Presto Change-O: Delay In New Work Draws Creative Fix

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By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – What can you do when you have to replace an entire program of new music with another on short notice? The creative team at the Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed to have no problem cobbling one together April 17 for a Green Umbrella concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall. And it was a good, provocative program, too, easily overcoming the disappointment of not being able to present a world premiere.

Ted Hearne’s ‘Law of Mosaics’ was played instead of ‘Place.’
(Jen Rosenstein)

The concert was supposed to have been devoted entirely to the first performance of 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Hearne’s Place, an 80-minute opera for 18 instrumentalists and six vocalists that Hearne says is “a rumination on gentrification” – an issue very much in play in Los Angeles, where rents and housing prices continue to skyrocket. Gustavo Dudamel was due to conduct the LA Phil New Music Group, and the Phil – which co-commissioned the piece with Beth Morrison Projects and London’s Barbican Centre – was supposed to take it on tour to the Barbican on May 3.

Yet on March 29, the LA Phil announced that the premiere was being postponed due to “unforeseen delays in the creative process.” Instead, New York will get the world premiere Oct. 10-13 in an as-yet-unconfirmed location while L.A. will have to wait until the 2019-20 season to see it.

Hearne was not out of the picture by any means. The Phil swapped Place for a recent piece of his for string orchestra, Law of Mosaics, which itself is a cobbled-together thing of this and that by himself and others. Hearne’s works often have political texts and contexts: His Pulitzer finalist piece Sound from the Bench, for example, contains verbatim quotes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United hearing. So it made sense that  Frederic Rzewski’s 1971-2 protest tract from another era, Coming Together, and its not-often-heard companion piece, Attica, were imported as concert mates.  Dudamel was still on the podium, and the splendid young bass-baritone Davóne Tines was brought in for the Rzewski narrations. All of that seemed to fit together just fine.

Claire Chase peers through her bass flute. (David Michalek)

But the Phil also added a prelude that seemed to have nothing to do with the above. It was one of flutist/entrepreneur Claire Chase’s “Density 2036” commissions, Pauchi Sasaki’s Gama XV: Piece for Two Speaker Dresses, which I first heard at the 2017 Ojai Festival.

In this staging, Chase descended slowly down the left aisles of Disney Hall wearing a dress made up of a patchwork of dozens of three-inch speakers, blowing and talking through a tangle of tiny plastic tubes while Sasaki likewise descended down the right aisles. As a peaceful electronic drone emerged from the murmurings, Chase and Sasaki made their ways to the stage, picked up a bass flute and violin respectively, and gradually developed a mutual musical and physical rapport. Abstract broken lines and patterns projected onto the Disney Hall organ pipes eventually morphed into the shape of a woman in a speaker dress.

I take it back; this did have something to do with the rest of the program, the act of “coming together” merging with the title of the next piece. Also, the piece worked much better indoors than outdoors; the surround-sound mix was warm and enveloping.

Frederic Rzewski turned 80 four days before the concert. (Nonesuch Records)

With a spoken text consisting of a letter by Attica State Prison inmate Sam Melville written before the 1971 uprising that left 43 people dead (including Melville), Coming Together became a touchstone piece for the left at the time. Amazingly, the work has had legs beyond its agitprop origins; the rapid repetitive pentatonic bass line that eventually takes over the ensemble down the stretch gives the piece its lasting vitality – and tragedies like the deadly prison riot in South Carolina on April 15 gave it additional resonance.

Tines’ resonant, clearly enunciating voice gradually took on subtle undercurrents of outrage as the piece’s engines gained momentum; he did not attempt to sing any of the lines as did the late Marvin Hayes in some memorable performances of more than three decades ago. Dudamel was scrupulously concerned with changes in dynamic levels, and he brought out a hitherto-hidden lyrical element in the score.

Davóne Tines delivered the powerful narrations for Rzewski’s Attica pieces. (Étude Arts)

By contrast, Attica is shorter, slower, and almost pastoral in mood, built entirely upon a simple, diatonic B-flat major scale, with a text consisting of just the words from another inmate, Richard X. Clark, “Attica is in front of me.” Here, too, Dudamel played up the lyrical aspects to the max, taking it at an extremely relaxed pace while making it flow. And this time, Tines mixed spoken passages with samples of his rich singing voice.

On to Law of Mosaics, in which Hearne allowed his assimilatory instincts to run amok without a care for exactly 32 minutes. Written in 2012 for the new-music ensemble A Far Cry, the piece is a suite in six continuous movements that blurs, clashes, mixes, and mashes together scraps of music that Hearne wrote or happens to like.

Dudamel pulled off eleventh-hour changes without a hitch. (Steve Scofield)

J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 gets the brain-melting treatment in a manner reminding me of what Lukas Foss did to the old master’s Violin Partita in E in Phorion a half-century ago. The finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony flashes before our ears; Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are fused into a flattened, molto vibrato string sandwich, later to be slowed way down without vibrato. Another movement is called “Palindrome for Andrew Norman” (who was in the audience), and some of his stuff was pressed into the mix, too. There is also a section, “Beats,” based on electronica, though you might not guess the inspiration without being tipped off in advance.

The suite doesn’t really hang together, but it’s probably not supposed to, being a mosaic of fragments, and it mostly encouraged Dudamel to operate in his more animated physical mode. The Barbican will also feature it as a substitute for the unfinished Place May 3, along with Attica and Julius Eastman’s Evil Nigger; the latter’s minimalist score for four pianists isn’t nearly as provocative as its title.

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.

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