By Richard S. Ginell
VENICE, Calif. — Los Angeles has long needed an annual showcase for the plethora of composers who live and work here, and it looks as if the HEAR NOW Festival, now in year five, is assuming that role with greater authority.
Founded by composer and artistic director Hugh Levick, the first festival took place in 2011, and it has managed to take root and grow into a three-day spring event on opposite sides of the sprawling region. The idea was to concentrate exclusively upon locally-based talent, which would take in recent transplants from elsewhere like Esa-Pekka Salonen — who has signed on as Honorary Artistic Advisor — or Thomas Adès.
Even in the beginning, the level of performance was quite high, which would figure since HEAR NOW taps into some powerful local musical resources: the film and recording studios, as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and other regional groups. Judging from an immersive HEAR NOW experience over the past weekend — a Saturday marathon stretching from 4 p.m. to nearly 10 p.m. (with a dinner break) and Sunday evening’s finale — the performance level remains high, and the variety of music on hand so diverse that it would be foolish to put a label on it.
Not only that, the astonishing range of the composers’ ages — from 15-year-old Andrew Moses to 94-year-old Walter Arlen! — might set some kind of record for a single event. For now, the festival still lands in the First Lutheran Church of Venice for the weekend concerts (the Friday night kickoff concert took place in the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena). It’s a smallish space with wooden pews that are predictably not easy on the rump, but the acoustics resonate deeply, reacting particularly well with lower strings and the voice.
The festival is also learning how to surmount unexpected emergencies with the-show-must-go-on aplomb. A Steinway grand piano’s back leg collapsed while it was being moved, leading to a 45-minute delay in Sunday’s concert; the piano was partially propped up by a metal sawhorse during the concert.
Also, a pianist suffered a fall that day and had to cancel, so the Lyris Quartet, whose members happened to be on hand, filled in the space by playing Thomas Parisch’s String Quartet No. 1 from new parts hurriedly printed out that afternoon. The quartet, which the Lyris had premiered weeks before, turned out to be a luscious gem, played with emotion. Not unexpectedly, the music on both ends of the age spectrum turned out to be different. Moses’ Distemper and Chalk on Canvas for clarinet and string quartet (a first performance) was a brief avant-garde adventure of furious improvs and tiny flutterings using modern extended techniques.
Arlen, an Austrian refugee from the Nazis who was an L.A. music critic for 30 years and didn’t have anything performed until his 88th year, wrote four of his Five Songs of Love and Yearning (1986) in a heart-rending language indelibly rooted in Mahler’s turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna yet thoroughly his own, as sung by soprano Jamie Chamberlin. (A YouTube video of the work is available, featuring different performers.)
William Kraft, the runner-up in age here (a mere 91) and still very much a potent force, contributed Kaleidoscope, a seven-and-a-half minute piece for sextet, written only last year, that reveled in beautiful, cunningly-mixed timbres and colors.
His Chinese-born wife, Joan Huang, was represented by her absorbing suite for double bass and piano, Four Madrigals of Li Bai, in which she asks that huge string instrument to imitate the pitch-bending qualities of Chinese music. And there was even a growling, virtuoso drunken episode for solo bass (played by Nico Abondolo).
The Lyris could also be heard in Jeffrey Parola’s Three Divertimenti for string quartet and bassoon, which spoke directly and light-heartedly to the audience, particularly when the bassoonist (Judith Farmer) played pensive legato tunes over string chatter. Yet another expert local foursome, the New Hollywood String Quartet, took off on selections from Gernot Wolfgang’s String Theory, with its hoe-down touches in the rhythm of a movement entitled “Nashville.”
An echo of Friday’s electro-acoustic concert was sounded Saturday in Jack Van Zandt’s Stoicheia, in which the last excerpt found solo violist Alma Lisa Fernandez using digital delay and loop station boxes to create lovely, ethereal halos and sustained chords. Andrew Norman — who seems to be getting performances everywhere these days — checked in with Lullaby, an aria for mezzo-soprano (Niké St. Clair) with now-impressionistic, now-dissonant piano accompaniment set to a text by W. H. Auden. Other composers whose works were heard over these two days included Burton Goldstein, Drew Schnurr, Bryan Curt Kostors, Tristan Xavier Koester, Jonathan Beard, Ted Hearne, Phillip Golub, Tomàs Peire Serrate, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Daniel Kessner, and Daniel Alcheh — demonstrating a diverse collection of styles in diverse settings.
One nice thing about HEAR NOW is the informal festival atmosphere. Almost all of the composers were on hand to introduce their pieces and mingle with the audience in convivial gatherings in the church lobby and outside on Venice Blvd., where two of L.A.’s trademark food trucks were parked. The audience nearly filled the church Saturday, less so on Sunday, but holding its own over a crowded weekend of music and sports in this city.
Though attendance seems to have remained consistent from what I observed at the 2012 festival, it’s possible that HEAR NOW is going to need bigger facilities in the near future. Why? Because at the next festival in April 2016, Levick says that HEAR NOW will collaborate with Neal Stulberg and the UCLA Philharmonia to bring orchestral new music into the picture. Not only that, Salonen has reportedly indicated that he might be willing to do some conducting. If that happens, stand back!
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 for Classical Voice North America.