Friday, April 29, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Royal Wedding Features Music by Paul WHO?

by Anne French

For 35 year old Welsh composer Paul Mealor, the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton was much more than a worldwide media phenomenon (some say circus). Mealor's hushed and reverent setting of Ubi Caritas, which premiered last autumn at St. Andrews University, was heard round the world as the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey fortified by singers of the Chapel Royal sang it at the close of the Royal Wedding ceremony. It is a wonderful piece that will put this young composer on the liturgical music map forever. More on the composer can be found at Meanwhile you can enjoy it here on wedding day. A wonderful beginning to the weekend in which we welcome the merry, merry month of May!

Some Nudity Required

Pat Graney Company's Faith comes to REDCAT

PHOTO: Tim Summers

Joseph Mailander

Two generations ago, the city was in robust economic health and people went to Dodger games. Now it's forty years later, the city is at the brink, the Dodgers are in virtual receivership, and we're going to revivals of provocative contemporary postfeminist dance.

Excepting a stay-in-your lanes crisscrossing of the stage with red exercise balls, Pat Graney's Faith, now at REDCAT through Sunday, is slow and often static, so static that it sometimes flirts with ceasing to be dance at all. The first segment, in fact, is drawn from the chiaroscuro and posing of fabled Caravaggio paintings. It's a good idea if a little on the Pageant of the Masters side of re-enactment; what lends drama most of all, as in the paintings, is the lighting, the mix of light and shadow on the chiseled bodies and limbs of the dancers. (I didn't know to look for paintings before taking the work in--I think I saw Calling of Matthew and The Entombment, and I'm sure there were many others--but hell, I thought I saw Raft of the Medusa too, even without the cue to look for paintings--I even wrote this down, in fact).

There is also much historical feminist, post-feminist &c. narrative running through Faith, and the all-women ensemble, some of whom were in the original production in 1991, have the panache to pull it off. Women are far too complex to have had but one liberation, they have had at least four waves of it even by 1991; some have involved shoes, some nudity, and some on drawing a distinct line between essentialist and separatist lesbianism. All of this is present in Faith; we see one woman limping around in too-high heels, we see a tedious segment involving said red shoes for all, we see nude bodies celebrating themselves and each other in isolation and in aggregate, we hear the dancers moving to the New Age thumping of a concluding dona nobis pacem.

As the troupes' bodies are on display for much of the final third of the piece, they invite comment, and comment I promise. You wouldn't call the dancers lithe; their dancer body type is powerful, sturdy, callipygous, refreshing, Greek. But I was equally enchanted by the crushed red and purple velvet minis of the earlier segments.

These are indeed hard times, and there was no media kit. Instead, only the tip sheet was available describing the dancers: "..., short with short dark brown hair." This is truly an audacious postfeminist moment in dance, when we always baffled scribes are obliged to identify the dancers by the physical attributes on the tip sheet, and have no other scoop other than the audience's program notes on either dancers or performance. But for what it's worth, Deb Rhodes-King, who steals many scenes, even from occasionally featured soloists, does so with her variously taught and supple limbs as well as her arresting, occasionally pained, even tormented facial expressions, and is certainly worthy of more in the take-home material.

It is probably trite to call Faith "entertaining"--the production is too high-minded to be that. But the word does come to mind; you leave the tedium of the static in the theater and take away the sculpted moments, the post-feminist theorizing, and wondering if our interactions, or our city or even our lives, can be a little better after all.

Pat Graney Company's Faith at REDCAT tonight and Saturday at 8:30, and Sunday at 3:00; tickets from $26-$16, better deals for CalArts folks.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Prima Donna

Donna Perlmutter has joined LA Observed. Her two year run here at LA Opus, a time during which she also contributed to Huffington Post and blogdowntown, was a very memorable one, and it came at a time when music and dance in LA endured near-tectonic shifts. She brought many readers here, and she'll be missed here. Thank you, Donna, for contributing so much to LA Opus.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Joseph Mailander

I Corinthians
is about sex and love; The Sun Also Rises about sex and impotence; St. Matthew Passion about sex and Christ.

After listening to the work on Good Friday for many years, I finally saw it performed at our own Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Good Friday 2001. I still consult my notes from that performance from that time...and still listen on Good Fridays. I know the work as well as one knows a work by listening to it once a year--which I have to say is really a good way both to come to know a work and to keep it mystical. But while music is best when it remains mystical, the concert hall experience can make things obvious that no recording can.

