Art Share LA, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, was the scene of a concert Friday February 27, 2015 entitled Terrain featuring works by Brian Ferneyhough, Brian Griffeath-Loeb and Elizabeth Lutyens. The occasion was the first anniversary of the WasteLAnd ensemble and a nice crowd turned out for an evening of complex music and birthday cake.
The concert began with Recomposition #4 (2012) by Brian Griffeath-Loeb and this featured Mark Menzies as solo violin. According to the program notes “… Recomposition #4 takes Ferneyhough’s iconic violin solo, Intermedio alla Ciaccona, and subjects it to an array of transformations. The original is amplified, constricted, recolored, warped, looped, erased, and – on occasion – left unaltered, presenting a surreally divided consciousness that challenges both identity and authorship.” This began with loud, intense chords in the higher notes and sharp, rapid runs that became very shrill at times. At other times the sound was softer, as when the the strings of the violin were gently rubbed by the bow. A variety of extended techniques were evident and at one point Mark Menzies was rapidly fingering the strings of the violin without using the bow – and just that slight contact sent out a series of ghostly tones that were barely audible in the Art Share performance space. As the piece progressed, Menzies seemed to be attacking the violin as the complexity and energy continued to build. There was a sense of being witness to a titanic struggle: the violinist as individual against the world. The piece concluded as a soft high tone slowly gathered strength until it sounded like a whistling tea kettle, followed by a sudden silence. This was a virtuoso performance by Mark Menzies and was received with sustained applause.
Terrain (1991-1992), by Brian Ferneyhough was next and this again featured Mark Menzies as violin soloist, backed by an ensemble of eight instruments. Terrain has been described as a violin concerto reconfigured with modern forms and this seems entirely appropriate. The piece begins with an extended violin solo that is filled with rapid streams of notes, short bursts and punchy passages – all infused with the frenetic energy that is so characteristic of Ferneyhough’s music. As the other instruments join in there is a striking independence in the playing, with seldom any rhythmic cohesion between sections or the soloist. Add to that the quick runs and dissonant harmonies, it would seem to be a recipe for chaos. And yet, the overall feeling has a kind of organic textural wholeness – like looking at the shimmering surface of a lake or a choppy sea. The sound sometimes comes in waves – as in one passage when the brass surged together, centering the music temporarily. Terrain is full of allusions to powerful geologic forces operating deep within the earth – the shifting combinations and alignments of the various instruments keep the energy level high with the violin sometimes leading and sometimes lost in the mix. Hearing this music is a sort of aural equivalent of an abstract expressionist painting. The playing by WasteLAnd as conducted by Nicholas Deyoe was precise enough that all of the details came through clearly and Mark Menzies once again performed brilliantly.
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The Blue Whale in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles was the venue for a concert entitled “The Other Side of Valentines Day” by the group Synchromy – appropriately on Sunday, February 15, 2014. A nice crowd turned out to hear an evening of original new music performed by soprano Justine Aronson, Matt Barbier on trombone and pianist Richard Valitutto. In all, some ten pieces were heard, most of them by Los Angeles-based composers. The concert programs were handed out in envelopes in the manner of a Valentines card – a clever touch that added to the convivial ambiance.
First up was Song for Justine and Richard by Nick Norton, based on a lyric by Conor Oberst. This began with some quiet notes in the upper registers of the piano that evolved into some nice harmonies as piece progressed. After some moments Justine’s voice entered with a single quiet word: “Never.” Her smooth soprano, and also the very high notes in the piano accompaniment, had to compete against some kitchen noise that occasionally intruded on the quieter sections. But the sweet, introspective feel of this piece was effectively brought out by good ensemble and careful observance of dynamics by the performers.
A silhouette of constrained motion, by Tina Tallon followed. This was a solo trombone piece including mutes and extended techniques played by Matt Barbier, who filled the room with all manner of squeaks, growls and guttural sounds. A wide variety of timbres and textures ensued, and as the piece continued one got the sense that a sort of feral language was unfolding, conveying a kind of elemental emotion. There was the sense of hindrance, impediment and perhaps slight vexation, but overall there was a more distinctly organic feel to this – an intriguing exercise in musical and non-verbal communication.
