Thursday, April 23, 2009

Coming attraction: Pacific Serenades to spin a “Circle of Blue”

cccccccccooccccBilly Childs

This may come as a surprise to readers of the mainstream media, but there are actually other musical experiences this spring than just long farewells to conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the LA Phil’s Oedipus Rex, or buzz on the merits of the production at the LA Opera’s Ring. Monumentalism goes only so far; bigger than life musical thrills eventually need relief. Here’s a fast approaching May event that could downsize those overworked ears to a kinder, gentler human scale:

PACIFIC SERENADES presents the weekend after next a world premiere - a new work for string quartet by Grammy award-winning jazz pianist Billy Childs. On the eclectic program with it are Ravel’s String Quartet in F major and Mozart’s Duo in G major, for violin and viola, K. 423. Under the moniker “Circle of Blue” it promises a spectrum of sounds from mellow moments to assorted spiky rhythms and lots in between. Three performances (see below for details) may let you to find the one that works for you.

Childs knows his stuff; he has eight Grammy nominations and two wins to his name. His work on a program with Ravel is not coincidental, the French composer being one of his important influences. (Jazz and Ravel have always gotten on well, in Ravel’s own works and with his influence on early jazz composers like George Gershwin.)

“Billy has been blurring the lines between jazz and Western classical music for years, which fits right into our mission at Pacific Serenades” says director of Pacific Serenades, Mark Carlson.

“I’m not a string player”, Childs says, “though I took cello lessons. I have spent almost as much time on the phone as writing, asking string players, ‘Can you do this?’ It’s a very rhythmic, angular piece. I tried to incorporate some serial writing, some jazz or blues things.”

At the last concert in March, Carlson premiered a fine composition of his own, a little suite called View from a Hilltop, full of atmosphere and family memories. The five pieces were impressions from a favorite childhood vacation spot, suggesting in three of them a motorized arrival in Prologue, a quiet stillness in Fog, and melancholy tinged with regret in Lost. Carlson is a skilled musical craftsman and a good instrumental colorist, with a penchant for filmic effects.

Carlson's composer ear has also come in handy spotting talent in others. By the end of this season, Pacific Serenades, around these parts since 1982, will have commissioned and premiered 94 new works by 51 different composers. A grizzled veteran of the L.A. chamber music scene, it keeps a youthful profile with at least one new work every concert.

Remember the Ring’s goddess of youth, Freia, who spun apples to preserve the old gods' youth? Pacific Serenades should remain young at heart long after Wagner’s deities have for the last time bargained their immortality into oblivion next season.

Catch one of these "Circle of Blue" performances below, and note the extra fun you can have at a couple of the performance venues. You just may leave the scene feeling a little younger yourself.

(And by the way, this entry being posted on April 23, let's say Happy Birthday to William Shakespeare)


PACIFIC SERENADES – “Circle of Blue”
Maurice Ravel – String Quartet in F major
W. A. Mozart – Duo in G major, for violin and viola, K. 423
Billy Childs – New work for string quartet

Soloists: Roberto Cani (violinist), Connie Kupka (violin), David Walther (viola), David Speltz (cello)

Saturday, May 2; 4 p.m. - $55 - at a private home in Brentwood. Directions mailed to ticket holders upon receipt of their order.

Sunday, May 3; 4 p.m. - $32, students at door $5 - Neighborhood Church, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. The Gamble House museum, next door, offers a discounted tour at $8/person to Pacific Serenades patrons on concert dates only. Tours begin promptly at 2 pm and at 2:40 pm and last approximately one hour. Reservations are required and must be made at least 48 hours in advance of the concert date by calling 626.793.3334, ext. 16.

Tuesday, May 5; 8 p.m. - $32, students at door $5 - UCLA Faculty Center, 405 N. Hilgard Ave., on the UCLA campus in Westwood. Parking is available for $9 in Lot 2. In addition, prior to each concert, dinner at the UCLA Faculty Center is available for Pacific Serenades patrons. Reservations can be made by calling 310.825.0877.

Information and advance tickets: 213.534.3434 or visit

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Jacaranda’s ‘Sacrifice’: Going to the limits of extreme performance and sensuality

Saturday, April 4, 2009 - 8:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica

Igor Stravinsky: Sacre du Printemps
(The Rite of Spring) For piano 4-hands, 1913

Olivier Messiaen: Harawi Chant d’amour et de mort
(Song of Love and Death) For soprano and piano, 1945

Danny Holt & Steven Vanhauwaert, piano
Elissa Johnston, soprano & Vicki Ray, piano

Review by Rodney Punt

Imagine, the knuckle-busting four-hand piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, coupled in one evening with probably the most difficult song cycle of the 20th Century, Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi, Chant d’amour et de mort. The near impossibility of finding musicians who can do justice to these two stupendous works, much less muster the courage to tackle them, challenges the brave if not the foolhardy.

