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The days dwindle down. For April we had only three remaining programs conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and after last night only two programs remain. Last night’s Green Umbrella concert gave us a look forward, plus just a touch of reminiscence. There could well have been a concert of Salonen’s works, but a retrospective of the man as composer (and as engine for the Green Umbrella series) can wait for a future year and a future visit. Instead, the program was a beautifully selected set of four world premieres by composers new to almost every one in the Disney Hall audience. And for the selection, in addition to Salonen we have to honor the inputs of the Phil’s advisor for new music, Steven Stucky, who began his “brief” work with the orchestra over 20 years ago, when Andre Previn was music director. Stucky will be leaving his position with the Phil next season. He has been a pleasure.

The four composers whose works were premiered were born in four different countries: Mexico, Britain, the U.S., and China. All with at least one other country and language in their current lives. One man and three women. Born between 1974 and 1980. All composers whose names we should look for, whose music we should hear.

First up was Enrico Chapela, who gave an interview to Sequenza21 back in January, just before another of his works was performed at BAM. His work Li Po is a composition for 18 musicians (eight winds, eight strings, two percussion) for a prismatic combination of shifting sounds and colors. The work came with a lengthy text of the poem on which the work was apparently based, but Chapela had abstracted the words for the pitches and stress of the sounds, not for the meaning of individual vowels and consonants. The musical structure was complex, crying for a second hearing, but completely fascinating as it evolved. Listening to the work I was unaware of the passage of time. Really interesting.

Within Her Arms by Anna Clyne provided a fascinating change. It is a work for 15 strings, three each of violins I and II, violas, cellos and basses. What could be the melody of a lyrical folk song is taken up by the instruments, sometimes in sections, sometimes individually, repeated, reflected, recombined, and then a return to the original melody. Clyne achieved depth and complexity and interest from her skills with simplicity.

Mouthpiece XI was a showpiece for the composer, Erin Gee, as vocalist. The work is for singer with electronics; Gee ambidextrously switched between two microphones, one for pops and clicks, one for pitched sounds. Sixteen instrumentalists, including three percussionists, provide the instrumental sounds. Gee now lives and works in Austria. The work is from a series of Mouthpiece works that explore the instrumentality of a voice. Reviews linked on her web site indicate that she has used the two-microphone approach to vocal sound in at least one earlier work, Sleep.

After intemission, the Phil’s New Music Group performed Deluge by Fang Man. This work was for the largest ensemble (22) and seemed the most complex of the four new works. Her program notes describe the work as being inspired by a Kandinsky painting, and the center of Kandinsky’s work became, for her, the center of “Deluge” with water evoked by a major role for the harp. Again, complexity made it difficult to grasp her sense in just a single hearing by the composer.

As prelude to the concert, the Phil presented video images of Salonen as conductor of the Phil. When he walked on stage, the 1500 or so in the audience rose to their feet to honor the man. To close the concert, Salonen conducted singer and ensemble (of 5) in Floof, a Salonen work he first brought to the Green Umbrella series 18 years ago, the year before he became music director. Yes, this musical “jabberwocky” sounded like a work from twenty years ago. We know that Salonen as composer has moved into other approaches to music. But the bright, sparkling, sounds by coloratura supported by cello, contrabass clarinet, keyboards and percussion remained entertaining and sheer fun.

This work was first performed when the Green Umbrella series was performed at the Japan America Theatre downtown. Having 100 in the audience was a decent turn-out for some of those concerts. But thanks to Salonen, and Ernest Fleischman, and Lillian Disney and Frank Gehry, the program persisted, and grew.

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Vicki Ray put together an imaginative, clever program which was beautifully performed in last night’s Piano Spheres concert at Zipper Hall of Colburn School. She’s a marvel; she seems to be able to do any work in any style. In December she gave a tremendous concert, “Vic Ray Electric”, of electro-acoustic music. In January she was pianist for this Monday Evening Concert. I’ve never heard her play any Mozart, but this clip implies she just might do so some time. The theme of last night’s program was piano concertos without an orchestra; her program notes described her selections as forming a rondo with two cadenzas sandwiched between three concertos.

