There has been plenty of eulogizing and assessment of Maurice Sendak’s remarkable career, most of it focused (rightly so) on his wonderful books. While Sendak’s work in opera and ballet has been praised, I don’t feel that enough attention has been paid to the two operas he worked on with Oliver Knussen. The first, Where the Wild Things Are, is the best children’s opera of our time; the second, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, is one of the best late 20th-century operas of any type. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a fairy tale with great appeal to children, yet the surreal story of a selfish dog’s quest for happiness is laden with potent symbolism that speaks deeply to adults.
The efficiency of Sendak’s librettos to both works, and the ways he created new dialogue for Where the Wild Things Are, and distilled the text for Higglety Pigglety Pop!, reveal the handiwork of a shrewd man with a gift for the stage. Knussen’s music–impressionistic in Wild Things, parodic and post-modern in Higglety Pigglety Pop! is colorful and contemporary, yet highly accessible. I hope that more companies consider mounting a production of one or both operas.
I’ve posted my review of the 1990 LA Opera production of both works on my blog, and I hope it will give you a sense of the magic that Sendak and Knussen conjured for an audience full of children and adults. You can read the review here.
Two American premieres of important new works by Louis Andriessen at the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert tomorrow evening (Feb. 28), 8 pm. Get there at 7 pm for the preconcert talk with Andriessen and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
We had just seen John Cage recite his mesostic/theater work, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. My composition teacher, a tenured faculty member who had won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize, told us, “Everyone should see John Cage once.”
And then, as if to underscore the idea that one only needed to see Cage once, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer added, “But of course, his ideas are much more important than his music.” At that time (the early 1980s), there weren’t many recordings of Cage’s music available, and I rarely encountered any performances of his music, so my professor’s utterance was a reasonable statement for many.
Three decades later, there are 279 recordings featuring one or more works by John Cage available on arkivmusic.com; my old teacher has under 30 listed. It isn’t just that Cage is the most-recorded member of the postwar avant-garde—he has more recordings than plenty of conservative composers. Here’s a list of the top 10 recorded composers born in the 20th century at arkivmusic.com
1. Shostakovich 1449
2. Britten 958
3. Bernstein 632
4. Barber 541
5. Rodrigo 461 (and 103 of those are the Concierto de Aranjuez)
6. Messiaen 431
7. Walton 413
8. Khachaturian 357 (138 of those are the Sabre Dance)
9. Cage 279
10. Arvo Part 239
Clearly, Cage’s compositions, as well as his ideas, are very important in the classical music industry. This year you’ll be hearing a lot of his music, as various cities and organizations celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth. The John Cage trust is a useful web site to learn about upcoming performances, but if you live in Southern California, you’ll want to consult this list I compiled for the LA Weekly of Cage events this year.
Steve Reich and Music for 18 Musicians comes to Disney Hall on Jan. 17
For the LA Weekly, I compiled a list of what appear to be the best classical music events next year in Los Angeles. (Of course, the 2012-13 seasons haven’t been announced yet, so there will likely be events in the fall that I’ll be crazy about, and REDCAT had not published its Winter/Spring concert schedule by the time I turned my copy into my editors)
Just about all my picks involve 20th/21st century music (there’s lots of pre-20th century music at Ojai, and although Mahler may not seem 20th-century to many classical music mavens, over half of his output was composed after 1901). Here they are, in order of Most-To-Least Amount of Regret One Will Have For Not Attending The Event:
1) Steve Reich played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish, Jan. 17
2) The LA Philharmonic’s Mahler Project, but in particular the rarely performed 8th Symphony
3) The Ojai Festival–lots of new music, but especially the West Coast premiere of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on June 7
4) Jacaranda’s March 17-18 concerts, featuring the LA premiere of Christopher Rouse’s astounding String Quartet no. 3, played by the group which commissioned it, the Calder Quartet
5) Violinist Shalini Vijayan will perform Cage’s One6 and One10 with musical sculptures by Mineko Grimmer (which Cage approved as appropriate companion works to his music), as the opening concert of Cage 2012
My story, along with lots of links and videos, can be read here.
Some observations and amplifications I couldn’t squeeze into a 500-word story:
REDCAT is doing a 2-night Cage Festival, including performances of 103 and Fifty-Eight on the first evening. But from what I can see right now, that and Southwest Chamber Music’s Cage 2012 are the only big birthday celebrations going on for Cage in his native city. Green Umbrella will present Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, performed by Gloria Cheng and conducted by John Adams; the other works scheduled for that program include Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (the “Carnival of Venice” for new music groups) and a new work from Oscar Bettison which is more likely to be in Cage’s spirit than Stockhausen’s goofy Zodiac pieces.
