Minimalist Fest Celebrates Genre To Variable Max

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Cameron Carpenter congratulates Terry Riley at the world premiere of 'At the Royal  Majestic,' 2014 Minimalist Jukebox festival. (Bonnie Perkinson)
Organist Cameron Carpenter takes bow with Terry Riley at the premiere of Riley’s ‘At the Royal Majestic’ organ concerto.
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014 Minimalist Jukebox festival, Walt Disney Hall. (Bonnie Perkinson)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – As offbeat as things often are around Walt Disney Concert Hall, they got a lot more so as March careened into April. The Minimalist Jukebox – or Minimalist Jukebox 2.0, if you will – was at our throats again.

Kraftwerk sold out eight performances at Walt Disney Hall (www.Kraftwerk.com)
Kraftwerk sold out eight festival performances. (www.Kraftwerk.com)

The first Minimalist Jukebox festival back in 2006 played to half-full or two-thirds-full houses initially. But once word-of-mouth spread – especially from those who attended a midnight “rave” – new, mostly young audiences started turning up, resulting in nearly full houses by the end of the two-week festival. This time, the word got out fast for many of the early concerts – eight sold-out evenings with Kraftwerk in Disney Hall March 18-21, a nearly full house for a Jacaranda concert in Santa Monica April 5.

April 8’s “Maximum Minimalism” marathon, which lasted more than four hours from stem to stern, was almost sold out at least a week before the performance, albeit at popular Green Umbrella series prices well below those of regular Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts. As in 2006, the audience was predominantly young-looking and casually attired.

Minimalist Jukebox logo (LA Phil)
Minimalist Jukebox logo. The LA Phil fest is curated by John Adams.

As we entered the hall before concert time, the music was already playing – pianist Richard Valitutto stoically plowing through William Duckworth’s attractive Time Curve Preludes, seemingly oblivious to the inattention paid. There were two intermissions, but the music didn’t stop then either, for there were performances in the adjacent lecture hall, in one of the lobbies, and outdoors on the rooftop garden, where some of the musicians were standing in the shrubbery as they played James Tenney’s motionless In a Large, Open Space. People were smiling; you felt you were privy to a special event.

Flutist Claire Chase triumphed in Steve Reich's "Vermont Counterpoint.'
Flutist Claire Chase triumphed in Reich’s ‘Vermont Counterpoint.’

Inside the main hall, the marathon was front-loaded with some first-rate artifacts from minimalist history. Steve Reich’s wonderfully multi-layered Vermont Counterpoint was played from the organ loft with terrific flair by flutist and International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) founder Claire Chase, and his Different Trains, part nostalgic travelogue, part World War II horror show, was in the absorbing raw-boned hands of the Calder Quartet. Julius Eastman’s Stay On It brought marvelously exuberant humor and madness to one nagging little tune in which four singers and Christopher Rountree’s wild Up ensemble did as the title commands.

The middle portion of the evening, though, wasn’t so hot. Reich’s recent Radio Rewrite, with its infusion of material by the rock group Radiohead  into Reich’s late style, was a further indication, alas, that this once endlessly inventive composer is running out of fresh ideas. It’s just more of the same, shifting predictably from one panel to another. David Lang’s  song cycle death speaks was simple, plaintive, toneless, and downcast from beginning to end, similar to the mood of “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” the last song in Schubert’s Winterreise, but the comparisons should end there.

Grey's 'Awake the Machine Electric' was conducted by Adams.
Grey’s ‘Awake the Machine Electric’ was conducted by Adams.

John Adams – as in 2006, the Minimalist Jukebox curator – took over the third portion as conductor of two world premieres by younger colleagues. He led the LA Phil New Music Group in Awake the Machine Electric by sound designer Mark Grey, and he must have been delighted with Grey’s chugging engines, fantastic retro-electronic flourishes, and sense of humor, heavily influenced by Adams’ example. Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (For Orbiting Spheres) broke out into a set of melodies and feline glides before meandering inconclusively.

Adams had a chance to hear music by his younger self.
Vintage Adams of the ‘American Standard’ era. (Arch LP jacket)

Finally, Adams sat back and heard – for the first time since 1974, he said – a complete performance of a piece from his “radical Haight-Ashbury” period called American Standard (yes, the name of a toilet manufacturer). Of the three movements, only the second, “Christian Zeal and Activity” (minus the taped voice of a preacher here), has been heard since Adams rose to fame.

