LA: A Spring 2014 Concertgoer’s Journal, Part 1

If you’re anything like me, you feel a pang of guilt and regret whenever you miss a new music concert. This makes March and April particularly poignant months in Los Angeles, as the concert calendar becomes impossibly saturated. It was my original ambition to write about every show I make it to in March and April, but I quickly realized the foolhardiness of this ambition. I have to content myself with writing about a few highlights, which means that unfortunately I can’t write in depth about some really fantastic events I attended. But with that out of the way, here are a few concerts that made an impression on me in the past few weeks. In true social media fashion, this list is in reverse chronological order:

Maximum Minimalism (Disney Hall, April 8)

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Originally this concert was advertised with the uninspired title “Classic Reich and Premieres” and was much smaller in scope. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but at some point it became a far more interesting four-hour marathon concert featuring a giant katamari of new music ensembles, including venerable visiting groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Calder Quartet, as well as the LA Phil’s New Music Group and local collective wild Up. This was wild Up’s first appearance at Disney Hall, and it was exciting to see the new and the established side by side like this.

Throughout, there was the feeling that this concert could have been even bigger, too. Multiple performances occurred in the lobbies during both intermissions, too many for one person to catch, and the concert was also preceded by a sensitive performance of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes by wild Up’s pianist Richard Valitutto.

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Paradoxically, the Reich pieces that were the focus of the original program sometimes felt like the least essential music here. ICE flutist and director Claire Chase kicked off the program with an mesmerizing performance of Vermont Counterpoint that balanced passion and precision, but the Calder Quartet’s performance of Different Trains felt strangely inert in a live setting. ICE’s impeccable rendition of Radio Rewrite fared a little better, but there was only so much they could do with this odd, chimeric beast. Listening to this series of not-quite-arrangements of Radiohead songs, you can’t help but feel that you’d be better off mainlining pure Reich or Radiohead, instead of ingesting a diluted, homeopathic version of both.

By contrast, wild Up’s repertoire choices felt genuinely subversive, as if they were smuggled onto the program under cover of night. Julius Eastman’s Stay On It presented a more inflammatory version of minimalism, with the relentless repetition of an obnoxious eight-note motive alternating with occasional improvisational and/or aleatoric freakouts. (Brian Walsh’s saxophone blaring was both a literal and figurative high note here.) Andrew McIntosh’s Silver and White poetically dealt with subtle gradations of pitch, with microtonal glissandi partially submerged under the oceanic undulations of a quiet, restrained snare drum roll.

The two premieres commissioned by the LA Phil New Music Group and conducted by John Adams were more conventional, confident works by composers in their prime. Mark Grey’s Awake the Machine Electric was a bit like a mashup of Annie Gosfield and Tchaikovsky, with industrial sound effects juxtaposed with Romantic-sounding orchestration and thematic ideas. The resulting combination didn’t always gel, but it was still thrilling. Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) created a bewitching sonic landscape with lyrical strings and winds suspended in a shimmering haze created by long chords held by harmonicas. Sure, she’s used this technique before (e.g. in Still Life with Avalanche), but not quite like this.

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo courtesy Mathew Imaging

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

David Lang’s death speaks repurposes fragments of text from Franz Schubert’s songs to create a complete personification of Death, sung beguilingly by Shara Worden with accompaniment from pianist Nico Muhly, guitarist Gyan Riley, and violinist Andrew Tholl. The last movement, “I am walking,” is the most effective, with its sighing two-chord motive and haunting male backup vocals. At times during the other movements, I missed Schubert’s unfashionable melodrama, which for me at least, often implied a lecherous menace underlying Death’s comforting platitudes. Lang seems to take these platitudes at face value.

The concert concluded with a rare performance of John Adams’s American Standard, played by a supergroup conglomeration of ICE and wild Up. Two of the three movements of this early work have been withdrawn, which may be what prompted Adams to come on stage before the performance to give a half-serious disclaimer about this piece from his “radical” Haight-Ashbury days. “It’s a bit like a 25-year-old coming up to you and saying, ‘I’m your son’,” he quipped.

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

That said, it was probably the most exciting performance of an Adams piece I’ve seen in years, possibly because I didn’t know what to expect. Each movement was newly arranged for the occasion with copious poetic license by a different young composer. Andrew Tholl’s arrangement of “John Philip Sousa” was a refreshingly juvenile Ivesian death march constructed from familiar patriotic melodies. Andrew McIntosh’s arrangement of “Christian Zeal and Activity” and Tyshawn Sorey’s arrangement of “Sentimentals” were more introspective and meandering. Throughout the final movement, Sorey seemed to be offering commentary on the performance from the piano, with occasional Thelonious Monkish asides and interjections. It was both puzzling and captivating.

At any rate, it was promising to see the truly collaborative nature of this final leg of the marathon, and its unpredictable mix of the radical and the traditional. As creative chair of the LA Phil, I hope Adams takes cues from his younger self more often.

WasteLAnd (Art Share, April 4)

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

WasteLAnd is a new concert series in LA with a strong experimental bent, and their April concert showcased extremes of texture both brutal and delicate. Nina C. Young’s violin and cello duo Meditation, performed by Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters, presented a kind of dialogue between scratchy, aggressive playing and more contemplative moments of repose. Brian Griffeath-Loeb’s …on par with grass & twigs, for three different flutes, prepared piano, and two percussionists, conveyed a fascinating, palpable sense of fragility, as conducted by Nicholas Deyoe with great attention to detail. Christine Tavolacci (C flute), Michael Matsuno (alto flute), and Rachel Beetz (bass flute) produced breathy, almost strangled-sounding tones, with sparse, judicious accompaniment from Steve Lewis (piano), Ryan Nestor (percussion), and Steve Solook (percussion). Fernanda Aoki Navarro’s Emptying the Body featured cellist Derek Stein savagely attacking his soundboard, generating powerful percussive effects and propulsive rhythmic activity.