The all-Andriessen Green Umbrella concert looks very promising–2 multimedia works, (the lurid Anais Nin and Life) plus the US premiere of La Giro. It’s worth attending just to see the riveting Cristina Zavalloni, who’s become one of Andriessen’s chosen interpreters
I feel sorry for all the other composers on the above Jacaranda program (Richard Rodney Bennett, William Schuman, and Leon Kirchner)–memory of their music will be completely obliterated by Rouse’s compositional juggernaut, his Third Quartet. There’s a video of the Calder Quartet ripping it up (the West Coast premiere) here. The Calder will also play Rouse’s Second Quartet, but the ending to that work has always struck me as contrived
Jacaranda has 2 other exciting programs coming up: the American premiere of Terry Riley’s Olson III, a work from the time of In C, and a January concert of chamber music by Dutilleux, Takemitsu, Ung, and Saariaho. It was a real coin toss for me to choose between Olson III or Rouse Third Quartet, but I ultimately went with Rouse because the Calder knows the work cold, and a successful performance is certain (unlike Olson III)
In addition to Inuksuit, JLA’s Red Arc/Blue Veil and the two-piano-plus-tape version of Dark Waves will be heard at Ojai. Marc-Andre Hamelin, a pianist I would not associate with JLA’s music, will be performing in the latter 2 pieces–I look forward to hearing what he does with the piece. I imagine he’ll get authoritative guidance from Steve Schick, his partner in Red Arc, and from JLA himself. Amusingly, John Adams’ Shaker Loops will be on the same program as Dark Waves. I wonder how many inattentive audience members will think they’re works by the same composer? Much more up Hamelin’s alley: Ives’ Concord Sonata and Berg’s Four Songs, op. 2, and following his performance of Dark Waves with Leif Oves Andsnes, the pianists will play Stravinsky’s 4-hand arrangement of Rite of Spring (done on 2 pianos, because the hand crossings and elbow bumpings are ridiculous)
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.
JACK Quartet presents two concerts in LA this coming Sunday and Monday. On 2/13, they’re giving an afternoon concert for the Da Camera Society (tickets/details here) at the Southern California Instituteof Architecture. The program includes early music – Machaut and Gesualdo – as well as contemporary works: Philip Glass’ 5th Quartet and Tetras by Iannis Xenakis. The selections certainly suit the concert’s location: both Xenakis and Machaut are composers who should be of interest to architects!
On Monday, JACK will present a different program as part of Monday Evening Concerts at the Colburn School (tickets/details here). It includes both of Aaron Cassidy’s quartets, John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, Anton Webern’s Op. 9 Bagatelles, and Horaţiu Rădulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born.”
This looks to be an amazing double header of new music programs. I hope that some of our Californian readers will be able to attend. If so, please send us a report.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson has an excellent post about Aaron Cassidy’s 2nd Quartet on New Music Box today.
As Tim pointed out on his blog, Paul Griffiths’ notes for the 2/14 program are online.
[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:]
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.
For the next few months, The City of Angels is going to be the epicenter of all things Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001). That’s because the exhibition “Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary” will be on view at the MOCA Pacific Design Center from November 6, 2010 — February 4, 2011. The exhibition explores Xenakis’ wide range of sketches, scores and drawings, not only musical but architectural and aesthetic as well. Not always simply notes on score paper, many of Xenakis’ sketches and drawings conjure up artistic visions, in ways perhaps only matched by John Cage’s documents of his own explorations. Defintely a must-see.
But there are also a couple must-hears, happening right this week, both absolutely free:
Saturday, 6 November at 6pm, in L.A. State Historic Park (1245 Spring Street) a recreation of Xenakis’ legendary Polytope de Persepolis will be performed. Adapted by German sound artist and Xenakis electronic music expert Daniel Teige, Persepolis L.A. will involve six listening stations with eight speakers each. Persepolis was originally commissioned by the then Shah of Iran and performed as the opening event of the controversial 1971 Shiraz Festival that took place in the middle of the ruins of the ancient Persian capital. This performance will encompass more than 70,000 square feet of performance area within the park’s 32-acres, and will feature the recently restored multi-track music composition and computer-generated visual choreography, complete with laser beams, fire, smoke, and searchlights. The event will open with Xenakis’ first electronic work, Diamorphoses (1957), as a “geological prelude”.
Then on Sunday, November 7 at 4pm, The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts presents an outdoor performance of the final version of Xenakis’s only opera, Oresteia. This West Coast premiere includes performances by baritone Paul Berkolds, an adult chorus, a children’s chorus, and a chamber ensemble. First-come seating is on the lawn for this highly charged, brutally colorful piece.