For me, most notably, the work in the concert hall became highly sexualized. Never on the recordings did this ever become clear. However, with sopranos and tenors and baritones before you (in this happy case, but four rows before me--two late cancellations from the season subscribers, front row dead center), alternating recitatives and arias--a style of presenting music that shares more with Roman rhetoric than with previous liturgical music--you get the feeling even after the first twenty minutes that Christ is someone who must be not just the center of your Lutheran life but the primary object of the direction of Geluste within it.

There is, owing to the nature of the story, which is one of supreme brutality, much S&M in a Passion (I suppose Mel Gibson would discover this soon enough), and in Bach's piece not a lash is spared--it is all there--the whips on the back of Christ recorded in the grinding of cellos, the drops of blood flicking away as staccato scattered notes, the forlorn gasping of the Marys for the departed Christ. You don't especially note these things when listening to recordings, but you note them when you see the musicians frantically sawing away. Bach is ethereal to most, and heady and intellectual, but there is so much in all the Passions that is physical, nude, painful, sexual, real, and it come alive on stage, as it does in another quirkily sublime religious work, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron.

There's a soft uniquely early-Lutheran moment in St. Matthew Passion. Jesu sprach: This is my blood you drink, this is my body you eat. In concert you realize how simple yet teasing this statement is--as teasing as it must have been when someone spoke it. In Bach, there is of course not quite a baroque (in the Catholic sense of the word) presentation about the thunder of this historic moment, but neither are there Protestant trivializings--no, the solution again is sex, another seduction. This moment, the heart of the disputa, presents the offering as Bacchus's cup presented to someone about to be seduced--as is so much of the music, the music of the most sublime dancing, the music of a seducer.

And that is the way I find so much of this piece, though I didn't recognize it until I saw it performed: not liturgical music at all, but the music accompanying a smoldering dance at court, the sexual tensions masked but popping out at last in every aria.

It may turn out scholarship finds that every moment between Bach and Christ is a lusting one. Excepting the few astonishing, nearly sacramental choral moments in this work, especially its whirling, deeply disturbed beginning, St. Matthew Passion is mostly seductive music set to beauteous, longing rhetoric. We are listening to the Evangelist patiently, tenderly, waiting for a climax that never really comes--if it comes at all, in fact, it comes in the first six minutes, precisely where it should, lest we be exhausted by listening.

Though the singers I saw a decade ago were nearly all from Germany and all among the world's top leider performers, including Matthias Goerne, the guy who stole the show was a fellow named Christopher Cock (left), a last minute substitution, a young and very Lutheran fellow with side about him that was akin to Joel Gray in Cabaret, an impish master-of-ceremonies evangelist who is orchestrating the show, not just reporting it, and never mind the perfect assertive voice which held up for three hours from start to finish. Cock is now at Valparaiso, a choral master as well as a tenor, and is a Bach saw it all begin to unfold that night a decade ago.

That night resonates still. Not in the immediate way that baroque perfection drops from the very surface of Caravaggio or from maddening Bernini marble, but perfect in the shocking way that a religion suddenly announces to the world that it is not a heresy after all: by encoding all the tension into a secret subtext, celebrating our sense of deity by keeping our private human mischief percolating just beneath the surface for nearly exhausting but ultimately captivating Tantric hours.

Bach fathered many children--I don't remember how many, just that there were very many, and the second set of them numbered thirteen, with a woman seventeen years his junior. He was 42 at the time he wrote St. Matthew Passion--his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, was 26. Certainly this is evidence enough that his Geluste evidently ran elsewhere, far beyond Christ alone. Yet we also tend to think of him today as a Luftmensch, not only godly in his art but also near to God. Even the most secular among us are willing to see his immense life work a piece of Opus Dei, responsible, impenetrable, saintly.

But sublime is the word that comes to mind also with Bach, and when I saw this work performed for the first time, what struck me was how overtly salacious this best-known Passion was. It made me think that Bach was closer to worldly experiences than the those who have deified him suggest. And far against the present day dour stereotype, I think he expected the most prim and proper Lutheran to be right there with him, lusting their way through life, tacitly acknowledging at least internally that it turns out none of us are very prim and proper at all.