The program opened with Igor Stravinsky’s seldom-programmed Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (1935) which he wrote to play with his son in money-making concerts. Julie Steinberg came south from the Bay Area to provide the second pianist. The performance sparkled; many of us were smiling with pleasure as we listened. The “cadenza” following this was awhirl (2008) by Rand Steiger; Ray gave the world premiere of this piece in her December concert in REDCAT. It’s a duet for single piano, in which electronics take the piano sound and use it to extend, supplement, and challenge the pianist. It was even more enjoyable to hear the second time.

A sure way to win a bet in a “who wrote THIS?” contest would be to play Eros Piano (1989) by John Adams. It’s a work for piano with orchestral accompaniment, written as a tribute to the jazz great Bill Evans, to composer Toru Takemitsu, and to pianist Paul Crossley. There’s not a single Adams machine chugging away in this work. You’ll find the piece recorded in “American Elegies” with Adams as conductor, along with typically great Upshaw performances of five Ives songs and a delightful Feldman piece. Vicki Ray played the work as written and asked Adams if she could transcribe a few orchestral elements to enable the work to be played for solo piano, and we heard the premiere of this version of the work last night. This would have served as the high point of many another concert.

But Vicki Ray closed the program with a work by Julia Wolfe, my lips from speaking (1993). This tribute to Aretha Franklin was written to be played by six pianos in a British festival for mutiple pianos. It was then rearranged for Lisa Moore in a version for piano solo and tape. Ray’s performance was invigorating, thrilling. We could have stayed as long as she was willing to keep giving us encores, but she closed the evening with her own arrangement of “My Funny Valentine”, for toy piano. A treat.

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The new season of the Phil was announced Thursday afternoon, accompanied by a press conference (with internet simulcast) by Dudamel and Deborah Borda, president of the board. This announcement was earlier than usual in order to fit into Gustavo’s schedule. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the Phil is using this opportunity to encourage people to submit their re-subscriptions early. Here’s the the index to the set of press releases. The Phil is welcoming Dudamel with a Bienvenido Gustavo” celebration — free — at the Hollywood Bowl and a performance of the Beethoven Ninth by the orchestra with the Master Chorale. Yes, free. Every ticket.

I think there are three major messages from this set of schedules. First, the Phil is not weakening its focus on contemporary classical music. There are very few Phil programs with music without at least a significant work from the twentieth century if not a contemporary work. There will be two significant festivals: West Coast: Left Coast in November; and Americas and Americans in April. There will be nine Philharmonic commissions this season: two works by Adams (one for solo piano to be performed by Ax), Newman, Lieberson (a new work for cello and piano, performed by Ma and Ax), Chin, Golijov, Bermel, Benzecry, and Hartke (a symphony with organ). Terry Riley will return on the WDCH organ. Thomas Ades will return. We will hear the American premiere of Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia, conducted by de Leeuw in his return to Disney. We will have an evening of Eotvos. We will have Dawn Upshaw

Second, John Adams will be joining the Philharmonic in the new position of Creative Chair, as well as filling Philharmonic commissions for two new works. Adams was a key factor in making the Minimalist Jukebox so successful and so satisfying, and his contributions to the two new festivals will be welcome. I’ll get the full set of tickets, if at all possible. I wouldn’t even wait to see the program details.

Third, we may indeed be seeing the start of a Dudamel infusion of music from the Americas, both Anglophone America as well as Latin America. Hearing both the Golijov Mass and the Estevez Cantata, in the same season, is noteworthy.

Esa-Pekka Salonen will not conduct next season, on his own decision. He has been exemplary in providing a smooth transition to the new music director. In the 2010/2011 season he will begin a multi-year series of conducting assignments.