Falling, a work by Jason Barabba was next, based on a text by Annie Jankowski. This featured Justine Aronson’s voice whose range and power were more clearly evident. Richard Valitutto accompanied with a series of trills while long arcs of strong vocal passages soared overhead. The piano was more in an accompanying role, although the piece was punctuated with sharp notes and dramatic crashes that Richard does so well. At one point a sort of dance rhythm broke out and towards the end some recited text – “Grasping at hope that flies right by” – was very effective.
Parking in Cars by Dante de Silva followed and this was built around a mashed recording of a cautionary public service announcement from 1947 titled Are You Popular? Dante de Silva added a bouncy, 50’s sort of tune that incorporated its lyrics from the film: “Ginny thinks that she has the key to popularity – parking in cars with the boys at night.” This phrase was repeated, almost rap-like, while Matt Barbier played along, adding a jaunty bass line. The result produced a feeling that was part nostalgia and part amazement at a message so clearly out of date with 21st century deportment. But all this was more in fun than embarrassment and Parking in Cars proved to be a very enjoyable piece.
Next up was McCallum Songs by Nicholas Deyoe, written for piano and voice and based on a series of love poems written by Clint McCallum. The music consists of several shortish sections that opened with low piano chords and soft vocals, lending a somber tone to this. The text carries the story forward and was sung by Ms. Aronson with a quiet purity of tone. The feelings conveyed by these pieces are variously anxious, wistful, plaintive, frustrating, yearning, angry – all of the emotions that are part of the subject. Some of the text was narrated and this added to the sense of intimacy. Nicholas Deyoe has often exhibited a lively pyrotechnic flare in his compositions, but the McCallum Songs are elegantly infused with a soft, understated passion.
Unphotographable, by Scott Worthington followed and this combined electronic waveform tones with Matt Barbier’s muted trombone. This had a distinctly alien feel as the electronic waves began zero-beating and the trombone joined in, adding to the rhythms. It sounded, at times, like a sort of machine language was being spoken and the trombone playing was precise enough to blend in seamlessly. This piece occasioned an interesting reversal in the sense that the acoustic instrument was combined with the electronic waves as if it were another oscillator. Matt Barbier returned after the intermission for another solo work Mantram: Canto Anomimo by Giancinto Scelsi. This was a more conventional piece – no cold sine waves here. There was an exotic, Asian feel at times and this gave Matt Barbier a chance to stretch out using various slide effects and powerful playing that filled the room.
An arrangement of the Gershwin standard They’re Writing Songs of Love, But Not for Me, by Michael Finnissy was next, performed solo by Richard Valitutto on piano. This began with a tentative feel – as if the music was just below the surface, searching for itself. This had the effect of engaging the listener as the familiar melody slowly came into focus, artfully spanning the decades since the original was first heard. The playing by Valitutto had just the right touch of balance between old and new.
Walk of Shame, written by Richard Valitutto followed, performed by Matt Barbier on a muted bass trombone. A variety of interesting textures were produced with a sort of buzzing from the mute often riding on the pitch. The melody moved along quickly, with rapid passages, adding to a sense of pace. The playing required consistently good technique and Matt Barbier delivered even as this was his final piece in a long concert.
The concert concluded with Simple Daylight , the noted song cycle by John Harbison, based on a text by Michael Fried. Originally commissioned by Lincoln Center Simple Daylight was first sung by Dawn Upshaw and begins with a sharp piano introduction that settles into a distinctly mysterious feel. The voice enters, building drama, even as the lyrics seem concerned with the ordinary. The music and the text work together effectively throughout, creating tension that results in a kind of indefinite, disconcerting awareness. Now a faster section that adds a further measure of anxiety, and the mood turns variously loud, dramatic, scary, and at times quiet and reflective. This is a complex piece, always something just beneath the surface, but the lyrics and the music always compliment each other perfectly . Harbison’s wide experience with choral church music is evident as he weaves a delicate thematic thread through each of the songs that comprise Simple Daylight. The playing in this performance – and especially the singing of Justine Aronson – never wavered under the many demands of this long work at the end of a full evening of concertizing.
