At this Tuesday’s installment of the Green Umbrella series, Susanna Mälkki led the LA Phil New Music Group in a program of some of the freshest avant-garde voices from across the pond. Representing composers from Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Czech Republic, the works shared a certain foregrounding of detail and reservedness that resonated with the spirit of the mid-late century European avant-garde. And yet, each composer brought a distinct style and set of tricks to the night; the result was a well-curated program that was both challenging and rewarding.
The first two works of the evening defined the outer ends of the night’s spectrum. Francesco Filidei’s Lamento for organ offered a murky display of the sonic boundaries of the organ, from earth-rumbling lows to shimmering flourishes smeared by the hall’s natural reverberance. On the other hand were six (of the dozen) songs from Arnulf Herrmann’s chamber song cycle, The Call. Marc Lowenstein stepped in to conduct on the Herrmann, joined by baritone Sean Michael Plumb who was excellent, both in the quality of his voice and the artistic choices he made to convey the longing, fear, and paralysis of the text. Where the Filidei approached an abstract and observational piece of sound art, Herrmann’s work invoked a more traditional approach to both the overarching form and the vocal writing—an effective choice given the content and medium.
The remaining works lived somewhere between, distinguished less by difference of intention than by their subtle sonic magic tricks (partially responsible for the program conveying a strong sense of European rather than American avant-garde). Rounding out the first half was Lotta Wennäkoski’s Hele, an eccentric and energetic respite from the broodiness of the first two works. Wennäkoski utilized the slide whistle amid frantic and agile ensemble writing to sometimes atmospheric, sometimes cartoonish, but always surprising effect. In Miroslav Srnka’s Overheating, it was instead the sweeping percussion and the accordion sustaining through musical ebbs that charged the sound world of the ensemble with something extra. Both works demonstrated careful attention to orchestration and technique on the part of the composers, which the LA Phil New Music Group and Mälkki highlighted with clear, transparent performances.
The standout of the program was the final work, Yann Robin’s Übergang II. It too employed some tricks—not only in the use of the piano, percussion, and harp but also in the combinations of extended techniques used throughout the ensemble—but what enraptured the audience was the genuineness of its musical gestures and ideas; Robin’s writing felt less like an artifact of the potential sounds embodied within an instrumentation, and more an effort to musically approximate something more personal, emotionally complicated, and human. There was a lot of the composer in the work, so to speak, which is often absent in modern music (and perhaps why it can feel alienating to the audience), and the ensemble (too) seemed moved by this connection. The result was a performance equally poised, yet infused with a certain emotional weight that encouraged a bit more risk on the part of the ensemble. That risk combined with the score’s intelligent use of textures and careful timing of events to produce an outstanding performance that embodied so much of the tension embedded in the avant-garde; how (or if) to remember the past, how (or if) to proceed in a tradition.
On Friday night, Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted the U.S. Premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra: en forme de pas de trois. Under the baton of Susanna Mälkki, the Los Angeles Philharmonic skillfully navigated the work’s technical and conceptual challenges in a thoughtful marriage with Tero Saarinen’s choreography.
True to its title, Zimmermann’s concerto utilizes the parings and structure suggested by the pas de trois: five movements—starting with an introduction and concluding with a coda—present the three dancers in various combination. The significance of “three” was prevalent throughout, not only in the cleanly-partitioned triangular spaces of the dancers, but in the shape of the props, the lighting design, the staging, and the layout of the orchestra. Originally scheduled to be performed by Robert deMaine, the cello solo was divided among three cellists: Ben Hong, Eric Byers, and Timothy Loo, whose own choreography cycling through the solo stand furthered an sense of tripartite structure. With the added element of dance, the concerto took the form of a three-way conversation between solo, ensemble and body.
The music reflected the range of textures one might expect more from a ballet than from a mid-century modernist work. Mälkki offered an intelligent interpretation, painting an eerie modernist landscapes propelled by energetic outbursts and percussive cello episodes. The balance of soloists and orchestra maintained a certain intimacy which traded easily with the dancers; only in the penultimate march did the music’s intensity momentarily seize full attention. The later sections added to the weight of tutti passages with a sense of familiarity: where the early movements showcased Zimmermann’s sensitivity to pace and silence, the march and blues movements looked to outside musical influences for thematic material. Committed and virtuosic performances by each of the soloists pulled attention in still one more direction, instilling the work with a frenetic energy that, along with the staging and dance, kept the audience enraptured from beginning to end.
In addition to the lights and stage design, the premiere benefitted from its pairing with the other works on the program. Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercar spun out Bach’s fugal entanglements with a delicate, admiring glance over the shoulder, while Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony peeked into the future by combining romantic gesture with complex timbral swaths. Together, they framed the Zimmerman in a way that highlighted its internal stylistic contrasts and diversity as a key feature, making it feel exploratory while also cohesive. For the LA Phil, this concert was not only musically successful, but another example of how their attention to programming and staging makes each performance stand out.