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January has brought a richness of performances of contemporary music. At the half-way point on the calendar this has already been a marvelous month, but there’s much more to come. Each of the major music organizations across the county seems to have decided on some exceptional music. I haven’t been able to attend everything: too many tickets, too many nights. Wouldn’t it be nice to be paid to attend the concerts? Wouldn’t it be nice just to afford them all? Oh, well, the old suit will last another year or so before replacement.

The Phil is leading the way, of course, as appropriate to our major music organization. The number of concerts left for Salonen as Music Director is now down to single digits. His valedictory concerts will be of Stravinsky the radical-reactionary (Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms). But the concerts before that all focus on some brilliant new works, Philharmonic commissions or co-commissions. Yes, we’ll have Dudamel, but we’ll certainly miss Esa-Pekka! Last Sunday when he walked on stage to begin the first concert of the year, the applause continued as he stepped onto the podium. The applause continued. He finally had to turn to the audience to acknowledge their welcome before Disney Hall became still enough for the concert.

The first program of the year gave an engrossing, beautiful new work by Arvo Part, Symphony No. 4, Los Angeles. In a rare gesture, Universal Edition published the score of the work, making it available on the internet in December. The symphony is scored for strings, harp, and percussion; often it presents the sound of a single instrument vibrating in the surrounding silence. The work is a meditation, and the thoughts of the symphony are of angels, not of the city named in the subtitle. While a meditation, the work is not restful and offers no easy resolution; the music is tonal, but wavers between major and minor. The score reveals (see the third movement in particular) how Part has the orchestra in two different keys. I had not realized how much the music had drawn me into its own world until we returned from intermission. I had thought that it would be jarring to end the music with Ax playing the Brahms first piano concerto. I found, instead, that the muscular tonality of the Brahms came as a release. The recording of the Part will be a must-buy.

And then this week, another noteworthy work: Kaija Saariaho‘s La Passion de Simone (2006), with Dawn Upshaw in the Peter Sellars production featuring Michael Schumacher as dancer. This Phil co-commission has been withdrawn from the past two seasons, first because of health, last year because of scheduling conflicts. Oh, the wait was worth it. The music shimmers. Dawn Upshaw is peerless. The Sellars dramatization amplifies the language. I must admit, however, that I am not captured by the personality and philosophy of Simone Weil, but I could just concentrate on the music. One point on the artistry of Dawn Upshaw. We could see a TV screen above the stage, facing down to the stage. We wondered what that was used for. Then we saw that Upshaw spent a climactic scene flat on her back in the position of a crucifixion. The screen was for her to see Salonen while singing from the floor. This work is being presented in alternation with the premiere of a new work for orchestra and two pianos by Louis Andriessen. We hear this on Sunday afternoon.

The marvelous Jacaranda series resumed its two-year season celebrating Messiaen. We spoke while walking from the parking structure that we wouldn’t be able to see and talk to Betty Freeman that night, and we will miss her. Jacaranda presented a lovely program of Messiaen and his students, Boulez, Murail, Benjamin, and a follower, Takemitsu. The musicians are skilled, the works are well-selected. We now re-schedule other tickets to attend a Jacaranda concert. Our revitalized Monday Evening Concerts presented an evening of American music. Their program this week started at a high with Kazi Pitelka playing Morton Feldman‘s The Viola in My Life II (1971), and this seems to resonate with some of the sounds of the rest of the month. And we had the first L. A. performances of Rzewski‘s Pocket Symphony (2000) and 96 (2003). We didn’t have tickets for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and their performance, with Yo-Yo Ma, of Golijov’s Azul, in its West Coast premiere.

And coming up we have the Phil’s Green Umbrella concert and Southwest Chamber Music and its program of music by composers who are women: Gabriela Ortiz, Joan Huang, Lera Auerbach, and Thea Musgrave.

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Jacaranda Music opened its sixth season last night, but not in their usual home. Instead, they opened in Santa Monica’s lovely new Broad Stage, a 500-seat venue at the grounds of the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center. The opening concert was given the title “Tipping the Scales” for works by Harrison, Cage, and Partch.