Synchromy will appear at Boston Court in Pasadena July 17, 2015 in a program that will feature Brightwork and a variety of new music.
Photos by Tina Tallon
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On Tuesday November 11, 2014 Piano Spheres presented a concert by Richard Valitutto entitled NAKHT. The venue was the RedCat performing arts space at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and the 275 available seats were mostly filled to hear an evening of solo piano nocturnes. This was the first major recital by Richard Valitutto, who is a member of several leading new music ensembles that appear regularly throughout the city.
The concert opened, appropriately enough, with Nocturnes (1929 – 38) by Francis Poulenc. Five nocturnes were played from this piece and the first of these, No 1 in C major, began with a warm and welcoming feeling and reflecting, from time to time, just the slightest tinge of regret. This piece gracefully unfolded with an accessible beauty. The acoustics in the hall were good and Richard applied a sensitive touch to the flowing melody line and its stately ending. The second movement, No 5 in D minor, has a much quicker feel, like a group of children running about inside a large house. The subtitle of this nocturne translates to “moths” and perhaps this accounts for the lively feel. The fast runs and rapid rhythms were accurately and precisely rendered while at the same time allowing the playfulness of the music to come through.
Other nocturnes from Poulenc were variously slow and stately with an introspective feel, sophisticated and engaging, like a group of friends out on the town or dramatic and expressive. The last nocturne, No 8 in G major, was softer and more reserved, almost church-like in its solemnity, but with a certain uplifting sensibility. All these Poulanec nocturnes were played with an ease and smoothness that highlighted a sense of openness and warmth.
The second piece in the concert was as above, so below (2014) by Richard Valitutto and this occasion was the world premiere. Some adjustments were required; the music rack on the piano was rotated allowing access to the strings within. As above, so below began with the plucking of isolated strings – with those in the higher registers sounded with a bell-like purity and were left hanging nicely in the air. The lower notes produced more of a clanking sound, but this made for a good contrast. The listener soon became accustomed to the use of these extended techniques, and as the piece proceeds they become a normal feature of the sound palette. Eventually notes were struck from the keyboard and this registered as a more percussive sound compared to the lovely sustained pitches of the plucked strings. A dialogue unfolds between the two sounds as the piece gradually develops into a quiet, meandering mystery. It is like a nocturnal wandering inside an old house while hearing the chimes of a grandfather clock. Based on the lunar cycle and “..simple canonic procedures like those we hear in Renaissance and Baroque music” as above, so below has a more flowing, introspective feel than its underlying structure might suggest, resulting in a pleasing level of thoughtful reflection.
Due Notturni crudeli (2000) by Salvatore Sciarrino was next and the first movement Senza tempo e scandito started with a series of strong, pounding high notes followed by a pause, a short passage and then a repeat. This became a steady, march-like pulse as the piece progressed, broken only by rapid runs that skipped down the keyboard. The feeling was quite unlike a traditional nocturne and was more reminiscent of an automaton caught in some perpetual factory process. Intimidating and impersonal, this movement only turned softer towards the end as it slowly died away. The second movement, Furia, metallo, was even more forceful, with loud pounding chords and rapid runs in the middle registers. There were a few quiet stretches but these simply served to reinforce to harshness of the more robust sections. The program notes for this piece state “…the predominating attitude is one of violence and hysteria, examining the dichotomy of disparate gestures and their pugnacious incompatibility.” The playing by Richard Valitutto was skillful throughout and carefully attuned to the strong emotions present in Due Notturni crudeli – the cruel nocturnes.
After a short intermission La chouette hulotte (1956-58) from Catalogue d ‘oiseaux, 3 Livre by Olivier Messiaen began with an ominous feel, like walking outside into the inky blackness of a cloudy night. Changing rhythms and running passages ensued, with a building sense of uncertainty and tension. The title of this piece translates to Tawny Owl, and is part of the Messiaen series of piano works that focus on birds and bird calls. He writes about this piece: “Darkness, fear, the heart beating too fast, the meowing and barking Little Owl, the cries of the Long-Eared Owl, and then there is the call of the Tawny Owl: sometimes gloomy and painful, sometimes vague and disturbing (with a strange tremor), sometimes shouted out in terror like the cry of a murdered child!” All of this is viscerally present in La chouette hulotte; at times Richard Valitutto seemed to be attacking the keyboard and at other times caressing it, artfully drawing out all of the foreboding and drama that is packed into this piece.
