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Last Saturday night I caught a trio of Philip Glass‘s slightly more obscure music, performed by a well-rehearsed Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale (based in Orange County, California) as part of their annual American Composers Festival. Although lesser-known than its Los Angeles counterpart, the symphony is staffed with many fine Southern California-based musicians and performs in the recently built and acoustically impressive Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The opening piece, “Meetings Along the Edge” from Passages (1990), featured Glass’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar, in which both agreed to each compose a melody for each other and write a new composition around it. Usually I cringe at the results at these attempts at cultural exchange and creative collaboration, but in this rare instance I was very taken with the way Shankar’s Indian melody combined with Glass’s signature contrapuntal and harmonic elements. It created a fascinating juxtaposition, that gave me new insights on how Shankar’s Indian musical elements integrated into his very recognizable compositional language.

The Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995) was written to serve dual purposes: first to be performed primarily as a saxophone quartet (here handled by the Prism Quartet), and secondly to be performed with an added orchestral accompaniment. Judging by the many recordings available of the quartet (sans orchestra), it has become a popular addition to the saxophone repertoire, but at Saturday evening’s performance it was hard to forget that much of this music was very similar or even repurposed from Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990), Glass’s song cycle collaboration based on Alan Ginsberg’s spoken-word poetry with solo piano. Reusing music has been widely accepted (besides borrowing heavily from Mozart and Purcell, Michael Nyman is a common recycler of his own music) and I think there is nothing inherently wrong with reusing one’s material, but in this case the unintended results were the equivalent of watching James Gandolfini from The Sopranos appear in another TV show. No matter how hard you try, it’s hard to see him as anybody but Tony Soprano. Comparing this secondhand saxophone showcase against the powerful combination of Glass’s music with Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t really equate apples to apples, but more like apples to apple butter.

After intermission, just from viewing the assembled 140-member Pacific Chorale and orchestra, it might be easy to assume that Glass’s The Passion of Ramakrishna would feature a grand spectacle similar to his non-narrative operas like Akhnaten and Satyagraha. But for reasons I can’t fathom the assembled full chorus and orchestra wasn’t used to its full potential, at least in comparison to his similar vocal and operatic works.

The libretto, which recounted the final months and last words of the 19th-century Indian philosopher Ramakrishna, were surprisingly taciturn and the music was pleasant, but as the Passion of Ramakrishna was coming to a close I was struck that I had never been left so cold by a Glass vocal piece: It was basically 50 minutes of recitative with no aria (i.e. mostly all story and very little emotion).  After the performance my concerns were confirmed when some of the performers said that Glass had mentioned he’d been hoping to eventually to flesh out the piece further, which was especially curious because the weekend’s performances were being recorded for a possible release on Naxos or Glass’s own Orange Mountain Music label.

Whether or not the piece performed Saturday night was the final version, it does leave me to think that in its current version, the Passion of Ramakrishna could use a few changes — namely, more “Passion” to balance out the exposition.  As a composer who has learned much from studying and performing Glass’s music over the years the music presented Saturday night shows that even though many already are calling him a “living legend”, sometimes deadlines and professional obligations lead to music that was created by a mere mortal.

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[Ed. note - Welcome our newest contributor out in the City of Angels, Paul Bailey. Paul is a composer, trombonist and teacher, leader of the Paul Bailey Ensemble, and a good friend to boot. Paul's own work draws quite a bit on music and culture outside both the standard university and powdered-wig crowd, has a deep dislike of pretention, and has no problem calling them like he hears them.]

For the last week I have been at a loss for what to say about the music presented by the Argento Chamber Ensemble at their concert January 10th at the Zipper Hall “Monday Evening Concert Series.” It was obvious that the stage was filled with a plethora of world-class musicians who throughout the evening ably demonstrated that they all had achieved the very pinnacle of technique on their respective instruments. But with all that musical dexterity to go around I was mostly left cold by the music presented and was even more disappointed that for the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have  attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.

The concert opened with Brian Ferneyhough‘s La Chute d’lcare, which featured an Olympic medal–deserving performance by clarinetist Carol McGonnell, whose effort was minimized by the disjointed orchestration and impenetrable form. Although I didn’t find their performance lacking, after a while the virtuosity being displayed seemed to reflect a video game in which the ensemble plays each successive level of complexity to increase their score.

For me, Joanna Chou‘s solo piano performance of Gerard Pesson‘s La Luminiere n’a pas de bras pour nous porter was the standout performance and composition of the evening. Based on an asymmetrical toneless ostinato, which alternated with white note tone clusters, this was the evening’s best example of “less is more.” Pesson’s other two pieces — La Vita e come l’albero di Aantale (piano and violin) and Non sapremo mai di questo mi (piano, flute, and violin)—were well performed, mercifully short explorations of piano ostinatos which contrasted with the extended performance techniques for piano and flute.

Ending the first half of the concert was Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Let Me Die Before I Wake, which again featured Miss McGonnell’s clarinet expertise (mostly through whispered tones). Although the piece was described by the composer as having “mysterious links with darkness: every bit of light is distilled,” the performance became more of duet with the intermittent dulcet buzzing drones of a slowly dying fluorescent light which I eventually preferred this impromptu duet instead of the more organized solo clarinet performance emanating from the stage.

The second half of the concert featured the much-heralded Fausto Romitelli‘s Professor Bad Trip. Other than some vague reference in the score to Henri Michaux’s experiences under mescaline and four pedantic announcements introducing each section (“Lesson 1,” “Lesson 2,” “Lesson 3,” and “Lesson 4″), it was left open what morals we might ascribe from this evening’s performance. The effect of having an announcer speak at the beginning of each lesson seemed to me about as aesthetically pointless as having an usher come out to tell us when the concert was over. (Not that musically there were any clues as to when each section was complete.) Like much of the evening musicians started and stopped without much discernible development of the musical elements. In many ways Professor Bad Trip was like a listening to wind-up box of 12 instruments chattering independently which somehow happened to stop together every 10-15 minutes.

[Some video of a 2008 performance by the Fiarì Ensemble:]

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On a more positive note I can say that the ensemble (and the sound engineers) expertly handled mixing the acoustic and electronic instruments. From personal experience, it’s very hard to decide how to blend these disparate sound sources. Their decision to play through a PA and to degrade the guitar sound through pedals so it would blend better (which it did) worked pretty well. My only problem was at times hearing the guitar out of the center PA above the stage instead of from where the guitarist was sitting, but not a big deal overall. I also felt that Jay Cambell‘s loquacious electric cello jamming was diminished by his awkward switch back to his Ars Antigua violincello. After rocking out, it works better if you acknowledge the audience when switching instruments.

With that point I should wrap up and get to my main frustration with the whole evening—and many other new music evenings I have witnessed. “Witnessed” is really the point, because with very little interaction among the musicians, and only a brief introduction to begin, our part was basically to sit silently for over 2.5 hours and listen to some of the best technical musicians that the academy and conservatory system produce. A little of this music goes a long way, and I know that if I brought many of my friends to a show like this they would have no frame of reference on which to hang their ears. Maybe the problem still is, as Milton Babbitt said, “Who Cares If You Listen”… but in 2011, I’m still hoping that we can move beyond such ivory tower dogma.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.

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