Premieres Abound As Festival Salutes American Creators

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John Adams conducted in Next on Grand.(Lambert Orkis photo)
The Green Umbrella program, with John Adams conducting, was devoted to the work of four emerging composers.
(Lambert Orkis photo)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — There is certainly no shortage of concert series and festivals with deep commitments to new music in this megapolis — among them, Southwest Chamber Music, HEAR NOW, Piano Spheres, REDCAT, wasteLAnd, MicroFest, Jacaranda, and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Monday Evening Concerts. Yet when all is said and done, center stage in the new-music department continues to be occupied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is kicking its new-music engines into overdrive down the stretch of the 2014-15 season with its Next on Grand festival.

Dylan Mattingly, 19, was the youngest composer on the program.
Dylan Mattingly: youngest composer on the program.

For those unfamiliar with the local geography, “Grand” stands for 111 S. Grand Ave., the address of Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Next” means that every note played by the Philharmonic May 26-31 will come from a piece of new or recent music made by American composers. In devoting so much precious concert time to the mostly new, including seven world premieres, the Philharmonic and its enterprising music director, Gustavo Dudamel (who recently added the title “artistic director” to his portfolio), are gambling that they might have some answers to what lies ahead for classical music. Brahms and Tchaikovsky can wait.

Although Next on Grand commenced rather quietly on May 19 with a chamber-music concert, the real kickoff concert was a Green Umbrella event May 26 led by the Phil’s Creative Chair for new music, John Adams. Adams devoted his entire program to three world premieres by emerging composers, plus a video installation by another, with not a note of his own music to be heard. All of the composers are in their 20s or 30s, and all studied at Ivy League universities (three at Yale, one at Princeton). Each piece was preceded by a video in which each composer introduced himself and the work on hand. Indeed, if anything comes out of this festival as a whole, it is the impression that video will be an ever-more-present component of concert life.

Amplified soprano
Soprano Hila Plitmann shone in Christopher Cerrone’s song cycle.

To one subjective listener, it was the youngest composer, Dylan Mattingly (b. 1991), who came up with the most interesting piece — and the most provocative title, Seasickness and Being (in Love). After five loud unison chords, the Philharmonic New Music Group, augmented by an electric bass and a Korg synthesizer, lurched through a patch of microtonal chords and irregular rhythms that were deliberately disorienting and delicious at the same time — like viewing Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie through a distorted, cracked lens. Eventually, the 18-minute piece settled into gentle, celestial, more metrical repeating patterns that went on for too long but came out the other end with lovely piano patterns and deep electric bass underpinning.

Christopher Cerrone  named Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson as two of his influences, and in his song cycle, The Pieces That Fall To Earth, sure enough, traces of the harmonic worlds of both turned up, particularly in the second song, “Hope.” Yet in his lightly-scored settings of some epigrammatic poems by Bay Area poet Kay Ryan, Cerrone seemed mainly interested in exploiting the extraordinary range of the remarkable amplified soprano of Hila Plitmann, who was asked to make vehement, nearly shrieking sounds, evil whispers, and flights into the ionosphere along with more conventional soprano tasks. Which she did — brilliantly, from memory, reacting physically to some of the accents from the ensemble.

For Jacob Cooper’s Alla stagion dei fior, there were no performers at all — just a droning, growling electronic piece backing an extreme slow-motion video clip from a performance of a scene from La Bohème (the program note and the piece’s title refer to the end of Act III). I confess that I couldn’t see the point of this; the sounds from the speakers had nothing to do with the gradually-zooming-in images onscreen, not even in ironic terms.

Caroline Shaw of Roomful of Teeth
The festival has two works by Caroline Shaw of Roomful of Teeth.

In his video, Sean Friar gave the most cogent introduction of all, talking about classical music’s visceral impact, form, and the jazz chords that he used in his new piece, Finding Time. The idea for the piece is apparently a search for “metrical stability in a powerfully agitated sound world,” but it never really finds it, despite the piano’s effort to repeatedly pound out a guide track. Whatever the premise, the 15 1/2-minute piece emerged in shards and fragments, with long silences in its center punctuated by funny squeaks from a violin (for what it’s worth, I couldn’t detect any jazz chords by ear alone).

Next up on Next on Grand, Dudamel and the entire Philharmonic appear on the scene, but only for one half of each program. On May 28 and 30, Dudamel leads a couple of world premieres – Quilting by Bryce Dessner, who, like so many young and not-so-young American composers, has no trouble straddling the line between classical music and rock music, and Philip Glass’s new Concerto for Two Pianos with Katia and Marielle Labèque as the soloists.

The first half of that concert is taken up by an ongoing project of Caroline Shaw from her Ritornello film series, performed by Roomful of Teeth (Shaw sings alto in the group) and the Calder Quartet. (View an earlier version of the project at right.)

On May 29, Dudamel and the LA Phil perform the world premiere of Steven Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool, an estimated 38-minute, five-movement piece scored for large orchestra and a warehouse full of percussion instruments. Then Brad Lubman and the Ensemble Signal perform Steve Reich’s and Beryl Korot’s 2002 music/video piece, Three Tales, a three-part (“Hindenburg,” “Bikini,” “Dolly”) meditation on the impact of technology on humankind with religion drawn into the discussion. (You can view “Dolly” at the end of this article.)

The concert on May 30 will repeat the Dessner and Glass premieres, and in addition will contain the world premiere of Andrew Norman’s Stop Motion for string quartet and Tristan Perich’s  Interface (both with the Calder Quartet), along with Roomful of Teeth performing Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices.

On May 31, Ensemble Signal will perform Shelter, a 65-minute piece with a video component first introduced in 2005 by a committee from Bang On A Can (Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe) (see segment at right). And Mackey’s work will be repeated. The following weekend (June 5-6), Next on Grand concludes with a 1983 electronic dance piece by John Adams, Available Light, with choreography by Lucinda Childs and stage design by Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry.

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.