HEAR NOW festival

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

If it didn’t happen in New York, it didn’t happen – so some of our East Coast brethren seem to say. Indeed, they still trot out the epithet “Hollywood” to dismiss and denigrate a lot of things that come from here. To this day, much interesting musicmaking From Out Of The West goes not only under the national radar, but locally as well as publishing outlets become fewer and fewer, and blogs like this one try to fill in some of the gaps.

Well, here’s one gap that’s about to be filled.  A new annual music festival called HEAR NOW started up last summer, purporting to showcase the music of the city’s plethora of composers. The Los Angeles area hasn’t hosted an annual concentrated new music festival since the now-semi-legendary CalArts Contemporary Music Festivals of the early 1980s – and those often revolved around out-of-town luminaries – so there is plenty of room in which to run.

William Kraft and Suzan Hanson share a funny anecdote during rehearsals for a performance of Kraft’s Settings For Pierrot Lunaire at the HEAR NOW festival. (c) Bonnie Perkinson

A set of CD-Rs of the entire 2011 inaugural two-concert event was sent to me by the festival’s artistic director Hugh Levick, and they revealed a very high level of performance.  That’s because HEAR NOW is combing the rosters of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the deep talent pool of the film and recording studios for its players – which ought to be self-recommending in itself.

So I ventured out to the First Lutheran Church in Venice not too far from the beach on a late Sunday afternoon Aug. 26 for the second of HEAR NOW’s two concerts (I was unable to attend the first concert due to a schedule conflict with the world premiere of Donald Crockett’s opera The Face in Little Tokyo downtown, the result of the lack of advance coordination among the far-flung pockets of new music in this massive metropolis). It’s a small church, yet acoustically adequate with ample reverberation above the stage. The hard wooden pews were packed, a good psychological boost for a fledgling festival. Again, the performances were technically top-notch,  often reaching deep into the music for that something extra, although the church’s open windows allowed several passing sirens to become temporary markings in the scores .

As in 2011, the program was anchored by music from the dean of West Coast composers, William Kraft, who turns 89 on Sep. 6 and remains a spry, vital figure with a flair for a wicked anecdote. We heard his Settings For Pierrot Lunaire, an homage to Schoenberg’s surreal ground-breaker (now a century old and still radiating the shock of the new) that is upholstered in Kraft’s own timbral language and his sense of sustained anticipation. Dramatic soprano Suzan Hanson threw herself into the vocal line, creepy sprechstimme and all, and the ensemble generated a lot of intensity in the instrumental interludes.

Of the other pieces on Sunday’s program, Stephen Cohn’s Sea Changes for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano (a “Pierrot” ensemble by luck or design) made the biggest impression. The lyrical sections had attractive, pertinent things to say; the driving sections had substance and accent-driven momentum that roared headlong toward the finish line.  Another ear-enticing piece was Jason Heath’s Rain Ceremony, where the composer’s bubbling, liquid laptop electronics reacted to scratches and tremelos from Alma Fernandez’s viola, culminating in a sampled thunderstorm.

Levick’s own Code V was written for the same instrumental lineup as Cohn’s (with doublings on piccolo and bass clarinet), yet the two pieces could not have been more dissimilar – Code V’s language was more rigorous for the ear, the textures more diffuse. The atonal thrusts and parries of Brett Banducci’s brief Basque Suites (a painting, not the region or musical form) I could take or leave.

There was mourning from Veronika Krausas in the high, bleak harmonics and soft-focused pizzicatos of Il Sole e Altre Stelle for string quartet, which is based on the letters in the first name of Eugenie Ngai (a Canadian pianist who died young of pancreatic cancer). And there was all-American lyrical yearning, sweetness and rolling animation in Crockett’s Night Scenes, allegedly inspired by imaginary images from the cinema.

A diverse display of new music it was, spanning nearly four generations of living Los Angeles composers and a cross-section of idioms. I wish HEAR NOW all the luck in the world in planting its feet into the ground and growing.