The first movement, a thumping set of musical collisions called “John Philip Sousa,” is pure Ivesian mischief; the main attraction of the third, “Sentimentals,” is Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” weaving itself into the fabric. Obviously, the 26-year-old Adams had not found his voice yet, other than one of mockery that would serve him often and well later.

Someone is going to have to find another word besides minimalism for the LA Phil’s April 11 subscription concert, which Adams piloted throughout. All three densely-scored pieces on the program found an army of musicians cramming every available space on the Disney Hall risers, with acres of percussion in the back and dotted with reinforcing electronic instruments. This was the real Maximum Minimalism, a contradiction in terms – and, as it turned out, no guarantee of maximum satisfaction.

Bang On A Can co-founder Michael Gordon’s Sunshine of Your Love – whose title is a cop on a 1968 hit song by the rock trio Cream  – received a deafening U.S. premiere, with the orchestra squealing, screaming, and roaring at the top of its collective voice for nearly ten interminable minutes. The thing is a frontal assault signifying nothing, everyone blowing and bowing as hard as they can in four different tunings with neither a whiff of contrast nor any of the musicality of its rock ‘n’ roll inspiration. The audience seemed to dig it with passive acceptance, but it gave me a headache after approximately ten seconds.

Organist Cameron Carpenter prepares Riley's "At the Royal Majestic."
Cameron Carpenter put his take on Riley’s “Royal Majestic.”

Terry Riley has been canonized as the chemist who set off the big bang of minimalism 50 years ago with In C, which received a splendidly funky four-hour performance outdoors at Westwood’s Hammer Museum on April 12, accompanied by inflatable figures dancing in the breeze. But Riley has long since moved off that platform into myriad other experiments and journeys. At Disney Hall on April 11, we heard the world premiere of his latest, a full-scale organ concerto, At The Royal Majestic, written specifically for the iconoclastic Disney Hall pipe organ Riley whimsically named “Hurricane Mama” after composing some envelope-pushing solo pieces for it a few seasons ago.

It looked promising – an individualistic composer not tied to conventional organ voicings, and an unconventional young performer (Cameron Carpenter) with limitless technique and an imagination of his own to play it. And it opened promisingly, with a flamboyant organ solo in carousel-like 3/4 time.

What ultimately emerged was a rambling, somewhat overweight, three-movement, 36-minute extravaganza for huge orchestra and voluminous percussion collection, with the organ soon submerged within the thickly orchestrated underbrush. Now and then, some revolving figurations had the signature of the trippy Riley of A Rainbow in Curved Air, yet much of the time, it would have been hard to identify the composer of this piece without a program. The best parts upon first hearing were some jazzy riffs and a few saucy tunes for two bass clarinets in the first movement, and a striking closing where the organ was allowed to rise in something resembling its full majesty, followed by a quiet, spare cadenza on a held-out drone that faded ever so gradually.

Adams led one of his most admired works, 'Naive and Sentimental Music.'
Adams conducted his ‘Naive and Sentimental Music.’ (Bonnie Perkinson)

As a finishing touch, Adams revisited his own grand mid-career summing-up piece, Naive and Sentimental Music, a symphony in all but name that could exploit the resources of an orchestra more cunningly and lucidly than anything else on the program. The finale’s racing engines set against each other generated a terrific amount of drive in the composer’s animated hands, revealed in staggeringly clear detail in this hall.

The main point of these concerts, I think, was to demonstrate the amazingly wide ranges of emotion, mood, language, and scale that minimalism is capable of handling. No longer can the pundits accuse it of being too limited a genre. As Adams says on the festival brochure, minimalism has “enabled composers to once again think big thoughts” – which indeed they did, for better and worse.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.

Editor’s Note: Sadness manifested itself at a rehearsal for this festival’s penultimate concert when, on April 14, Jeffrey Dinsmore, a key soloist from The Crossing, a Philadelphia-based choral ensemble, passed away. We extend our sympathies to his family and friends. For details, click here.

John Adams conducts Terry Riley's 'At the Royal Majestic' with the LA Phil featuring organist Cameron Carter (Bonnie Peterson)
John Adams conducts Riley’s ‘At the Royal Majestic’ with the LA Phil and organist Cameron Carpenter. (Bonnie Perkinson)