The recording of St. Matthew Passion that has serviced me best throughout the years is the Harmonia Mundi recording featured above, which includes Howard Crook (tenor), Ulrik Cold (basse), Barbara Schlick (soprano), Rene Jacobs (alto), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (tenor), and Peter Kooy (basse solo).

Music: As Real As Life Itself When It Comes To The Brain

"Scientists.....are trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

"The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

"Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians."

This interesting article by Pam Belluck in the April 18 edition of the New York Times's Science section explores a fascinating topic. It's worth a read for all music lovers who have a yen to fathom the mysterious relationship between life and music. -- LA Opus Publisher

Photo by Rodney Punt, used with permission.

The Friday Phonograph

Great Music on Good Friday

by Anne French

Our world is truly blessed to have such an abundance of great music to express both the depths and heights of the religious experience. From medieval chants to the most modern choral and orchestral works, music from every culture and tradition is available to enhance the human spirit as it reaches towards the transcendent. Good Friday is an especially emotional and contemplative holy day for Christians around the world. I have chosen Anton Bruckner's Christus Factus Est, sung by the Bristol Cathedral Choir, as an example of how music can itself be a prayer on a special Friday such as today. May Christians and non-Christians alike be touched by its profound beauty.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Barak Marshall's Monger Sells Ideas with High Energy

There’s the world, says choreographer Barak Marshall, with all its social inequities, hard-scrabble struggles and heartless contradictions. And then there’s a person's heritage -- a dual one in the case of this native Angeleno whose mother is the former Yemeni star of Inbal Dance Theater and whose father hails from the Bronx. In Monger, the piece danced by Marshall’s Israeli troupe at UCLA’s Royce Hall in its L.A. Premiere on April 9, we find them both -- societal vagaries and his own cultural heritage -- framed in the dark downstairs quarters of humbled, obedient servants answering their mistress’s bell.

We hear her clicking footsteps through the floor boards and a leak dripping from the interior plumbing -- all of it fearsome and ominous. We hear those solemn, ting-a-ling attention calls, followed by the employer’s amplified voice delivering orders. We see the listeners below gather like frightened prisoners as one of them replies to those orders and apologizes for any infraction previously committed.

But all hell breaks loose after the duties are fulfilled. No longer supplicants, these workers show their raging side; through hyperkinetic, in-your-face movement, they spill agression in forcefully rhythmic low squats and pungently pithy gestures plotted as a convulsive step-per-beat -- all set to a raucous sound score pieced together from Middle Eastern rock and Klezmer bacchanales. At intervals it stops to embrace American pop ballads and ‘50s swing, and, yes, even Handel and Verdi.

Because, after all, there is a lyrical component to life, even in the worst of circumstances. For that, Marshall turns to an aptly balletic Traviata excerpt, in this case, the terminally tubercular Violetta sadly reciting Alfredo’s love letter to her. (Remember, she is of the underclass as well, a courtesan who would bring dishonor to a “good” family, so the episode is thematically akin).

And then there’s the curious sleight-of-hand image he constructs of three women clutching their babies, born in the backstairs, away from public view. Also, there’s the outright comic cross-dressing vignette that brilliantly makes two seated men into three figures, one of them a woman. Interspersed are choice tidbits like commercials for Manischewitz as delivered on NPR’s Yiddish Radio Project and spoken with laughably perfect English diction.

No doubt, the choreographer boasts endless sources of material that inspire him, though, possibly, he might want to limit his palette somewhat.

And while the work may not boast the nuanced stratification seen in Bob Altman’s Gosford Park or the grim sado-masochism of Jean Genet’s The Maids (both cited in the program notes as its basis) there’s a huge inventory here of vulnerability, helplessness, and finally revolt.

Still, it’s subterranean anger that has a field day in Monger, which in the spirit of fish-sellers and war-makers, is no subtle business. Brutish, it curiously resembles an aspect of Israeli culture: argumentative, unafraid of loud debate. The national reputation is built on this stuff, as with the Israeli Philharmonic, for example, that marvelously irascible band of players.

Monger shows a tender nostalgia, though, as it ends. The ballad “Close Your Eyes,” led us out the door, with a golden-oldie male voice poised in the air, gently floating above all that had preceded it.