The opening half of the concert comprised four late-period works by Lou Harrison, the period in which his core work explored use of the gamelan, implementing the sounds, textures, and scales into his music. The 12-person CalArts Gamelan Ensemble (see them in this short video from 2007) provided the gamelan. The works included two of Harrison’s best works of the period: his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Gamelan (1982), and a work I really like, Cornish Lancaran (1986) for soprano saxophone with gamelan. The middle movement of the Double Concerto, in which the gamelan rests while the violin and cello are accompanied by hand drumming on a Western drum, was particularly effective. Works for other combinations were In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel (1991) for harp with gamelan and Main Bersama-sama (1978) for flute and French horn with gamelan. The best of these works rise from being merely pleasant sounds to works in which the contrasting textures, tones, and attacks play off against each other.

The second half of the concert began with John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) in an impressive performance by the Denali Quartet, the resident quartet of the Jacaranda series. The music was both contemporary and timeless, strong in its simplicity. It was the sort of performance in which I really wanted the concert to stop right there and play that work once again.

The concert ended with a performance by the Partch Ensemble of Harry Partch’s Castor and Pollux (1952) for harmonic canon, kithara, diamond marimba, cloud chamber bowls and bass marimba. We’re lucky that we have John Schneider and a group of dedicated musicians to keep the unique sounds, scales and instruments of Harry Partch around and occasionally performed.

The majority of programs in Jacaranda Music’s season will center on works by Olivier Messiaen, in Jacaranda’s second year of recognizing the Messiaen centenary.

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Another full house at Zipper Hall, and we enjoyed ourselves with the music of William Kraft and his “Encounters” series of works for percussion. This was the third and final program in the Kraft/Encounters retrospective given by Southwest Chamber Music, honoring Kraft for his 85th birthday. By the end of tomorrow the whole series will have been recorded, and next year a 3 CD set will be available of this important set of compositions by a man who has been such a major participant in contemporary music in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the conversations with Bill Kraft will probably not be in the CD. Listening to Kraft’s comments, not limited to his music, has been one of the treats of the series; he is a witty, charming, thoughtful, knowledgeable gentleman.

Last night’s concert gave us the newest Encounters: the world premiere of Encounters XV for Guitar & Percussion; and Encounters XIV (2006) Concerto a Tre (for piano, violin and percussion). To these were added two earlier works: Encounters IV: Duel for Trombone and Percussion (1973); and Encounters V: In the Morning of the Winter Sea (1976) for cello and percussion. Kraft’s compositions explore the textures of sound; he makes extensive use of a wide variety of tuned percussion and seems to delight in the unique sounds that result from simultaneous notes on two or more instruments, often with special striking or bowing techniques. His works explore the variety of sounds from his selected pairings, not merely from the percussion alone. For example, Encounters IV begins with a duet between tympani and a trombone using a range of mutes. That work also included use of tuned steel mixing bowls; since the original bowls could not be located, tuned cowbells were substituted.

The percussion responsibilities were shared last night. Lynn Vartan performed Encounters XIV and XV. The two principals of Mexico City’s Tambuco Ensemble, Ricardo Gallardo and Alfredo Bringas, performed Encounters V and IV, respectively. Tambuco played a key role in Southwest’s performances and recordings of the complete set of chamber works by Carlos Chavez, and Tambuco brought some of their instruments, such as the tuned cowbells for the performance (and recording). In an interesting symmetry, Kraft conducted the world premiere of Chavez’ Tambuco. Bill Booth was the dueling trombonist, Peter Jacobson the cellist, Shalini Vijayan the violinist, Ming Tsu the pianist, and John Schneider the premiere performer on guitar. Watch for these recordings.

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Gloria Cheng opened the Piano Spheres season last night at Zipper Hall. Much of the concert comprised selections from her recent recording, Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski, and if you don’t yet have this in your library, now is a good time to correct your omission. And here’s just one of its good reviews (just scroll down).

