All Day, All Night: New Music Fills LA’s Disney Hall
By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES — “Welcome to the party!” shouted Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence String Quartet – and he was right. For twelve hours on Oct. 1, Walt Disney Concert Hall was the scene of a Los Angeles Philharmonic-presented new music jamboree called “From Noon to Midnight” that joyously managed to bring together a good-sized chunk of the city’s new music scene.
It’s been done before here, as those who remember the freewheeling CalArts Contemporary Music Festivals of 35 years ago or the one-off 1985 New Music America festival can attest. Things have changed considerably since. Los Angeles is more spread out, more traffic-choked, more fragmented than ever. But now, the LA Phil sees itself as something of a unifying entity, with its future-world multi-platform home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, as an irresistible lure that wasn’t there decades ago.
There were some survivors of those historic festivals at Disney Hall, but they were outnumbered by the hordes of young people who flocked downtown for this. Audience members were drawn in by the plethora of new music groups and concert series, many of which have sprouted in only the last few years. You also cannot dismiss the effect of the low cost of admission – $15 for a ticket to the first six and a half hours of music in the afternoon (the evening concert cost more). Food trucks were parked on Grand Avenue to supplement the Concert Hall Café indoors, and there was free ice cream on the rooftop garden. The energy level from all that youth electrified the air. It may seem counter-intuitive to most presenters, but if they really want to attract younger audiences, new music may be the way to go.
Several LA-based groups were represented, from the granddaddy of them all, Monday Evening Concerts – active since the 1930s – to youthful bands like wild Up, wasteLAnd, gnarwhallaby, and only one out-of-town group, the St. Lawrence, which happened to be playing with the LA Phil that weekend. There were twelve world premieres – most of them LA Phil commissions – from composers aged 17 to 74, along with a limited supply of contemporary music classics from the 20th century.
No one could experience it all since many of the afternoon events overlapped, but one thing that you couldn’t avoid was Nimbus, an installation from Yuval Sharon’s trend-setting outfit The Industry that greeted visitors arriving from the parking garage. Big, puffy simulated storm clouds were suspended over the escalators; music from a brooding score by Rand Steiger was punctuated by marchers ringing handbells as they slowly paraded up and down.
Outdoors on the roof, the Keck Amphitheater was the setting for an ultra-rare performance of Messiaen’s exhaustive homage to ornithology, Catalogue d’oiseaux, as performed by a tag team of thirteen pianists under the umbrella of LA’s new piano music series, Piano Spheres. I could catch only four of the thirteen sections before moving on to another event, taking in renditions ranging from Liam Viney’s brusque energy in “Le Chocard des Alpes” to Vicki Ray’s delicacy in “Le Loriot.” I half expected that some real birds would chirp their two cents worth from the trees overlooking the space, but none materialized.
The St. Lawrence set within Disney Hall was devoted to the Adams dynasty – father John, who presided over the whole new music circus in a casual blue-plaid shirt, and son Samuel. Sam Adams’ String Quartet in Five Movements was as lyrical, unpredictable, and ultimately fragmented as the excerpts from the senior Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances were inventively popping, quirky, and cogent. There was humor also from Veronika Krausas’ Porcupine, whose muffled rustling and grumbling sounds were performed by the LA Phil Double Bass Quintet from within a white tent in BP Hall (usually used for lectures).
The afternoon was loaded with percussion ensembles, a sure-fire way to grab the attention of young audiences. The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet held forth in BP Hall for two sets, one containing LA Phil principal timpanist Joseph Pereira’s dynamically contrasting Mallet Quartet, the other featuring the world premiere of Jeffrey Holmes’ alternately delicate and stomping Ur, Ellen Reid’s crystalline Fear/Release, and Daníel Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis, whose highly dramatic, surround-sound clangor seemed to mirror his native Iceland’s turbulent geology.
Santa Monica’s progressive concert series Jacaranda moved in with its own high-profile world premiere from the ubiquitous David Lang, a modest piece called sleeper’s prayer with boy soprano Grant Anderson intoning over a fairly attractive circular pipe organ riff. Alternately led by Mark Alan Hilt and Donald Crockett, Jacaranda’s resident ensemble also performed part of Hans Abrahamsen’s quietly moody Schnee (Snow) and a performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines in which the rhythm didn’t quite take hold fully.
The evening concert was an LA Phil Green Umbrella presentation with John Adams now taking the baton – and the promised four world premieres delivered astonishingly stimulating new sonorities and proof that composers are increasingly returning to the once-common practice of doubling as performers. Andrew Moses served as the pliable clarinet soloist in his own striking at a gray sky floating between the dirt, using dog-whistle pitches, multiphonics, sustained free-form, and a terrifying passage for wordless voices – and I nearly forgot to mention that he’s only 17. Over splashes of sonic beauty, Kate Soper sang and recited various slogans, aphorisms, and Wallace Stevens’ poem The Ultimate Poem is Abstract (also the name of her piece); her singing was lovely and her writing no less so.
Mario Diaz de Leon’s Lightmass for five brass instruments and synthesizer was a three-movement stunner. The synthesizer imitated and complemented some grand, depth-charged symphonic brass work, with blasts of pink noise punched impressively into the picture in the third movement. The 74-year-old Ingram Marshall’s Flow was a piano mini-concerto (with Timo Andres as soloist) that flowed from mid-20th century Americana to a Balinese duet for piano and synthesizer and other strange places. A sole U.S. premiere, Òscar Colomina i Bosch’s solo violin cadenza Shpigl – whose most notable feature was that the skilled soloist, Marley Erickson, is all of 13 – filled out the set.
The night was getting long at 10 p.m., but there was even more on the way as Christopher Rountree’s wild Up ensemble raced through the world premiere of Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a dizzying moto perpetuo for 13 strings (pausing to quote Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”) and a manic solo part for star violinist Jennifer Koh. Then came Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling into the Wind, another piano mini-concerto that yelled only in one mighty crescendo, and the first performance of Clara Iannotta’s burbling, grinding Troglodyte Angels Clank By. John Adams’ little-known Scratchband, one of his trickster pieces that successfully subjects rock instruments to the rigor of his Chamber Symphony and actually gets a little funky near the end, closed that set.
There was still more to be heard outside on the sidewalk as members of the audience still standing were given crotales to bang against each other in Lucky Dragons’ every noun until any now (another world premiere) as the clock neared midnight. It was a rare, touching demonstration of community in a city that is notorious for lacking a sense of community.
Yet if I had to pick the single greatest performance of the festival, it would be Pereira leading the USC Percussion Ensemble in a dynamic, shattering rendition of the oldest piece of the day by far, George Antheil’s 1924 Ballet Mécanique – best I’ve ever heard live or on records. The loony, abstract, original Léger silent film that accompanied the performance may have looked dated, but the noisy, flame-throwing score (presumably the shortened 1953 revision) – performed with four grand pianos, a full percussion section complete with Antheil’s airplane propeller via laptop – sounded every bit as contemporary and confrontational as anything heard over the span of this festival. So maybe there isn’t all that much that is really new?
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor of Classical Voice North America.Date posted: October 5, 2016