Next was a work by Aleksandr Skryabin, Poem-Nocturne, OP 61, (1912) and this began with a light, rolling melody accompanied by warm chords. This is a more traditional type of nocturne and is evidence of very controlled writing – there is a sense of slight tension and of something held back. Skryabin was heavily influenced by Chopin and, as the program notes state: “…during his middle years Skryabin became interested in composing ‘poems’, an appellation he derived from the late-Romantic concept of tone poem. However, unlike those heroic and tragic chronicles, most of Skryabin’s piano poems focus on the ephemeral beauty of a few simple gestures, favoring grace over grandiosity.” The delicate sense of anticipation in Poem-Nocturne approaches impressionism in its simplicity and subdued texture, and the understated feelings were all carefully articulated in this performance.
The final work of the evening was NCTRN (2014) by Los Angeles composer Nicholas Deyoe, commissioned for this concert by Piano Spheres. For this piece the piano was prepared so that the right-most key made a wooden knocking sound instead of hitting the string to make a note. This simple adjustment became an effective focal point as the piece progressed. Anyone familiar with the music of Nicholas Deyoe would normally expect to hear a thunderous roar from the piano, but apart from a few sharp chords NCTRN was a model of carefully controlled atmospherics. This is surprisingly economical music, with pauses and silences that added to a deep, evocative feel. The knocking sound made by the prepared key produced a keen sense of slowly building anticipation, becoming more insistent as the piece progressed. The sudden ending was the perfect, unexpected finish. The playing was everything NCTRN required – a fine touch with precise control that sustained the tautness throughout. The audience received this performance with sustained applause and cheering.
With artists like Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, Vicky Ray and others, Piano Spheres has, with this satellite series concert by Richard Valitutto, recognized a new voice for the music of an upcoming generation.
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The Brand Library in Glendale was the site for an evening of piano music by Steve Moshier on Saturday, October 25. Cynthia Law performed three Moshier pieces, including the premiere of Into the Safety of the Abyss (2014).
The concert opened with Unchained Melody: Eight Bagatelles for Piano (1999) and the first of these began with a series of strong, decisive chords that invoked an important, stately feel The opening passages were repeated in the higher registers, slightly subdued, before returning to the powerful lower chords. The second bagatelle was softer but along the same lines, as if a development on the opening theme. It featured a bit more complexity as well as counterpoint that produced a sense of rolling motion.
Other movements of the Eight Bagatelles for Piano were variously fast and running or featured melody and counterpoint that smoothly changed between the left and right hands. The forth bagatelle, Andante non troppo e grazioso, was perhaps the most characteristically Moshier – starting out slowly but with an exotic feel, turning more introspective with a question and answer dialogue in the passages. The contrast in dynamics in this section were nicely accented by Ms. Law and there were a number of sections that featured well-played counterpoint.
Bagatelle 7 featured a series of light arpeggios that gave a feeling of uplift with a counter melody that contained an elegant, distinguished polish reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata. The final bagatelle started as a fast, irregular series of notes – like code carrying some message. This was accompanied by a series of bright chords that gradually turned warm, followed by some nice syncopation in the right hand. The piece finished strongly in the deep lower registers , recalling the declarative feeling of the opening movement.
The music of Steve Moshier is most closely connected with the Liquid Skin Ensemble and this piano music was recognizably similar, with its precisely regular rhythms and crisp minimalistic repetition. Ms. Law provided an accurate, even reading – exactly what this music requires. The piano filled the recital hall with a big sound that was especially effective in the lower registers.
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The friendly confines of Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert by Los Angeles-based gnarwhallaby on Saturday, October 4, 2014. The quartet appeared complete with their trademark rock-solid playing and black jumpsuits for the performance of six pieces by European and American composers of new music.