Each of these pieces were extraordinarily successful at creating and exploring unique soundworlds, but once the limits of these worlds were established, I found my attention drifting at times. I longed for something more overtly teleological or developmental, but maybe this is just an aesthetic preference or limitation on my part.

Mark Menzies’s two songs from his cycle 11 elegies and a love song occupied an unusual place on the program. “two deaths” especially felt like an anomaly, with baritone Ian Walker singing melodiously over a gentle undulating electric guitar riff (played by Nicholas Deyoe) and occasional violin asides from Menzies. “18” felt like a return to form, with Walker’s voice stubbornly, obsessively reiterating a single high note while Menzies’s and Deyoe’s figures created frantic and furious activity all around it. This was riveting.

The last two pieces on the program finally united their extreme soundworlds with the sense of movement and change I craved. Kurt Isaacson’s the way of all flesh for solo double bass, here premiered by Scott Worthington, featured seesawing ostinati that slowly, satisfyingly built in intensity. Worthington’s control over this gradual process was masterful, and transfixing. Finally, Nicholas Deyoe’s Erstickend for two cellos and percussion, another premiere, spun an intricate web of epic proportions out of a skittering three-note motive. Ashley Walters and Derek Stein infused their cello parts with the requisite ferocity, while percussionist Ryan Nestor’s rhythmic interjections added even more tension. The piece concludes with a violent crescendo and snare drum roll — would it be churlish to point out the orthodox effectiveness of this ending?

JacobTV (What’s Next Ensemble, March 28)

JacobTV with What's Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

JacobTV with What’s Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

What’s Next Ensemble is perhaps best known for the Los Angeles Composers Project, an annual concert series championing the work of local Southern California denizens. Their last event, however, was an ambitious departure for them, a concert at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do devoted entirely to the music of Dutch avant-pop icon Jacob Ter Veldhuis, a.k.a. JacobTV. JacobTV’s sardonic pop aesthetic occupies a unique place in the current landscape of new music, getting lots of mileage out of marrying clips of recorded speech with acoustic musical accompaniment/counterpoint. Certainly he’s not the first or only composer to employ speech for its musical qualities — Peter Ablinger and Steve Reich come to mind — but no one, so far, has managed to do it in such a topical and witty way. The unpredictability of his subject matter, for one thing, keeps it fresh. Cheese Cake features the ramblings of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon introducing a Carnegie Hall concert, for example, while Grab It! cuts up candid interviews with convicts from the 1978 documentary Scared Straight!

The main draw of this concert, though, was definitely The News, his ongoing “reality opera” that is constantly being added to as current events march on. The News also incorporates video (compiled and edited by JacobTV himself, I hear), and there are wonderful moments when all the multimedia elements came together in a seamless, joyful way, as when a cartoonish evangelical preacher waves his arms about on screen in a panoply of Warholian windows while the ensemble funkily amplifies the absurdity of his words. This tends to work best with lighthearted subjects, and moments that aimed for more gravitas sometimes felt awkwardly mawkish, like the saccharine chords that accompanied a speech about peace by Pope Benedict. The exception to this was a segment devoted to an American ex-soldier’s account of an accidental killing in Iraq. Here the music followed the cadence of the ex-soldier’s powerful words precisely, amplifying them instead of commenting on them: in effect, letting them speak for themselves.

The musicians of What’s Next, led by the unflappable baton of Vimbayi Kaziboni, were downright fantastic in realizing JacobTV’s artistic vision, riding through a couple technical issues and an earthquake (both of which I’ve come to expect lately) with professionalism and aplomb. Ben Phelps, one of the ensemble’s directors, also deserves credit for producing the concert in the first place.

Collapse (Timur and the Dime Museum, March 27)

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Like JacobTV’s music, Timur and the Dime Museum’s Collapse also takes on a newsworthy topic — this time, environmental devastation. This album-length work, presented at Disney Hall’s REDCAT, is loosely patterned after a requiem. These factors make it sound like it could be a dour and dreary affair, but Daniel Corral, the Dime Museum’s accordionist and composer-in-residence, takes an inspired, unexpected approach, turning the whole thing into a psychedelic rock opera of sorts, with catchy hooks, doo-wop harmonies, and a pantheon of stylistic references. This spoonful-of-sugar tactic works wonders for the show, which is more likely to generate delight than despair. I almost feel guilty for enjoying it.

Timur Bekbosonuv, a tenor equally accomplished in both pop and operatic idioms, was captivating as the lead vocalist, generating metric tonnes of charisma and stage presence throughout a variety of costume changes, including a half-dress-half-pantsuit number that deserves special mention (designed by Victor Wilde and the Bohemian Society). But most members of the band got some time at the mic too, and Corral’s score made the most of the myriad vocal qualities in the group. A highlight was the sweet ballad “Honeybee, Come Home,” sung with appropriate naivete by bassist Dave Tranchina.

But the score had its darker moments, too. “The House of Moloch” begins with a deliciously gritty riff from guitarist Matthew Setzer, and if you had told me it was a recently unearthed Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie B-side, I might have believed you. The beginning of the Dies Irae, titled “Demon Chora,” also caught my attention with its moody synths and ominous female voiceover, reciting text taken from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s INES scale. And throughout the show, drummer Andrew Lessman provided the endless, vital engine underneath it all, a constant powerful presence outside of the spotlight.

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