Photos by Gadi Dragon, used by permission.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lil Buck and Yo Yo Ma do The Swan Thing

Here's something off the beaten track - way off, matter of fact. Cellist Yo Yo Ma teams up with street dancer Lil Buck to give us a graceful a rendition of the Saint-Saens "The Swan" from his Carnival of the Animals. (Thanks to Wendy Velasco for certain musicological assistance!)


Friday, April 15, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Elgar's Enigma: "A Mighty Hunter Before the Lord"

by Anne French

Edward Elgar's well-known orchestral work, written in 1898-1899 and known as The Enigma Variations, was dedicated by the composer to "my friends pictured within." Each of the 14 variations is a musical portrait depicting 14 different intimate friends whom Elgar identified by initials or nickname. Variation IX, the oft heard and intensely moving adagio titled "Nimrod," was dedicated to Augustus Jaeger, a friend who persuaded Elgar to continue working when the composer was in a state of despair. Since Jaeger is the German word for "hunter," this variation was named for the Old Testament patriarch, Nimrod, described as "a mighty hunter before the Lord." However the real enigma is not in the names, but is rather some hidden theme, musical or otherwise, that in Elgar's words is "not played." This Friday's Phonograph plays the Nimrod Variation performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult conducting. It has been synchronized with truly awe-inspiring images from space. And who knows? Perhaps these mysteries of space are themselves the enigmatic unplayed theme.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Daniel Catán

LA Opus is saddened to learn of the death of Daniel Catán, composer of the highly successful opera "Il Postino", which had its premiere last September as the opening production of the LA Opera's current season. Catán died unexpectedly in his sleep on Sunday in Austin, Texas, at the age of 62. With his wife, Catán was a resident of South Pasadena. For many years he had been part of the higher education community in greater Los Angeles. At his death, he was on a semester's residency at the University of Texas' Austin campus, where he was working on a new opera based on the Frank Capra movie, "Meet John Doe."

LA Opus publisher Rodney Punt said of the premiere of "Il Postino":

Catán's Postino is a well-crafted, old-fashioned romantic opera, a crowd-pleaser with a conservative but genuinely expressive musical vocabulary. The score suits its subject (with) characters well-etched by a savvy Catán.

Some will criticize Catán's score as not spiky enough for today's audiences. But this composer knows his mind and owns a technique fully capable of expressing his dramatic intentions. Just as Puccini had made more polished and sensuous the crude Verismo tradition he inherited, so Daniel Catán has made subtler the Puccinian tradition to fit this less overtly intense drama.

This is a civilized and gentle tragedy brought to life by a gifted artist and craftsman. Compared to other premieres the LA Opera has offered in recent years - Grendel, Nicholas and Alexandra, or The Fly, for instance - this work's musical expressivity soars high. It should stay with us for years to come.

(The) opera had sung in the apt but still unusual operatic language of Spanish. That made it feel more akin to an Hispanic than an Italian spirit, even with its Italian title and setting. Sonorous words like azul, luminosa, mariposa, and desnuda were projected on the stage's backdrop as its poet protagonist taught his novice pupil the art of metaphor and poetic perception. They announced also the operatic potential of a new world, more properly The New World. Audience members from the longstanding Hispanics for LA Opera support group were not the only misty-eyed ones seeing the enchanted words of their native language floating on a heavenly blue background.

Requiescat in pace, Daniel Catán.

Above photo by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

In the Spring a Young Man's Fancy Lightly Turns to ....

by Anne French

....thoughts of love! And what could be more appropriate for Tennyson's vision of spring than John Dowland's Come Again! Sweet Love Doth Now Invite. Dowland (1563-1626) was an English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist who wrote most of his music for solo lute or voice with lute accompaniment. (One poet wrote that his "heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense.") Today's Phonograph choice is the musical setting of a lovesick young man's longing, beautifully sung a cappella by the Collegium Vocale Köln. Follow the three stanzas of verse along with the score, and enjoy the beginnings of another great spring weekend!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bridges to Somewhere: Master Chorale Embraces Worlds in Los Angeles

Reviews and Commentary by Rodney Punt

Disney Concert Hall will be the scene this Sunday of Franz Josef Haydn’s glorious musical depiction of the biblical origins of life, as the Los Angeles Master Chorale presents his greatest work, The Creation. Next month, music director Grant Gershon rounds out his tenth season at the helm of the city’s premiere choral organization with a program billed as "Ellington: Best of the Sacred Concerts." If the contrast between classic Austrian refinement and cool American jazz seems startling, consider it intentional.

