Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Music in Los Angeles

Colorado St., Glendale, December 10—

HERE WE ARE IN Glendale, on one of our semi-annual visits for theatergoing. We usually arrive the first weekend of December and another weekend in mid- or late April: in that way we can see all but one of the (usually) seven productions given each year by A Noise Within, a professional repertory company that's rewarded us more often than not.

This time we're staying a week, the only way to see three plays. Scheduling these things must be tough, and my hat's off to whoever does it, but I do rather wish we didn't have to spend quite so many days here. Still, it gives us a chance to catch up on other things: gardens, restaurants, museums, and, this time, concerts.

Except to mention that this fall's Hamlet was a wonderful production, I'll hold off on comments on the plays. We still have one to see tomorrow night — an adaptation of Oliver Twist — and the other two have closed by the time you read this. Instead, let me report on a couple of concerts of new music.

We'd hoped to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its newly announced next music director, Gustavo Dudamel; there was an afternoon performance on Sunday, with György Kurtág's Stélé, Mozart's A Major piano concerto K. 488, and Strauss's Alpine Symphony. I didn't want to hear the Strauss; I heard Herbert Blomstedt conduct this orchestra in it years ago, and having walked across a small part of the mountains myself last summer I knew Strauss's view of the terrain was not mine. In any case the concert had sold out long since: Dudamel is a big draw.

We did however go to a Monday Evening Concert, on Monday naturally, down the street at the Colburn School. On paper it was a fascinating survey of "new music through the ages," juxtaposing 15th-c. music and a Tombeau sur la mort de M. Blancheroche by the 17th-c. Johann Jacob Froberger with new and recent work. In the end the entire concert seemed dead to me, partly because of the relatively unvaried response of its audiencee, enthusiastic about everything it heard, partly because of the monotonous effect if the performances of the 15th-c. selections (which were probably, in fact, the most interesting pieces on the program); mostly because to the ear, if not the eye, the concert program simply didn't make sense — it was a survey, not a composition.

  • Sugar 1, by Michael Maierhof, was a beautifully structured sound-piece for piano trio, the three instruments widely separated, Eric km Clark's violin and Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick's cello primarily playing at the extremities of their dynamic and pitch ranges, the gifted percussionist Amy Knoles using various methods to find similar scraping, white-noise sounds on the exposed strings of the piano. Sustained sounds, or sounds marked by slow, softly-articulated repetitions, alternated with general pauses whose durations were obviously carefully determined. I thought of Scelsi, occasionally of Xenakis, rarely of John Cage. I would like to hear the piece again.
  • Dialog Ûber Luft, by Vinko Globokar, struck me as a silly piece, played by accordionist Teodoro Anszellotti (for whom it was composed) with conviction and fluency but ultimately little more than a divertissement.
  • Bone #, by Keiko Harada, was an enchanting piece for kalimba (the African "thumb piano" also known as mbira) and violin, seemed longer than necessary, or not long enough; it ranged discursively through a number of fascinating techniques and ultimately went away without really leaving a memorable effect. Movses Pogossian played sweetly, scaling the violin toward an accompanying role; Kuniko Kato brought a percussionist's dexterity and precision to the many ways Harada stipulated the kalimba be sounded. I'd hear this piece again, too.
  • Anzellotti returned to the stage for his own arrangement of the Froberger — not entirely successful, I thought, the accordion lacking the crispness Froberger's music seems to call for — and Sequenza XIII (chanson), by Luciano Berio. Berio's music is stonger than Globokar's: both more expressive and structurally more persuasive. But Anzelotti minimized the distinction, repeating in small the problem that seemed to characterize the evening in large.

    I write the above after having read the review, by Mark Swed, in the Los Angeles Times. I know and like Mark and was saddened by his comments, which seemed to skim the surface of the concert. It's worth noting that the online version of his review is followed by a very thoughtful response by Barbara Moroncini. The Times is in trouble, as are most daily newspapers, and I hope whatever emerges to replace it and them as public media will continue to make such exchanges accessible.

    LAST NIGHT WE RETURNED to downtown Los Angeles, this time to the new Frank Gehry Disney Hall, to hear a "Green Umbrella" concert, produced by the new-music wing of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This was a complete success: solid and attractive pieces chosen to illustrate a theme — and, like the Monday Evening Concert, serving to initiate a season. Again, the audience was large and enthusiastic: but in the larger, acoustically persuasive but visually distracting Disney Hall they seemed somehow less automatic, more discerning than they had Monday night. (There was probably considerable overlap.)
  • Sequenza V, again by Luciano Berio but this time for solo trombone, was fluently and efficiently performed by James Miller, who wore a Grock-style outfit (odd hat, big shoes) to emphasize the score's pathos.
  • Joanne Martin's performance of excerpts of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano struck me as a bit mannered — unnecessarily "expressive," like Mitsuko Uchida's Mozart, counting too much on hushed dynamics and legato touch, rather than letting the notes make their own point. But the music was played accurately and the piano sounded effectively, though I'm not sure it was accurately prepared according to Cage's instructions.
  • Kontra-Punkte, by Karlheinz Stockhausen, was played with extraordinary beauty and accuracy, as I recall the score (I'd stupidly forgotten to bring it along). Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the ten instrumentalists in a supple, expressive, beautifully contoured and paced performance; the instrumentalists, all from the L.A. Philharmonic, brought attentiveness and true ensemble musicianship to the job. This was the piece that had attracted us to the evening in the first place: it's a real masterpiece, in Stockhausen's view in the root sense of the word, and should join the standard repertory. Only one cavil: I'm not sure the instrumentalists should be encouraged to leave the stage one by one, as their contributions to the score finish their courses; some events can be left to subtlety.
  • Gyôrgy Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures took up the second half of the evening, again in a perfectly proportioned realization. Heras-Casado conducted; the vocalists were Kiera Duffy, Marry Nessinger, and Eugene Chan; the seven instrumentalists (flute, horn, percussion, harpsichord, piano, cello, contrabass) were again from the LA Phil's New Music Group. As in the Berio, pathos, humor, and drama all emerged recognizably without ever falling into sentimentality; the final significance of the music was its clarity and limpid beauty. It'll be interesting to read Swed's review tomorrow.
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