Betty Freeman commissioned a new work from Gerald Barry for Cheng to perform, and this opened the second half of the program. Le Vieux Sourd [the old deaf one], Debussy’s nickname for Beethoven, starts with quiet fragments of classical themes, as if you’re eavesdropping on a pianist just noodling around instead of practicing. Some distant “explosions” (Barry’s description) occur and get closer as the volume swells. The work then ends with loud settings of Auld Lang Syne (not the setting Beethoven did) fighting to be heard against the explosions and the loud extracts of other themes. My impression was of an angry Charles Ives, perhaps after a few too many drinks, writing something to force an audience to pay attention to his music. But the idiosyncratic work, wild and wacky, was fun. Cheng then balanced this work with the “Alcott” movement of Ives’ Second Sonata, and her lyricism seemed to beautifully reflect Ives’ intentions. This was an apt choice to accompany the Barry, with its Beethoven theme and its multiple threads.

There were three peaks in the concert. First was the youthful, student-written Piano Sonata (1934) of Lutoslawski. It’s a lovely work, and Cheng is doing the right thing in reviving it. (Although apparently played often by Lutoslawski, he never published it, and its first publication was only four years ago; Cheng said that she know of only one other pianist who has played the work since.) The work has a strong French accent; the ties to Ravel are noticeable, and Stucky has identified other influences as well. But even though the 21-year-old Lutoslawski did not have his own distinctive voice, he could certainly write well. This is a pleasure to hear, and by itself justifies listening to the recording. The second peak for me was Cheng’s performance of the Ives selection.

And then the climax, closing the concert, was her performance of Salonen’s Dichotomie (2000), written for Cheng. She commented before starting the work that she no longer needs to wear gloves as protections for her hands during the performance (the glissandos are fearsome), and she has all of the many performance demands well under her own control and interpretation. She enables this work to present the stimulating composer Salonen has become. Read the rest of this entry »

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REDCAT, the CalArts outpost in Walt Disney Concert Hall, opened its fifth season last night with the first of two programs in a renewal of the Creative Music Festival. Wadada Leo Smith was curator of the festival once again; he chose and assembled creators for two programs: “Music and the Voice” (last night) and “Music and Video” (tonight, but we already had tickets for Howard Shore’s “The Fly”). Smith opened the festival conducting the premiere of a new Smith work, “Central Park”, written for scat-singing baritone, with piano, string quartet, trumpet, clarinet, contra-alto clarinet, and percussion. Thomas Buckner was just right for the baritone instrumentalist; the whole ensemble seemed as if they had been playing together, with Smith’s music, for months instead of being a festival assembly of CalArts mainstays and New York performers.

Wadada Leo Smith has a philosophy from which he composes. From our seats we could see both the piano score and the conducting score Smith used. This view made it clear how much improvisation went into the performance, and how much advance thought and consideration had preceded the improvising. A page of Smith’s conducting score, for example, had four rectangles and looked rather like a top-level conceptual diagram of a complex computer system. This page of the score covered three or four minutes of ensemble work and solos; during the period Smith might stop conducting and just listen before using his hands to regain the attention of the musicians before setting the beat and cuing the entrances for the next step in the evolution. Smith has developed a notation system called “Ankhrasmation”; he summarizes it here, but look at the symbolic example he provides on the page; the piano score had two or three pages with a symbol on the page.

I liked Smith’s “Central Park”. I think Charles Ives would have liked it as well. The works are very different, but both present a kaleidoscope of sound. The two would make an interesting match on a program.

From that high point, the festival moved higher, with a set of works by Anthony Davis, currently one of the musical stars at UCSD. Davis had reassembled his group “Episteme”; the current version comprises J.D. Parran on clarinet and contr-alto clarinet, Earl Howard on alto sax and on synthesizer, his UCSD colleague Mark Dresser on bass, and Davis himself on piano. They opened with an emsemble work “Of Blues and Dreams”, which made me think of an evolution that Modern Jazz Quartet might have taken. For the theme of “Music and the Voice” they were joined by son Jonah Davis in “Malcolm Little’s Aria” from X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and by wife Cynthia Aaronson-Davis who sang the art song “Lost Moon Sisters” to the poem “Ave” by Diane Di Prima. A variation on the “Voice” theme was taken by two other works. “Goddess Variations” was a set of elaborations from a theme in his opera “Amistad”, a real showpiece for the Tatum-like fingers of Davis as pianist. The concluding work was a showpiece for Parran on clarinet, the second movement (“Loss”) from Davis’ clarinet concerto titled You Have the Right to Remain Silent. I want to hear the whole thing!

