Friday, February 25, 2022

The New Music Conundrum, Toppled for One Night


The Debussy Trio plays Davis/Babcock/Wolfgang/Mason/Broughton/Krouse, Mason Home Concerts, Mar Vista

In college, I once saw Elvis Costello and the Attractions booed off a Berkeley stage for playing songs from an unreleased album instead of the familiar ones the audience was pining for. Costello was plainly enraged at the response. The mutual revulsion that suddenly flashed between audience and performer created a strange energy in that auditorium that I’ve never forgotten in the four decades since.

Classical music audiences tend not to boo, stomp their feet, or throw things if they don’t like a new piece of music, while classical performers don’t usually sneer at audiences whose attention has drifted away during the work. But both performers and audiences have experienced that strange, hostile energy when the latter feel they’re being made to endure new music premieres that don’t engage them, and when performers present music they believe in but the audience doesn’t.

Audience reticence is a problem for the contemporary, living composer. But hit-and-miss programming choices contribute to that reticence, a condition that effectively blocks all but the best-hyped concert-hall composers from gaining a foothold with audiences.

On one unseasonably warm February night in West LA, however, the Debussy Trio dissolved that Gordian knot as if it were silk and presented a concert of six compositions by living composers—Don Davis, Bruce Babcock, Gernot Wolfgang, Todd Mason, Bruce Broughton and Ian Krouse—that left the audience wanting more. It shouldn’t be such a rare experience for new classical music to sound fresh and emotionally relevant, but every piece delivered inspiration and joy. Without letup, the concert engaged the senses with music that etched vivid scenes in the mind’s eye, sometimes at a meditative pace, and other times with a rocking pulse.

Each piece was, obviously, commissioned for this group’s instrumentation of flute, harp, and viola—a line-up that first appeared a little over a century ago in works by Dubois, Debussy, and Bax—but while the ensemble sound was a broadly unifying factor, it was striking how varied the concert experience was, and what a journey it enabled.

The Debussy Trio: David Walther, viola; Marcia Dickstein, harp; Angela Weigand, flute.

Much credit goes to the celebrated Debussy Trio, for their energy, charisma and precision, their manifest knowledge of and love for these pieces, and their alchemical talent in rendering such a wide range of sounds from just these three instruments. Harpist Marcia Dickstein, flautist Angela Weigand, and violist David Walther each gave us spot-lit moments of virtuosity and brilliance, but their shape-shifting ensemble playing was what captivated me the most. In this concert, you were constantly questing, constantly rounding another corner or reaching a new overlook.

Credit also goes to Mason House, an ideal setting for music with this blend of sounds and silences. The Debussy Trio play with such charm and conviction that they could captivate in any venue (even the Super Bowl halftime show!), but it was a rich privilege to hear them in such an intimate, empathetic concert space. Certainly awareness that four of the six composers were in attendance boosted the sense of a shared special moment, but ultimately it was their musical statements that lifted the audience, and sent us buzzing into the patio afterwards for chili, margaritas and animated conversations.

The ideas driving each piece seemed intimately connected to one element or another of the familiar world. At times I heard sounds that evoked the ocean, the desert, the sounds and feelings of Los Angeles, and the world of TV and movies where some of these composers have worked. Mason’s A Day at Toroweap specifically evoked a lookout point at Grand Canyon National Park, and included a slide show of canyon and river images. But really all six works brought vivid images to mind, whether from cinema or from our own memories.

Here is the set list and a little background on each composer:

Don Davis, False Conclusions (2019). Davis is a UCLA graduate, a composer and conductor for film, TV and concert halls, best known for his work on The Matrix trilogy, who has won multiple Prime Time Emmy nominations and one award for music in shows like seaQuest DSV and Beauty and the Beast. Davis’ political opera, Río de Sangre, premiered at the Florentine Opera Company on October 22, 2010 after excerpts were performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the New York City Opera. False Conclusions set the mood for the concert in its first few measures, which evoked a timeless vision of awakening in the desert, feeling the sun, hearing birds and other creatures and rising to experience the world anew.