A decade ago European choral traditions had lost a bit of steam in a city grown modern and multicultural. Gershon’s challenge had to go beyond improving just the Chorale’s virtuosity and versatility, both of which he eventually did in excelsis. His biggest test was to help the ensemble regain its relevance in a vastly changing city.

Even as the multi-talented director, who recently turned fifty, has kept the venerable organization’s musical roots alive, he has also sought to build bridges to other traditions in the city’s many component cultures. In that quest he has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imagination. A canny artistic and marketing strategy is filling Disney Hall with not just music but also audiences. As it was in the less culturally diverse days of its founding director Roger Wagner, the Master Chorale is once again the musical voice of Los Angeles.

Central to the Chorale’s plan is the initiative “L.A. is the World”, described by Gershon as “a multi-year commission project dedicated to creating dynamic new works for chorus and non-Western musicians to premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall.” It was launched in 2007 with an aim to “bind Western and non-Western musical traditions.” The ultimate goal is to “broaden the definition of what ‘choral music’ means in this era of global interconnections.” It is connected to local concerns “by the many world-class musical artists who have immigrated to Los Angeles and who represent an array of traditions with deep roots in their communities and cultures.”

A related programmatic approach has had the Chorale presenting a travelogue of concerts this season. Last fall included musical stops at French and Russian ports. (Relevant to Los Angeles: Russian is a language heard from Hollywood to Encino, and the Westside’s Le Lycée Français is at the educational crossroads of L.A.’s surprisingly large francophone community.) Even the Chorale's annual Messiah had a special twist this year with a performance of Mozart's later Viennese version.

Both of the Chorale’s two most recent outings have employed the term “bridge” to celebrate resonances within Los Angeles communities to the contrasting cultures of England and Korea.

London Bridges

“London Bridges” on January 30 surveyed choral music of England, the staple of legacy music programs in the Southland’s churches and schools whose graduates constitute the Chorale’s core membership. It was no surprise that the execution of the program was masterly. Soloists from the Chorale’s ranks ably complemented the works at hand.

Two masses, four hymns, and eight chestnut madrigals constituted the whirlwind survey of the Emerald Isle’s vast musical legacy. William Byrd’s ethereal Four-Part Mass, continuing a Catholic tradition in the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth I, teamed with inner spirituality. By contrast, Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis in D, sung by the women, suggested the quirky-sassy spikiness of the composer’s French contemporary, Francis Poulenc. Judith Weir’s Two Human Hymns, with flourishes and syncopated rhythms in the accompanying organ’s Baroque registers, gave the Chorale irreverently cheeky outings. (‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat:’ So I did sit and eat.) John Tavener’s haunting Song For Athene, oft employed at funerals, ended the first half in an elegiac frame of mind. The madrigals in the second half compensated with light-heartedness, teeming with the frivolous fa-la-la's of love and leisure.

It was, however, Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia (conducted by the Chorale’s Lesley Leighton), with a brilliantly erotic text by W. H. Auden and the choral magic of England’s greatest composer since Purcell that stole a show already brimming over with wit and humor.

Stories from Korea

The distance from sophisticated London to a Korea of ritual and religion five weeks later required a bridge if not too far then at least as far as one could cross. A lively tradition of choral music on the Korean peninsula has been the legacy of missionary work begun there 130 years ago. Though its continuity was cut short in North Korea during the last half century, the tradition persists in South Korea in works that fuse Eastern and Western styles.

The Chorale’s local bridge to Korea was much shorter but until recently rarely crossed: that from the Music Center to nearby Koreatown, a community that boasts the largest colony of Koreans outside the country itself. And Disney Hall was well represented by those residents for its “Stories from Korea” concert of March 6. Results were mixed but the initiative opened the ears of the Chorale's base audience with fresh sounds and made some new friends for the Chorale from an important constituency in Los Angeles.

The program opened with a half dozen musical snapshots of colorful locales by contemporary Korean composers. Me-Na-Ri by Hyowon Woo felt like the gathering of tribes on a mountaintop, appropriate for a land that has been at the crossroads of struggle throughout its history. Chorale members were arrayed along the side aisles of Disney Hall’s central area and sang antiphonally, supplemented with pounding percussion and gongs. An invocation of a new artistic presence, it was the evening's most effective piece.