The second half of the program stepped back to the merely pleasant with Amina Claudine Myers and her trio, joined by a choir of 14 from CalArts. In “Manhattan” the trio provided solid framework as the members of the choir gave a series of scat singing solo riffs; some of the improvisations were really good. Two other works gave the choir the solo opportunities associated with African-American church enthusiasms. To me the really good solos didn’t compensate for the length and repitiveness in an evening that ran over three hours. But it couldn’t spoil the accomplishments of the evening.

I had been disappointed in what seemed to be the limited scope of last season’s music series at CalArts. But this season really looks great!

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This Ojai Music Festival season was one of those to remember. When the low point is a screening of a Chaplin film with live orchestra, that means that the high points are pretty consistently high. And they were, this season. No full-sized orchestra, spilling out the bounds of the stage, but quantity of performers can’t hold a candle to quality.

Saturday night’s concert continued the Festival’s subtheme of music for voice with two works from composers new to Ojai, Phillippe Manoury and Michael Jarrell, selected by David Robertson. The Jarrell work, Cassandre (1994) was termed by Manoury a “spoken opera,” a work for actress and orchestra with electronics. Barbara Sukowa was not merely a narrator, she became Cassandra the Trojan Princess, doomed to see the future but to be disbelieved, about to ride with her captor Agamemmnon in his triumphal parade, after which she and Agamemmnon would be killed by Clytemnestra. But an opera depends on music as well as on libretto, and Jarrell’s music is fascinating and powerful. This was a performance to remember, and a work well worth remembering — and hearing again. And again, I think. I am now a fan of this Jarrell work, and want to hear more.

Manoury’s work to open the evening, En Echo, wasn’t as powerful, but its intent seemed to be to convey yearning, not more powerful emotions. Also from Greek mythology, but this time of the nymph who was doomed to lose speech, retaining only the ability to repeat another person. This was a work for soprano, accompanied and extended and replicated by electronics. Only electronics. No one else on stage. Just undertaking something like this takes a soprano of great skill and pitch with, possibly a large measure of self-confidence thrown in. Juliana Snapper, from Los Angeles, had all of those things, and more. Miller Puckette controlled and performed the electronics. My regret was that there was no libretto for the French lyrics so that I was far from being able to understand the lyrics even though my menu-level French was probably better than many. Manoury is now professor of composition at UCSD, so he surely understands Americans’ language limitations. There were two benefits of not having the words: first, there were no interruptions from changing pages, and second, you were forced to pay attention to try to glean an understanding, and this may have helped some of us really appreciate what music his electronics were making in interacting with the voice. But audience reactions were mixed — polite, but mixed.

Sunday came too soon, bringing to a close our celebration of Steve Reich as well as of music for the female voice. The Sunday morning concert put Reich in context of two other composers, Ligeti and Varese. Opening the concert was an authoritative version of Clapping Music (1972) with Russell Hartenberger joining Reich on stage. Robertson had asked the audience not to applaud between works, but it was hard not to do so, and many of the audience couldn’t resist. Then the sparkling pianist Eric Heubner played two gnarly Ligeti Etudes. The first half ended with an absolutely brilliant performance of the Varese Ionisation (1929-1931) in which the ensemble “Nexus” was joined by “So Percussion” and a few pick-up musicians including both Eric heubner and the Artistic Director of the Festival, Tom Morris. This was a great performance, totally convincing. All by itself, to end the early concert was Reich’s Drumming (1970/1971). It was a treat to have the musicians of this skill as the sound changed color.

