Saturday, September 1, 2012

HEAR NOW Music Festival in Venice, California

Review by Rodney Punt

Composers of serious music face limited performance prospects. It’s an old story, but a host of L.A.’s finest composers and musicians are writing it a happy ending. “It’s about revelation, making seen and heard what has been hidden”, said Hugh Levick, Artistic Director of HEAR NOW, A Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers. He was speaking last weekend to a large audience as the second season of the festival commenced at The First Lutheran Church of Venice.

The key to this effort is that all its represented composers are living and reside in L.A. The festival's musicians are also local. This year they included the Lyris Quartet and members of Piano Spheres, Jacaranda’s ensembles, USC’s Thornton School of Music, the Long Beach Opera, and a scattering of L.A.’s virtuoso wind and string players.
To ensure high standards, a jury of peers selected the festival’s pieces, limited to one per composer. A side benefit of this format is that works which might not fit conceptual frameworks of traditional impresarios can be included here. No one could accuse the festival’s jury of age discrimination; the youngest composer, Phillip Golub, is still a teenager and the oldest, William Kraft, is rounding out his ninth decade. Two works received world premieres: Golub’s Orange Windows and Levick’s Code V.
Adjustments were made to last year’s inaugural format, which, as sincere an effort as it was, aired too many works of similar string sonorities. This year had a better mix; of the fifteen works on the program, eleven featured at least one stringed instrument, seven piano, six woodwinds, two percussion (other than piano), and one each voice and electronics. All the works last year were performed on a single day in two long concerts. This year's works were more smartly spaced, eight on Saturday and seven on Sunday. If the two concerts still ran a tad long, the audience showed patience in the face of quality.

The festival's focus was not on sound effects, aural tricks or conceptual puzzles, as interesting as those aspects of contemporary music can be in other settings. With one exception, the works’ modern aesthetics all employed traditional instruments, whether Western, Eastern or folk in origin. The advanced techniques of the elite musicians ensured strong advocacies for the works they performed.

The mission-style church’s high-beamed sanctuary facilitated musical clarity with its rich acoustic and low reverberation. However, the weekend’s hot weather inhibited airflow in the fully occupied space, requiring street-side windows to be opened during both concerts. The resulting traffic noise and frequent sirens from nearby Venice Boulevard added an unwanted obbligato to virtually every piece, some painfully so. Fortunately, and tellingly, listeners ignored those distractions.

Three featured string quartets under the stewardship of the Lyris Quartet expanded the boundaries of that venerable genre. The delicately tinged Wandering of Don Davis began with introspective close harmonies and legato dissonances in various registers and proceeded through episodic moods from placid to intense. An ascending melody on the cello yielded to a melismatic rhapsody by the first violin. African drummer Kwasi Badu’s rhythmic virtuosity informed Burton Goldstein’s String Quartet 2. Its aggressive, polyrhythmic angularity had musical shards seeming to fall from on high in many-speeded, astringent but tender cascades. The last line of Dante’s Paradiso inspired Veronika Krausas’s Il Sole e Altre Stelle (The sun and the other stars), dedicated to the memory of a pianist friend. Elegiac string whispers seemed like cries from afar. Aching dissonances, and later pizzicati with sustained cello and viola throbs, suggested a heavenly resurrection or at least an earthly accommodation.

The Lyris caressed all the delicacies of the three quartets with equal parts sensitivity and snap. A sweet-toned Alyssa Park (one month past giving birth to her first child) made the utmost of her searching violin solos in the Davis work.