Hyunchul Lee’s Dona Nobis Pacem shimmered in trills with motifs in minor thirds, its harmonies a blend of East and West. Ben Jisoo Kim’s a cappella Hangangsu Taryeong was a dissonant tone painting of the swelling, pulsing Han River. Heejo Kim’s Gyeongbokgung Taryeong greeted the morning with a rhythmic lilt and pulsing joy in the opening of a gated royal palace. Jungsun Park’s Dal-A Dal-A Bal-Geun Dal-A found moon-struck lovers planning their futures in close harmony and intervals of minor thirds and fourths. Hojun Lee’s Arirang Fantasie had a hiker traversing Korea’s most famous mountain peak in music perhaps a little too sweetly Westernized with consonant harmonies and twinkling piano arpeggios in a manner equivalent to Thomas Kinkade's idyllic paintings.

Featured on the program’s second half was the world premiere of American composer Mark Grey’s Mugunghwa-Rose Of Sharon, an ambitious work built around the poetry of Namsoo Kim, a Korean who’s father was caught up in the uncivil struggles of the Korean peninsula sixty years ago. It employs a solo violin, chorus and chamber ensemble and incorporates elements of a violin concerto, tone poem and dramatic oratorio. Grey's music does not try to duplicate Korean folk elements but rather suggest the setting.

According to Grey, the solo violin and the ensemble together "channel the voice of Namsoo's father" with the violin also playing a shamanistic role. Kim's impressionistic poetry provides emotional signposts as the chorus conveys the story of Kim's search, after his escape to the south, for his father in North Korea. Alas, it was not to be; the North Koreans had denied Kim's entry until long after his father's death. Whether referencing the struggle between north and south or evoking the traditional poetic images of nature, Kim's poetry inspired musical settings from Grey that conveyed generalized feelings more than drama. The mood migrated from uneasy to agitated and eventually to elegiac. Jennifer Koh's solo violin busywork was often lost within the thickets of the combined ensemble and Chorale, as finely performed individually as all these elements were.

Following the script at the work's premiere was a challenge for the audience, not especially aided by the relative lack of differentiated characterization in each of the five scenes with additional Prologue and Epilogue. With a work of such ambition and sincerity, however, further tweaking may more effectively realize the obviously heartfelt intentions.

Looking Ahead

The Los Angeles Master Chorale is taking the right chances and making well-founded commitments to emerging musical directions in a Los Angeles ever complex and evolving. It's an organization that is smart and visionary at each critical level: singers and musicians, musical direction, and organizational management.

Next season will bring new musical adventures. One I anticipate in particular will be the performance of The Little Match Girl Passion by David Lang, a preview performance of which was presented with a complement of just four singer-percussionists at Santa Monica’s Jacaranda Music Series earlier this year. (See review) It was led by a free-lancing Gershon, who was one of the singer-percussionists himself.

But before next season there are those two performances of Haydn’s Creation this Sunday and the Ellington Sacred Concerts on May 22.

Neither should be missed. See you there.

Top photo by Lee Salem, bottom two photos by Steve Cohn, used by permission of L.A. Master Chorale.
Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Gernot Wolfgang's Thinging Theremin

by Rodney Punt

I dashed home Saturday evening from the gemütlich birthday party of a friend - a TV star of German origin. It was one of those magical outdoor affairs with banks of pin-lights beaming warmth through the misty dampness, plenty of drinks and food, a classy if incongruous mariachi band, and lots of glitzy guests. (Partiers were split between television industry types and L.A.'s German community, and conversations between the two groups migrated from the superficial to serious and back, but not from the obvious candidates in either camp.)

Memorable moment: a chat with engaging comedian Bill Maher. I am with him all the way on religion and politics, but not quite ready to buy into his take on the demerits of vaccinations, though he made good points on not messing with Mother Nature's immune system. (Plug: HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher delivers the best combo of political insight and gut-busting fun available on TV.)

So why did I come home early?

