in the audience to stay with the ensemble intently, which I believe contributed greatly to the overall experience feeling not only like entertainment but also somehow artistic productivity.
The world of the piece seemed to behave contrary to entropy, gradually accruing order like a system trending toward a viscerally satisfying cosmic architecture. It feels massive in scope — like it’s operating within a greater universal logic rather than some simpler earthly system. The title’s imagery of star and god fit neatly in that universal logic, and imply scale more biblical than contemporary. During the seventh aria, the distorted lens shifted sharply into focus. Heralded by Cubarsi’s violin, the ensemble presented an incredibly effective moment that wouldn’t be inaccurately described as triumphant, but still in a manner distinct to Schweinitz’ refreshingly idiosyncratic and effective voice.
When the piece ended, the audience sat silently, taking a moment to shift from the flow-state of the piece back to reality.
On Sunday, January 31, 2016, the Euler Quartet performed five string pieces at Art Share LA in a concert entitled Pixels. This was the inaugural concert for the Euler Quartet and a full crowd turned out on a blustery winter evening to hear contemporary music from five different Los Angeles area composers.
Toccata (for amplified string quartet) by David Aguila was first. This began with two successive high, thin pitches in the violins, sustained and differing just slightly in pitch. The cello joined in with a low, foundational tone and the amplified viola then entered with a continuous middle pitch that completed some beautiful harmonies. The viola began to ascend and a thin haze of distortion emerged from the interaction of the various upper partials. There was a mostly relaxed feel to this, even as the viola pitch ascended toward a siren-like howl the cello continued with a steady, calming presence in the lower registers. The viola climbed still higher, its amplification dominating the texture with a screeching that invoked a distinct sense of anxiety. The violins pulled back to reveal the viola now at its squealing apex, issuing varying and tenuous melodies that hovered indistinctly in the air; the pitches at times were so high that it sounded like the whistling of the wind. The ensemble and pitch quality throughout, especially by violist Benjamin Bartelt, was remarkably precise and controlled. Toccata is an intense study of the relationships and interaction of pitches at the extremes of string instrument intonation.
Scenes from my Parents’ Cocktail Party by Max Mueller followed. This piece is based on the childhood recollections of the composer sneaking downstairs during a party hosted by his parents in their suburban home. Mueller is an accomplished film composer and this piece has the breezy nostalgia of a vintage sitcom sound track. Mango Salsa, a strong, up-tempo tutti section that begins the piece, nicely invokes the hurried preparations of an imminent house party. The busy passages and tight ensemble were perfectly matched in this stylish and jazzy opening. The Two People Flirting, section II, has a slower, more elegant feel and features some lush harmonies. There is a more formal and stately pace to this – the party has started and the guests have arrived. Candles on the Porch, section III, slows further and adds a touch of solemnity, perhaps the sharing of some sad news among friends. The Bickering Couple, the final section, returns to the fast pace of the opening with rapid, spiky runs in the violin that capture the inevitable result of long-held grudges combined with too much alcohol. Scenes from my Parents’ Cocktail Party is a well crafted and accessible musical portrait of a vivid childhood memory.
64 Colors, by Sara Cubarsi, was next and this work was inspired by a collection of 64 three-note harmonies commonly used by 20th century string players such as Pablo Casals, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. According to the program notes: “…this piece selects those which contain at least one just interval (in extended just intonation) within each trichord… These 64 chords are then inverted twice as the structural frame of the piece, consisting of three chorales.” The opening chords contained some lovely harmony; soft, tentative and quiet with a spare, solemn feel. As the piece progressed, new harmonic colors emerged while the pace and texture was very much in keeping with the chorale tradition. Some of the passages felt perhaps a bit remote, others strong and dramatic while at other times a darker color prevailed, adding a bit of sadness. The playing was well balanced and the pitches tightly controlled so that the harmonies never felt alien or unsettled. 64 Colors is an ambitious – and ultimately successful – exploration of the possibilities of harmonic expression that incorporate unorthodox intervals without slighting historically informed sensibilities.
Luminosity studies (for scordatura string quartet) by Haosi Howard Chen followed and misty, the first of three movements, began with high trills in the violins accompanied by slower and sustained tones in the viola and cello. This was brimming with energy, an exciting sound with active attacks in each phrase that increased in intensity right up to the finish. The second movement, bleak, opened with high, airy sounds in the violins followed by a suddenly powerful tutti chord. The feeling here was perhaps more tentative and included a bit of drama and tension. The final movement, effaced, was a series of active tutti passages with a flood of notes, the feeling was reminiscent of looking at a stormy sea filled with choppy swells. The players navigated these difficult passages with care and an admirably tight ensemble. As Chen writes in the program notes, ‘…this work is an exploration of textural nuance through the different contextualization of similar pitch and timbre materials.” Luminosity studies is an artfully conceived and challenging piece, skillfully performed by the Euler Quartet.
The final piece on the program was Take the Forest, For Example… by Edward Park. This began with a series of precise pizzicato chords, full of motion and vitality. There is a somewhat more conventional feel to this work, with some really lovely harmonies emerging as the piece progressed. The playing was polished and disciplined with good rhythmic movement. A lovely violin solo emerged, soaring gracefully over the busyness of the texture, followed by a dramatic viola passage as the tempo slowed somewhat. A cello solo added a dark solemnity to the coloring and a nicely played tutti chord that was repeated added effectively to a sense of sadness. The playing at this point was expressively beautiful, and with a crescendo the pace returned to the bright activity of the opening to conclude the work. Take the Forest, For Example… is full of varied sentiments and emotions, each artfully revealed and elegantly played.
The Euler Quartet put on a polished concert, thoughtfully programmed and performed with skill and poise. They will be a solid addition to the new music landscape in Los Angeles.