The concert opened with Euphorium (1995-96) by the Czech composer Martin Smolka. This featured Matt Barbier on euphonium and Brian Walsh on baritone saxophone. Combined with the piano and cello this produced a wonderfully robust bass line and a big sound that bounced and jumped playfully about. The rhythms were fast, bold and angular with an active feel, like a city at rush hour. The composer describes this piece as follows: “The tempo is breakneck and there are too many notes leaping up and down the entire range and the irregular rhythms in alternate measures remind a maze… The score invites the players to find alien tones. It is full of indications to play out of tune and at times out of rhythm… It is a musical illustration to a Scrap Iron Art Manifesto.” Even so the playing by gnarwhallaby was tight and the irregularities well managed. As the piece progressed the driving rhythms often broke into a satisfying groove and this offered a measure of accessibility amid the split tones and intense textures. The overall feeling was like standing too close to a slightly out of control street band and enjoying the sense of imminent catastrophe. The piece eventually wound down with a quiet trombone solo that trailed off, as if by exhaustion. Euphorium is an exercise in joyful anarchy, accurately captured in this performance despite what is surely a challenging score to play. Read the rest of this entry »
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On Friday October 3, 2014 Cal Arts opened the WaveCave, a new experimental sound installation space and hosted a reunion concert by alumni on campus at the Roy O. Disney Music Hall. The WaveCave occupies a room just off the lobby of the concert hall and is intended to be a permanent venue for sound art installation. The space will be filled with Experimental Sound Practices alumni works for the Fall of 2014 with current student works premiering in 2015.
Zephyrs, a sound installation by Mark Trayle is the initial work to appear in the WaveCave and included three separate assemblies consisting of a flask of glitter, a piezoelectric disk and electronics to actuate a valve in the flask and to drive the disk with ultrasonic square waves of various frequencies. A small amount of old glitter is periodically dumped onto the discs by electronic actuation and the sound energy applied to the disk causes patterns to form, change and disappear. According to the program notes “The ultrasound waves (and their lower frequency auxiliary tones) also create patterns of varying amplitudes and frequencies in the acoustic space.” The sounds that were audible were of a very high pitch and as one moved about they could be heard only in certain locations. Watching the glitter form and reform in patterns, seemingly on its own, was a fascinating visual component and created an effective focal point for experiencing this piece.
The evening continued with a series of pieces presented in the adjacent Roy O. Disney concert hall. The first of these was Body Wave by Daniel Eaton and this was performed by Matt Barbier and Daniel Eaton, both on trombones. A series of amplified electronic tones accompanied the horns and the first of these, a low pulse, filled the hall with a warm wash of sound. At one point the combination of trombones and electronics was powerful enough to evoke a train horn and the sound seemed to move from left to right. Later in the piece it felt like being inside a large machine, immersed in the sounds and pulses of its inner workings. The combination of amplified trombones and electronics worked well together, and this was a also a tribute to the sound system.
Noctiluca Scintillans by Cooper Baker was next and this piece was realized with a series of hanging tubes, microphones and software. According to the program notes, the system consisted of “Hanging acrylic tubes containing bead chains generate acoustic impulses that trigger and control the synthetic sounds… Each tube has a contact microphone embedded in its cap, and when a tube is tapped or shaken the vibrations are transmitted to a computer running custom signal processing software.” Cooper Baker used small mallets to strike the tubes, and it was much like watching bell chimes played. Some of the tubes produced a running, liquidy sound when struck, another sounded like something from an arcade game. Still others had musical chime-like tones. Cooper Baker was able to create different moods and textures during the course of this piece by striking the tubes in various combinations – sometimes the resulting sounds were soft and lovely, other times more intense and complex. Noctiluca Scintillans is an impressive attempt to connect computer-processed sounds to a device suitable for performance.
Loud Sleep by Stephanie Smith followed and this was an ingenious mix of small motors, bells, magnets and mechanisms suspended in the air by strings from a cross bar. Then entire installation fit on a small table and microphones were used to amplify the tiny mechanical sounds. The different mechanisms were started each in turn, and went clicking merrily away, going in and out of phase with each other. The result was a charming, almost organic sound – like listening to mechanical crickets. At one point it sounded like the room was full of ticking alarm clocks, but overall this piece produced a playful feel that was complimented by the simplicity of its concept and construction.