To turn on KUSC-FM for a delayed broadcast of the latest work of Austrian-born, L.A.-based film composer Gernot Wolfgang. I had missed its live world premiere at the brilliant Piano Spheres recital of Joanne Pearce Martin on March 16. Wolfgang's Theremin's Journey is scored for that odd hands-in-the-air electronic gadget that emits otherworldly sounds, along with piano and electronica (a Mac computer). Not having a video handy as I listened, I'll have to take KUSC's word that the multi-talented Martin performed all the music I heard during the course of the piece. (OK, some of the electronic elements may have been prerecorded.)

Journey is an atmospheric mood piece with a retro pop-jazz feel to it. Here's my fanciful take: the Theremin (beloved of old sci-fi films) takes us initially to a forbidden planet where Robbie the Robot might at any moment burst out from behind a rock. A couple of motifs of romantic longing from the Theremin, with the piano echoing them, then beam us back to a film-noirish earth. We arrive in an Edward Hopper painting in the wee small hours of a sleepy Gotham. A morose Frank Sinatra, his girl having ditched him, sits at the other end of the bar with his only-the-lonely drink. Journey's middle section gets more animated and inventive but the mood lingers just as hauntingly. There's a great piano riff that suggests a startled cockroach scampering across the floor. Despite the eerie elements, the work overall keeps to a mood of wistful reverie. The scale is at once intimate and infinite.

Gernot Wolfgang knows what he's doing. (Even if I may be off base in my response.) Theremin's Journey is mixture of old electronics, new media and traditional piano with more than enough incident to transcend its vernacular idiom into something very cool, clever, and seductive.

And you don't even need a vaccination against modern music pretensions before listening to it.


Note from publisher: Gernot Wolfgang kindly supplied the program notes from his concert which were posted below as an addendum to the review above on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.

THEREMIN’S JOURNEY (for piano, Theremin and electronica) by Gernot Wolfgang

Program notes from the concert:

Theremin’s Journey was commissioned by Joanne Pearce Martin and generously underwritten by Rich and Luci Janssen of Santa Barbara, CA.

The Theremin and the piano are performed live, while the electronica parts are prerecorded. The inspiration for the title came from 2 sources. Theremin’s Journey is the name of the sample patch (from a virtual instrument called Atmosphere) which I used while composing the piece. But the layout of the piece itself also suggests a journey the theremin undertakes.

One of the great things about traveling is that - ideally - we undergo a transformation of sorts. By seeing new places, and by meeting people from cultures and backgrounds other than our own, our perspective changes. When we come home we see the world somehow differently, and the big picture seems to be a little bit more apparent.

This is what the Theremin is experiencing in this piece. It starts out with the main theme, accompanied by an ambient electronica track inspired by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew period from the early 1970s. The Theremin returns to this musical environment two more times, but in between these sections life happens in form of the piano part.

The piano covers a wide range of emotions and mindsets here - from contemplative to frantic, from tentative to rock solid and uncompromising, from agreeable to contrarian. Its two extensive sections each start out with unaccompanied solo passages, which then slowly evolve into groove-oriented climaxes. From here on the piano slowly eases its way back to sonic environments familiar to the Theremin. Now the Theremin gets to reflect on what it has seen and heard. While the main theme is still recognizeable, it is now varied. The surrounding ambient tracks have also changed ever so slightly. A new perspective has been found.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Friday Phonograph

Happy 279th Birthday, "Papa" Haydn!

by Anne French

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn was born March 31, 1732, and we celebrate his birthday a day late (no April Fooling) on today's Friday Phonograph. Affectionately known as "Papa," Haydn lived until 1809, writing volumes of string quartets, piano trios, piano sonatas, symphonic works, folksong arrangements, and more. He was dubbed "the father of the symphony," was a teacher to Beethoven and friend to Mozart. I have chosen one of the most recognizable of his melodies, the second movement of his String Quartet in C major - "The Emperor" - so called because it was written for the birthday of Austrian Emperor Francis II. The stirring melody was later set to a variety of texts and remains a familiar hymn tune in many churches. In 1922 it was adopted as the German National Anthem, using the original text from 1841. Tragically the Nazis later exploited both the words and music, twisting the sound of music into the sound of evil for many. Post-war Germany stopped using it altogether as a national anthem, but it was reinstated in 1952 using only its inoffensive third stanza text. There is a wealth of information online concerning both the music and the text, but I think "Papa" would not want his music to be silenced by the forces of darkness. I hope you enjoy his wonderful piece, played here by the Kodaly Quartet, as we usher in a new weekend and a new April.