Jacaranda’s producers, Patrick Scott and Mark Hilt, have the kind of audacity that lives up to the epithet of their series, “music at the edge”, and a stable of artistic talents approaching bottomless. For this evening, they put together a coalition of the willing - more importantly, the able - and brought us what may have been the most astounding concert in the five year history of the organization.

We are so used to the orchestral version of Sacre du Printemps, it is hard to think of the work without its prism of brilliant instrumental colors, or for some, the extra-musical associations of ballet or cinema. Who can forget seeing fearsome dinosaurs fighting to the death in the Walt Disney movie, Fantasia? Ballet versions are less frequent in these parts, but I was once fortunate enough to have taken Nicolas Slonimsky, the renowned lexicographer, to the Chandler Pavilion for the American Ballet Theatre’s recreation of the original Ballet Russes version. Slonimsky had seen a revival of the original with dancer Vaclav Nijinsky just a couple of years after its premiere, and was initially skeptical of the ABT’s ability to do it justice. But he was ultimately delighted with the results.

Stripped of such vivid orchestral colorings and visual evocations, however, would tonight’s Sacre prove to be nothing more than a historical curiosity? There is, after all, a certain lugubriousness inherent in four-hand piano performances, even with the best of musicians. I approached the evening with trepidation.

Not to worry. With Steven Vanhauwaert and Danny Holt on hand, all such doubts were cast aside. The four-hand piano Sacre blazed like a comet through the hall. Both illuminating and liberating, one could only stand mute at the work’s astounding musical structure. Dissonances were sharper when stripped of orchestral colorings. Interwoven lines that exist more independently in the orchestra version are here more obviously connected. Asymmetrical rhythms, constant off-beat accents, meters that change like jumping beans, all were revealed afresh in the piano version for 20 fingers.

Vanhauwaert and Holt tore into this piece like furies, undeterred by daunting challenges (and even the distracting breeze from the hall’s air-conditioning system that threatened to topple the music off the piano). It was a performance at turns propulsive and precise, aggressive and tender. What aplomb these two demonstrated!

It was like looking at one of those model ships where a half-cut down the middle reveals all the chambers. No wonder Messiaen studied this version for his own instruction and taught it to his students. It is a terrific companion to its more famous orchestra twin.
Unlike the Sacra du Printemps, Messiaen’s Harawi, Chant d’amour et de mort is not a composition many will encounter with prior conceptions or associations, or a even knowledge of its existence. Fiendishly difficult for both pianist and singer, it is shunned by most singers for understandable if lamentable reasons: there are simply very few with the combination of voice, musicianship, or time to prepare and perform it.

Patrick Scott’s lengthy program notes provide a good history of Harawi, including commentary on its surreal-inspired origins and its autobiographical significance to Messiaen. The notes can be found on Jacaranda’s website ( Suffice it to say here that Messiaen’s iconic musical obsessions and devices abound, including what seem like hundreds of exotic bird calls.

As with the evening’s first piece, the two performers of Harawi, soprano Elissa Johnston and pianist Vicki Ray, know not fear. Johnston has a voice of enormous range and suppleness, with a fresh, many-hued tonal quality just right for this piece. Just as important, hers is an impeccable musicianship without which it simply could not be performed.

Likewise, Ray has the dexterity to fully negotiate this beautiful monster, and the simpatico to be an ideal pair to Johnston in bringing it off, not just adequately but well nigh definitively. (Unconfirmed reports tell of the two working on it over a period of several months. If so, we can add artistic integrity to the merits they brought to the work’s revelatory performance.)

With this concert, the last at First Presbyterian this season, the two-year survey of works of Olivier Messiaen and those who influenced him draws almost to a close. There is but the season finale, a large-scale extravaganza featuring the seminal 20th Century composer’s compositions, including one US premiere, to be given at the restored art deco Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High School on May 9. Don’t miss it.

After you see it, please tell me what I had to miss while on a Sierra Club trip to southern China next month. Even in deepest China I doubt I’ll encounter birds more exotic or a spring more ravishing than those of this evening in Santa Monica.