A more dramatic work came next, COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE by Ezra Buchla. The program notes state that this piece incorporates “Gesture and sound-inducing narratives [that] collide with software-induced limitations via nonlinear functional mappings in time and harmonic space, resulting in a spectrum of shifting tensions between intimate somatic texture, crystalline tonality, abrasion and emptiness.” Mostly electronic in nature, although at times a viola played by Ezra was incorporated into the mix, the low rumbling, roaring and moans gave a convincing approximation of what it must be like inside a body cavity. A heartbeat could be distinctly heard. There was a sense of being semiconscious and the overall feel was one of a bleary melancholy. As the piece concluded the tension escalated as higher pitches joined in, culminating in a sort of slow scream. COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE certainly delivered on its title and effectively conveyed the listener to its unique point of view. Read the rest of this entry »
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On Tuesday, September 9, 2014 the Southland Ensemble presented a concert of the music of Pauline Oliveros at Human Resources in the arts-friendly Chinatown district of downtown Los Angeles. The performance space, with its wide open floor and lively acoustics was the perfect place given that the works of Ms. Oliveros typically include a theatrical component. The seating, arranged logically around the perimeter, was completely filled by those attending.
The concert opened with Sonic Rorschach (1971) and for this groups of electric fans were arrayed in the corners to provide white noise, as called for in the composers notes for this piece. A member of the Southland Ensemble was also stationed in each corner to model a contemplative pose for the audience as they filed in. After a dozen or so minutes, when all were seated and quiet, the ensemble rose together, each holding a percussive whip – two wooden slats joined by a hinge. At a signal, all the whips sounded simultaneously with a single loud crack that reflected nicely off the cement walls. The single sonic pulse from the whips was delivered with remarkable precision, given that the players were several dozen feet apart. The performers then resumed their seats as the piece concluded, immersed in the meditative white noise of the fans. Sonic Rorschach is scored for a duration of 30 minutes – and this performance was probably close to that – the time spent in meditation was a useful prelude to the rest of the concert.
Thirteen Changes (1986) followed, performed by Eric KM Clark on violin. For this piece there was recorded narration of thirteen phrases such as “Standing naked in the moonlight – Music washing the body.”, “Rollicking monkeys landing on Mars”, “A singing bowl of steaming soup”, etc, and these preceded a short impression of the text by the violin. This was also accompanied by recorded samples and audio effects – skittering and swirling, or at times a wash – and various other recorded sounds. Eric KM Clark created all of this and his voice read the text. In one sequence there were the sounds of a forest coming from the speakers, and the violin answered with a sort of mooing, matching the organic character of that segment. A distinct sentimentality is brought into the recorded mix by the violin. This seems characteristic of Ms. Oliveros work – which seems to exist at the conjunction of human emotion and ambient sound. The playing by Eric Clark was controlled and precise and nicely complimented the evocative recordings.
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The 2014 Ojai Music Festival opened on Thursday June 12 to begin 4 days packed with informative talks, movie screenings, parties and concerts. The Festival’s Music Director this year is Jeremy Denk and the resident musical groups included The Knights orchestral collective and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Friday night’s concert was built around an examination of the Classical period and featured a Haydn string quartet as well as the world premiere of a new opera – “The Classical Style” – by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky that was commissioned by the festival for the occasion.
The concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No.3 (1793), performed by Brooklyn Rider. Right from the opening passages of the 1st movement the light, bouncy rhythms combine with the classical harmonies and familiar Haydn wit to produce a lively and optimistic feel. As the instruments took turns developing the theme there was a sense of increasing fussiness that added to the fun. The playing was light and precise, setting just the right mood for the evening.
The second movement was more stately and slower – almost hymn-like – but easy and flowing. This turned a bit darker towards the middle, but soon returned to the lighter feel of the opening, giving a sense of resolution. The ensemble playing was impressive here and the ornamentation in the upper parts nicely done.