Bruce Babcock, Springscape (2006). Babcock, a Cal State Northridge-educated composer, conductor and orchestrator, won an Emmy for his score on Matlock and nominations for Father Dowling Mysteries and Murder, She Wrote. He has had an active career writing works for concert performance, including pieces performed at Carnegie Hall, Schoenberg Hall, Royce Hall and the Santa Barbara Chamber Music Festival. His choral work, All Unto Me, composed for and inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was performed at All Saints Church, Pasadena, with Archbishop Tutu in attendance. Springscape also evoked a sense of awakening, with its bell-like opening and its constant sense of movement and metamorphosis, with Dickstein’s harp launching us forward into what felt like a morning promenade, a scene full of energetic life.

Gernot Wolfgang, Eyes Wide Open (2016). Wolfgang was educated at USC, Berklee College of Music and the University of Music in Graz, Austria. He was nominated for a classical music Grammy for his 2016 album "Passing Through", and has received more than 40 from individuals and organizations like the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the Jazz Festival of the European Broadcasting Union. Eyes Wide Open was also a bit cinematic, with the Kubrickian nod in its title and hints of Hitchcockian mystery. But this piece was really a showcase for Dickstein and the many ways the harp can tell stories and paint images.

Todd Mason, A Day at Toroweap (2020). Mason is the proprietor of the eponymous Mason House and impresario for this series of West LA house concerts. He studied at Juilliard under Elliot Carter, where he received numerous awards including the ASCAP Young Composers Award. The Juilliard Orchestra, the Sofia Philharmonic, the Lyris Quartet, the Angeles Quartet, the Argus Quartet and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra have played his music. Toroweap is the name of a cherished lookout in Grand Canyon—the only one from which one can see all the way to the Colorado River running through the canyon. Mason’s piece gave audiences yet another take on the idea and feeling of awakening; in this case awakening to a place of splendor and scale, a place for which one’s eyes can’t be open enough. Mason’s writing for harp in this piece was stunning.

Bruce Broughton, Trio (2019). Broughton has composed dozens of pieces of chamber music, orchestral music and music for wind ensemble. He has numerous film and TV scoring credits including the films Silverado, Tombstone, the John Hughes remake of Miracle on 34th Street, the Homeward Bound series and The Presidio among many credits; and wrote music for episodes of TV shows ranging from Gunsmoke, the original Hawaii Five-O, Dallas, Quincy M.E., Tiny Toon Adventures, the Emmy-winning theme for JAG, and the Emmy-nominated score for The Blue and the Grey among many credits. Dickstein explained that Broughton’s piece had been commissioned by her mother to commemorate her father’s death. If the first four pieces were mostly about an individual experience of the world, Trio felt more like a heightened conversation, with the viola, flute and harp embodying the voices of memory, swapping stories with fascinating details about a life well lived.

Ian Krouse, Tri Chairde (1993). Krouse is recognized internationally as one of the leading composers of classical guitar music, having pioneered development of the guitar quartet. His most important work is the Armenian Requiem, based on the traditional Armenian requiem liturgy, scored for four vocal soloists, string quartet, organ, Armenian instruments, children’s chorus, choir, and orchestra. It was commissioned by the Lark Musical Society to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and received its premiere at Royce Hall in 2015. Like most of this program, Tri Chairde had cinematic qualities, with flautist evoking innocent eyes exploring a new world. Eventually the focus shifted to a prayerful harp solo with a more Celtic feeling, and then to the violist playing a rough-hewn passage full of double-stops and other fiddler techniques, resolving into what felt like Irish dance music.

I left the concert feeling well cared for, my soul nurtured by all the good new, unheard music. I was in awe of each composition’s power to make me feel and see the world through the composer’s eyes and ears. Clearly, these contemporary composers have no better friends than the Debussy Trio.


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6 p.m., Saturday, February 12, 2022.
Images: The performers: Todd Mason; The composers: composer websites.

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