Another standout violinist, Sarah Thornblade, gave a seraphic performance of the festival’s only non-piano solo, Vera Ivanova’s Quiet Light, which emulates the soft, incense-laden beams of a Russian Orthodox Church as they stream onto wall frescos. The work explored several registers of the violin as it simulated a church filling with luminescence.
The one work with non-acoustic sounds was Jason Heath’s Rain Ceremony. Alma Fernandez’s feverish viola provided the aural fodder for Heath himself on electronics. The ritualistic piece summons rain, and with it the uncontrollable forces of both procreation and destruction, depicted in what Heath describes as “the delayed playback of live sounds, … dynamic filters and samples controlled in real time by the intensity of the performer.” It proved both evocative and effective in its intended scenario.
The festival’s two works for solo piano could not have been more dissimilar. British-born (but frequent local visitor) Thomas Adès contributed his Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face. Based on his eponymous opera, it follows the tradition of Liszt’s pianistic extravaganzas. The work’s four stitched excerpts depicted the flirty thoughts and flitting scandals of a real life Duchess of Argyll. Sounding like an impressionistic nightmare, its impulse to waltz was constantly interrupted by willful counter-rhythms. Pianist Mark Robson gave the fiendishly difficult score a bracing performance, but the work betrayed its cut-and-paste origins with its greater dose of atmospherics than structure.
By contrast, Gernot Wolfgang’s short Still Waters recalls an old adage: to gain attention, speak softly. The exquisite work depicts a barely interrupted still lake. A two-note motif of complex but soft chords floats in ever changing harmonics. Impressionistic and atonal, the work suggests the expanding ripples by the frisson of its chords. Pianist Gloria Cheng imbued the lovely work with a Zen-like calm.
Whenever the woodwinds appeared in starring roles, the audience could expect healthy doses of both excitement and humor. Damian Montano’s three-movement Wind, a bubbling trio for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon had some of the insouciance of the last century’s French wind music, with the first movement’s playful angularity giving way to a melancholic reverie, followed by a dance-like finale. Judith Farmer’s bassoon had a particularly impressive workout with Stuart Clark’s clarinet and Leslie Reed’s oboe.
Eric Guinivan’s Autumn Dances moved the action east to a Japanese country setting, in an active but pleasing dialogue between Heather Clark’s flute (as stand-in-in for the wooden Shakuhachi) and the percussive sounds of M. C. Gordy’s pitched singing bowls, wooden planks, and piccolo woodblocks. Brett Banducci’s Basque Suites paired another flute, this time with cello. The title refers neither to Basques nor suites but to a series of abstract expressionist paintings by Robert Motherwell. Vliek-Martchev’s virtuoso gyrations travelled from legato to frenetic, darting in short, stabbing bursts like an animal escaping danger, while Timothy Loo’s cello scampered up and plunged down his registers in furious chase.
Five larger ensembles for mixed instrumental families provided the festival with additive layers of color and complexity. First came two traditional configurations: a piano quintet and a piano trio. Then followed three works for “Pierrot ensemble”, consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The term refers to Arnold Schoenberg’s first use of the grouping in his iconic work of exactly a century ago.

The piano quintet Orange Windows by 18-year-old Phillip Golub, received its world premiere in a committed performance by Vicki Ray and the Lyris Quartet. It’s a big-boned, two-movement torso of what the composer hopes to finish in the future. A furioso opening yields to a slower statement with variations and some nice pizzicati effects. The work’s name derives from a friend’s poem, the peculiar imagery of which attracted the composer.

Donald Crockett’s piano trio, Night Scenes, was homage to the cinema in four vignettes. Rapid passagework and noisy chords were sent to “Scatter the Barbarians”, relieved by lyrical solos in “The Blue Guitar”, first Ira Glansbeek’s wistful cello, then Shalini Vijayan’s pensive violin. Joanne Pearce Martin‘s piano ruffles signaled all to join in simultaneously. An ostinato heralded a jazzy-cool “Midnight Train” with the violin and cello singing “the song of the riders…” in a two-note motif as open strings suggested a train whistle. The finale’s impressionistic atmosphere evoked Edward Hopper’s “Night Hawks”, with its lonely figures in a diner. The violin and cello sang in harmonious octaves, but a sudden agitato suggested a lover’s quarrel.