My priorities were wrong, and I let the outside world intervene so I was unable to hear the final concert of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Dawn Upshaw and Kate Lindsey, followed by Reich’s Tehillim (1981).

In this year’s festival, the Ojai management made some interesting additions of additional performances and a film. As a tribute for Elliott Carter, on Saturday afternoon Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and Eric Heubner performed Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948), and Eric Heubner performed 90+ (1994) and the masterful Night Fantasies (1980). Then there was a showing of the film “A Labyrinth of Time” presenting Carter and his music. To recognize the centenary of Messiaen, the Festival sponsored a performance of Quartet for the End of Time Saturday night at 11:00. Frank Almond, Andrew Shulman, Todd Levy and Gloria Cheng were the performers.

Thank you, Ojai, for another good year.

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Saturday afternoon, already. We’re half-way through this year’s Ojai Music Festival, and I need some time-shifter to slow things down. Today’s mid-day concert was superb. Dawn Upshaw, but that’s redundant. It was a lovely program. Each song, seemingly, gave her a different opportunity to tell a story. Anyone there could pick a different set of highlights. My own included a simple, beautiful song by Ruth Crawford Seeger of a lyric by Carl Sandburg, “White Moon”. But then an absolute highlight came with the last set: a French song by Kurt Weill and three cabaret songs by William Bolcom. For each of her two breaks, giving her friend and accompanist Gilbert Kalish a solo, Upshaw sat in a chair by the piano. Just watching her gave a lesson in performance secrets as she sat there, focused on the music, changing expression with the shadings of the music on the piano. Being in Ojai, hearing Dawn Upshaw. We have a lot to be thankful for.

The Festival began Thursday night with a Steve Reich retrospective: Eight Lines (1983), Nagoya Marimbas (1994), Four Organs (1970), and Daniel Variations (2006). Signal and So Percussion gave lovely performances, conducted by Brad Lubman. The audience enjoyed the treat. For Four Organs, this was the 35th anniversary of its first performance at Ojai. Having heard Daniel Variations performed by the Master Chorale in the Disney, it was a less powerful version outdoors at Ojai, with four singers instead of a chorus. There were slight gains in clarity of the words, but that probably depended on location of your seat. Still, I’ll keep my recording of the Master Chorale’s performance.

In the Friday night concert David Robertson gave us music for the theatre, music of humor and fun. The focus of the night was performance of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), complete with a live performance of Chaplin’s music for the film, as reconstructed. Great music? No, but it was fun to hear and see how his musical ideas could be used to support his film. And it was interesting to see how difficult it was to see his film transition between silent movies and the talkies, so that other than its background music, the film used recorded sound only in those instances when the sound was central to Chaplin’s idea. To me it was a long stretch, however.

The music was much more interesting in the first half which opened with George Antheil‘s A Jazz Symphony (1925, revised in 1955). This music was a surprise to me; it had wit, and charm, and sparkle; its musical ideas were interesting. (It helped that there was a good performance by a conductor and darn good orchestra that followed all of the jagged rhythms and changing meters, and that Gloria Cheng was here at Ojai for the crucial piano role.) I guess I’ll have to make a point of listening to some other music by Antheil; his music seems to deserve more than a footnote to the musical history of the 20s or of the Hollywood film.

The first half ended with another first for me, the performance of Francois Narboni’s El Gran Maturbador (2000) for orchestra and electronics. This is a complex set of elaborate interactions between sampled sound and acoustic instruments. I looked for a recording of this after the concert, to hear it again.

Friday’s seminar sessions gave us a triple treat. The morning was spent with The Master discussing the West Coast trends in music, from Charles Seeger to John Luther Adams. Then David Robertson discussed his three programs and Steve Reich closed the afternoon. Ara Guzelimian, as usual, was a skilled and sensitive moderator.

Thursday night was a reception honoring the newest classical music blogger in the West, Alan Rich. You’ll want to put this site in your bookmarks.

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