By Richard S. Ginell
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Interestingly, contemporary music from the British Isles gets more attention from concert organizations in Southern California than older varieties of British music. You are far more likely to encounter the latest musings of Thomas Adès — now a part-time resident — Mark-Anthony Turnage, Oliver Knussen, or Ireland’s Gerald Barry than Sullivan, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, or Holst (outside of a tiny handful of crowd faves like the Enigma Variations or The Planets). And of course, Benjamin Britten, who could be considered contemporary, got a tremendous amount of play during 2013, his centenary year.
So the Jacaranda series’ Jan. 30 program of British music from the last third of the 20th century — entitled “Expectancy” — shouldn’t have come as a shock since there was plenty of context for an alert, adventuresome, local concertgoer to fall back on at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church.
One of the pleasures of the Jacaranda concerts has been the voluminous program notes of artistic director Patrick Scott, which often go way beyond the usual musical nuts and bolts by setting the cultural and political scenes of the times. They can be so absorbing that you don’t want to pry your eyes away from the pages to join in with the usual socializing in the lobbies before the performance. This time Scott wrote about the Margaret Thatcher era in Britain and the reaction to it from pop culture that was already bubbling away beforehand via the 1970s punk movement. To some degree, this rebelliousness had a counterpart in so-called classical music – at least in the selection played here.
The program started out with a multi-faceted grab-bag of Adès from the 1990s — a “portrait of the artist as a young man” (also the title of a Louis Armstrong boxed set), as Scott writes — when the twenty-something composer was flexing his rebellious muscles while flirting a bit with pop music. The latter quality was certainly true of “Cardiac Arrest,” a saucy transcription for chamber group of a bouncy 1982 song by the British ska-pop band Madness, played with appropriately tweaky arthritic swing here. “Catch” was a battle between a piano trio and a rogue clarinetist (Eric Jacobs) who runs away — literally — to the wings and to the rear of the church before finally sitting in with the group.
“Les Barricades mistérieuses,” on the other hand, belonged to another world, a genial flowing, reticent paraphrase of a Couperin piece of that name for the same chamber group as above minus piano. And Adés’ once-inflammatory opera Powder Her Face was represented by an elaborate Lisztian fantasia-like “concert paraphrase” for a super-virtuoso pianist, which L.A.-based new-music hero Mark Robson certainly is. He ate it for breakfast, as the saying goes.
Next we heard the relentlessly driving sextet called “Bob” by Gerald Barry, whom Adès often champions when conducting at Walt Disney Concert Hall. As led by Donald Crockett (who also conducted “Cardiac Arrest” and “Les Barricades”), “Bob” didn’t seem quite so relentless on this occasion — perhaps even somewhat tentative — understandable since the piece must be horrendously difficult.
To top everything off, there was a semi-staged performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ irreverent yet harrowing monodrama, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, from 1974. The piece is really an extended mad scene for one character, Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne, who, after being jilted at the altar by an irresponsible naval officer, spent the last 30 years of her life alone behind closed doors, still wearing her bridal gown. The score, for a chamber group, is spiky, strange, unstable, sometimes mocking Victorian salon music. For those who heard this piece in the `70s, it must have been inconceivable to think that the maverick Maxwell Davies would someday be appointed Master of the Queen’s Music, which he was from 2004 to 2014.
Mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott — which serendipitously rhymes with “Maggot” — put on a performance that can only be described as an overwhelming tour-de-force. Clad in a bedraggled wedding gown and train, occasionally reclining on a deliberately ratty-looking Victorian sofa, Baggott twisted her opulent voice into various loony states, drawing out the words, dominating yet not drowning out the clearly-etched chamber group led by Ryan Dudenbostel. Often, she made her character seem unbalanced and stark raving mad to a frightening degree. Above her was a ghostly video projection of a giant wedding cake that slowly, gradually crumbled as the performance progressed. (In a nice touch, audience members were treated to free slices of wedding cake during intermission.)
Toward the end, though, the whole production was beginning to seem overlong. Maxwell Davies’ own urgent recording of his monodrama with the Fires of London lasts about 36 minutes and change, but this performance sprawled beyond 50 minutes due to the drawn-out pacing of the words and accompaniment. Too much madness, I concluded, but that didn’t take anything away from acknowledging Ms. Baggott’s tremendous effort, which was preserved on audio and video for possible release.
[For another review of the work of this festival, click here.]
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.