Hugh Levick’s Code V, in its world premiere, had elements of both rondo (recurring theme or “identity”) and fugue (sharing that theme with another identity). The work “develops and works out a musical ‘DNA’ code for each of the five players”, as the composer described, but each code was “transferred and inhabited by all the different members of the ensemble.” This made for a complex agenda. As the intense interaction of these two dimensions unfolded, the moods of the various identities shifted from “despair to insouciance.” Intellectual formalism provided the roadmap for the work’s dense textures as they worked their way to a resolution from “no way out”, as Levick channeled Bach’s mental energies and Hindemith’s angularities. “The composition has to deal with and come to terms with itself", he stated, "just as we human beings have to deal with and come to terms with the shape-shifting givens with which life confronts us.” On the level of coming to terms with itself, Code V completed the mission it set out to do. It also added up to a lot of absorbed work for the five performers: Aron Kallay, perhaps Los Angeles’ most versatile keyboardist, on piano; Sara Andon, flute/piccolo; Eric Jacobs, clarinet/bass clarinet; Andrew Bulbrook, violin; and 
Ira Glansbeek, cello. 
Stephen Cohn’s Sea Change was characterized by its ever-forward thrust. The flute protagonist entered furtively, almost like a butterfly into a garden, but was soon caught in a lively scamper with the other instruments through various harmonies. When that initial energy wore itself down, a slower section with clarinet and cello in unison relaxed the pace, as if in a meadow where the flute could linger as clarinet trills caressed the moment. Soon the faster motif returned with more incidents until a furious unison chase had everyone running at top speed in 11/8 time to the end. Sara Andon’s flute took the lead, with Vicki Ray on piano, Eric Jacobs the clarinet, Grace Oh on violin, and Ira Glansbeek at cello. The carefully worked out piece pays dividends with the multiple hearings, as this writer has experienced. On this occasion, the performers took it slightly slower than a previous group, at a tempo perfect for the richer acoustics of this building, and thereby harnessed the natural energy from within rather than forcing it upon the piece. It was a standout work and performance.

Bill Kraft, the Grand Young Man of L.A.’s music scene, was granted the festival’s final word with his Settings from Pierrot Lunaire. The instrumental ensemble with soprano voice was the festival’s only vocal work. Arnold Schoenberg’s path-finding work of 1912 had used only 21 of 50 hallucinogenic poems by the Belgian Symbolist Albert Giraud. As homage seventy-five years later, USC’s Schoenberg Institute commissioned prominent composers to set others. Kraft chose four (“Feerie”, “Mein Bruder”, “Harlequinnade”, “Selbstmord”) as appropriate to his favored Impressionist musical style, deftly inflecting them with serial and atonal accents. His four vocal nocturnes, connected by instrumental interludes, emphasized colors and imagery over the grotesqueries of the original work.
Suzan Hanson's limpid soprano amplified and edified every nook of the sonorous church with expressionistic reveries, employing an occasional vocal glissandi in the manner of the original work’s characteristic Sprechstimme. She was magical. Conducted by Elizabeth Wright, the ensemble (Joanne Pearce Martin, piano; Sara Andon, flute/piccolo; Stuart Clark, clarinet/bass clarinet; Robert Brophy, violin/viola; Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, cello; Ted Atkatz, percussion) rendered the masterful orchestration stylishly, with its spooky strings, jumpy piano and fluttering flute all spiked by inventive percussive effects. Kraft, once the LA Phil’s timpanist, made the percussion an ensemble unto itself: Vibraphone, vibraslap, Glockenspiel, snare drum, bass drum, tom-toms, tam-tam, bongos, sleigh bells and crotales. The unflappable Ted Atkatz handled the battery with aplomb.

Floating freely between determinacy and indeterminacy in dream-like regions, Kraft's nocturnally inspired Settings from Pierrot Lunaire brought a very successful HEAR NOW Music Festival gently into last Sunday’s dark night.


Photo by Bonnie Perkinson used by permission of HEAR NOW, A Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers, Hugh Levick, Artistic Director.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Thank you Rodney! It's a wonderful overview of an event that would challenging for anyone to describe.