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:
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.