The third movement, in the traditional triple meter, was faster and featured close harmony. The balance and dynamic control were outstanding and the bright feel reinforced the sense that this was music that does not take itself too seriously. The final movement was faster still and had a dramatic feel that turned brighter with a series of bouncing rhythms that suggested a sort of gallop, hence the nickname of this Haydn string quartet as the “Rider”. This work is typical Haydn – bright, optimistic and not too serious. The precise and agile playing by Brooklyn Rider caught the essence of this piece exactly and it was an ideal prelude to the opera that followed.
Not being able to make it to Ojai, I listened to the concert as it was streamed on the Internet. The quality, both audio and visual, was excellent and there were no drop-outs or interruptions of consequence. The seeing and hearing are much like being in one of the back rows of the Libbey Bowl and was actually an improvement over my usual seating out on the lawn.
The streaming provided another benefit – a televised interview of Steven Stucky during intermission by Fred Child of American Public Media. The subject of the interview was the music for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This is a comedy based loosely on The Classical Style by the late Charles Rosen, a textbook first published in the early 1970s and widely influential in the field of musicology. The libretto, by Jeremy Denk, was taken in part from the Rosen book but the opera also includes the personalities of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Robert Schuman, Charles Rosen, and characters like the Tonic Chord, Dominant Chord, Sub Dominant Chord and the Tristan Chord as well as a host of supporting characters. The plot revolves around Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven returning to earth to reclaim their musical relevance and to rescue the classical style from academic over-analysis by appealing to musicologist Rosen. There are also scenes involving the several musical chords in a bar, and other assorted comic vignettes and sketches derived from musical theory and history.
Apart from the varied collection of characters, one of the challenges Mr. Stucky pointed out was the need to write music in the classical style, using the sonata form where appropriate, or in the romantic style during the Tristan Chord scenes. Another challenge was that much of the comedy was based on knowing something about music theory, and this needed to be put across in a way that all audiences could enjoy. The character of Charles Rosen, a close personal friend of Jeremy Denk, was portrayed as something of a hero, bringing order to the comedic chaos around him, and this necessitated a more serious musical sensibility when he was on stage. Steven Stucky, while confident and articulate, nevertheless betrayed the look of a man who had spent the last two years of his life on a large-scale work to be premiered on Friday the 13th. He needn’t have worried.
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The annual Dogstar Orchestra concert series of experimental music has been going in various locations in and around Los Angeles since May 30. The venue on June 10 was the Wulf, a converted industrial loft space on Santa Fe street downtown, and a good-sized crowd settled in for an evening of spoken and electronic works. The concert was curated by Sara Roberts and Clay Chaplin.
The concert opened with Black & White Oratorio by Robert Lax. A chorus of 15 voices and three soloists performed this piece which consists of groups of words for color that are spoken in various patterns and sequences. A soloist starts the piece with a series of phrases such as “Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, White.” At length the chorus joined in with a series of similar phrases, but with variations in the Black/White sequence. The speaking has a pulse that allows the chorus to speak in unison, in divisi, or to pause for several beats together. The written score runs to 54 pages and the words are grouped in a series of columns on the page that represent the pulses, with each row of words forming the spoken phrase. This performance of Black & White Oratorio extended for almost 40 minutes but never lost the attention of those listening.
At times the words were spoken in unison, at other times the soloists would speak – always with the same chant-like pulse – but often introducing new colors into the sequences. The combinations would repeat often enough to establish a pattern, and this would be broken by the soloists or with a new sequence of words in the chorus. The pronunciation of the various color words in different combinations often accentuated the sense of rhythm. Repeating “Black White” in the chorus, for example, produced a march-like cadence. When a color word had a single syllable, like Red, there was a strong sound. A word like Orange, with two syllables and a softer sound at the end, added a sort of counterpoint to the pattern of pulses. When the soloists were speaking in sequences of “Red, Blue” with the chorus speaking “Black, White”, a definite sense of tension developed. Some sequences felt light and almost melodic while others resembled more the pattern of a steady drumming. At one point there was even a grand pause that lasted for several silent pulses.
The patterns and motifs that emerge as this piece progresses are always engaging and reveal how musical a work can sound without resorting to pitch or harmony. As the program notes explain: “Rehearsing these color poems has been an incantatory and abstractly hallucinogenic experience.” There were just two full rehearsals for this performance and the recitation went very well with only a few inevitable miscues, but these did not affect the flow of the piece.
Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) has been described as an abstract minimalist poet, and Black & White Oratorio certainly fits into that category. Lax was born in Olean, NY and attended Columbia University. He wrote for several magazines, including the New Yorker, and he was a friend of Thomas Merton. Lax lived on the Isle of Patmos in Greece for the last 35 years of his life and this is where Black & White Oratorio was written. This piece seems to exist in that space between music and poetry and even without tone or pitch, the words, the sequences and the rhythms seem to be transmitting musical content within its private vocabulary. The soloists for this performance were Jen Hutton, Heather Lockie and Morgan Gerstmar and the director was Sara Roberts.
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On Sunday, May 25, 2014 the Los Angeles Composers Collective presented New Strings a concert that featured new works by nine different composers and performed by the Fiato Quartet. The venue was Human Resources, a converted movie theater in historic Chinatown and although the performance space is a work in progress, the audience was seated comfortably. The acoustics in this new space were adequate – a dryer environment might have been better to bring out the finer details – but this did not affect the performance.
The concert began with String Quartet 1 by Jon Brenner and this commenced with a series of fast, precisely played eighth notes that immediately assumed a familiar minimalist texture. This developed a nice groove with effective harmonies and solid counterpoint. As the piece progressed, a section with lower dynamics – dominated by the cello – produced a more introspective feel despite the busyness. Those sequences where there was dynamic contrast and sustained tones in one or more parts were particularly effective. Towards the end of the piece the tempo slowed a bit and a pleasing theme emerged that was passed around among the players. This is music that is always going somewhere; at times it is strident but never out of control and the groove was always carefully maintained. Informed by Jon Brenner’s background in early music, String Quartet 1 is a strongly minimalist piece with a lot of moving parts that work admirably together.
Thoughts on Spring followed, by Alicia Byer. This begins with a series of long, slow notes in the violins, followed by the viola and cello. Trills appear, and with a sustained tone continuing in the viola there is the unmistakable feeling of an awakening. A slow melody is heard for a time and then – after a beat or two of silence – fast trills in the viola mark the start of a stronger, more animated section. As the volume and tempo increase there is a feeling of incipient undeniability, especially strong in the lower strings, like the emergence of the first flower shoots of spring. Thoughts on Spring is just that, and this music artfully describes the yearly process of natural renewal.
At the Warren by Carlos Carlos was next and this is a piece that is unashamedly about rabbits. Full of variously bouncing pizzicato or tremolo sounds – and often with a dance-like feel – At the Warren nicely captures the energy and movement of rabbits in the wild. At times this piece turns smoothly pastoral and was reminiscent of early 20th century English music. There was a section that quietly conveyed stealth and careful movement and other passages that expressed a more lighthearted feeling or a sense of purposeful journey. The book Watership Down came to mind. At the Warren is not abstract or difficult music, but it clearly and convincingly sketches out its subject matter.
Miniature for String Quartet No. 6 by Gregory Lenczycki followed. This began with a series of strong quarter notes that gave off an edgy feel that only increased as the rhythms became syncopated. As the piece proceeded the texture turned smoothly melodic, providing a good contrast with the opening passages. Further along there was a return to the strident rhythms of the opening and a disconnected melody emerged that enhanced the building sense of tension. The barely cohesive structure at the conclusion completes the feeling of uncertainty that characterizes this piece and makes it an interesting sojourn.
The first half of the concert concluded with Four Impressions by Nicholas White. The first of the four sections was dominated by low trills in the violin, joined by a faster repeating line in the viola. This combination generated a sense of mystery and anxiety while the second section evoked a more introspective feel with lush chords, high sustained pitches and triplets in the viola. This trailed off agreeably leaving a nostalgic afterglow. The third section continued the warm, expressive feelings with a series of slow chords and some lovely harmonies. The final section provided a fine contrast, full of fast passages in the upper strings that gave a strident and declarative feel to the overall texture. This turned slightly discordant at times, increasing the strongly purposeful feel. Some combinations of notes sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet – adding another interesting facet to this nicely balanced work.
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