LA Phil Shebang Goes Wall To Wall, Noon To Midnight

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Performers onstage and in the audience open `Noon To Midnight’ with David Lang’s frightening study of crowd psychology,`crowd out.’ (All concert photos: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)

By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — The last weekend of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centennial season was a study in near-megalomania that perhaps only this orchestra could conceive and carry off. On three of the four days and nights, Gustavo Dudamel revved up the ecstatic blasts and heartfelt intimacies of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 — which isn’t called “Symphony Of A Thousand” for nothing. But on the remaining day (June 1), the Phil went extravagantly in a completely different direction, devoting 12 hours of Walt Disney Concert Hall playing time to its now-annual new music blowout, Noon To Midnight.

The two previous editions emphasized local performers — of which there are more than enough to fill such a marathon with expertise and adventure. But this one imported some blue-chip new music ensembles from around the country and down the I-5 freeway to go along with the hometowners. The other editions left some, but not much, breathing room between performances, but this time, there wasn’t a minute when something was not going on somewhere inside and all around the building.

Another look from the side at the performers in `crowd out.’

As before, the hall, walkways, lobbies, and rooftop garden were loaded with young people, a rejoinder to beleaguered concert organizations who think that the way to stay alive is to replay the oldies over and over. Of course, the $10 admission price — good for everything except the Green Umbrella concert tucked within the schedule — was a powerful lure, and given the caliber and variety of the performers and the quantity of music on tap, it was the bargain of the year.

If you had just splurged for the Green Umbrella concert — and by Disney Hall standards, it wasn’t much of a hit to the wallet — you would have seen John Adams, the LA Phil’s Creative Chair for new music since 2009, lead the LA Phil’s New Music Group in three world premieres. Freya Waley-Cohen’s Changeling had Stravinsky on the brain, sporting a lively Neo-classicism with a lead line that bounced around in a way that suggested Adams himself. The piece also had a delicately sparkling central episode enhanced by chimes and piano. String tremolos provided the underpinning for Donnacha Dennehy’s Overcasting, which kind of went on for awhile with little audible direction until repeated horn riffs signaled a gathering culmination, followed by a slow fade.

A T-shirted John Adams leads the LA Phil New Music Group.

When Adams first appeared, he drew some laughter upon facing the ensemble since the back of his black T-shirt said STAFF (that’s Adams; he takes his work seriously but not himself). When he returned after intermission, he had a new T-shirt that said CREW, drawing more applause. That’s worth mentioning because the ovation merged seamlessly with a recording of what seemed like applause but was actually the sound of rushing water. So began Christopher Stark’s Cascade — referring to the Cascade range in Oregon and Washington State — and it took some time before the strings finally overwhelmed the electronics, making a marvelous massed sound fed into the speakers. The piece is an environmental canvas with similarities to the idiom of another Adams — John Luther Adams — but Stark’s piece was much more succinct than JLA’s creations, and quite effective. There was a fourth world premiere on the program — the Mivos String Quartet essaying Jeffrey Mumford’s … amid still and floating depths – but the work’s aimless old-school atonality didn’t exactly light up the room.

Sö Percussion threads the strings of quartet instruments in `Forbidden Love.’

These were just four of 23 world premieres to be heard at Noon To Midnight, and no one could possibly hear them all since the programs overlapped on top of each other. Of the world premieres that I could catch, the most enticing one for me was the International Contemporary Ensemble’s (ICE) performance of George Lewis’ Soundlines: A Dreaming Track, which seemed like a high-tech update of one of Harry Partch’s hobo journeys. Here, ICE’s artist-in-residence Steven Schick told us of his 700-mile trek on foot from the Mexican border to San Francisco (he must have taken the long way on Highway 1!) while alternating on percussion, harmonica and a police whistle as a chamber ensemble burned abstractly and laptop electronics simulated ominous weather conditions.

The Lyris Quartet in shadow before a packed crowd in BP Hall.

Other notable world premieres: Sö Percussion scored a hit with Julia Wolfe’s Forbidden Love in which four percussionists perform unnatural acts on a set of string quartet instruments, eventually settling into an irresistible rhythmic groove. L.A.’s Lyris Quartet, accompanied by electronic distortion, made rather sleep-disturbing work of Michelle Lou’s ironically-named Lullaby, and the Calder Quartet presented a rather attractive, unashamedly tonal piece from Timo Andres, Machine, Learning, that went so far as to quote Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” Anthony Cheung’s The Natural Word, as performed by Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, revealed the composer’s affinity for captions as an evocative soundtrack illustrated whatever words appeared on a screen over a collage of film clips new and old.

The whole shebang started out at noon literally with a shout. Upon entering Disney Hall, the room was already populated by many casually-dressed folk, most of whom were standing and raising their arms. Gradually, they started reciting a text in an incoherent babble, with the volume fluctuating up and down as if we were in a sports arena. This was David Lang’s crowd out, which was supposed to make us understand “the excitement, fear and loneliness we feel in crowds” — and it certainly did to a frightening extent.

Listeners were asked to take a stand on FLUXUS with these buttons. (Richard S. Ginell)

Welcome to FLUXUS, ladies and gentlemen, as the culmination of the LA Phil’s unprecedented (for a symphony orchestra) season-long celebration of this still-controversial (after 60 years) movement collided with Noon To Midnight to provide a humorous sidebar of performance art. Lang’s contribution, a West Coast premiere, was the first of five FLUXUS or FLUXUS-inspired pieces that popped up throughout the day and night.

Chris Rountree just following John Cage’s playbook.

I couldn’t catch all of them, having been occupied elsewhere in the building, but probably the most elaborate one was a re-creation of John Cage’s Water Walk, which the Zenmeister actually performed on TV’s I’ve Got A Secret in 1960 if you can believe that (and if you didn’t, a kinescope of Cage’s appearance could be seen on a vintage TV set nearby in BP Hall — or you can enjoy it here). Here, the indefatigable curator of the FLUXUS festival, Christopher Rountree, went bonkers running around to carry out Cage’s instructions of manipulating various household appliances from the period, occasionally banging on a long-suffering old baby grand piano, and repeating the process with minor variations as necessary. Some will find acres of rigorous profundity in life merging with art, but I thought it was quite amusing and fun — just part of one big, joyous, avant-garde music party.

Oh, and did I mention that Los Angeles Opera’s season-ending production of Verdi’s perennial best-seller La Traviata opened on the very same night across the street? What’s a busy music lover to do in a city with so much of note (pun intended) happening simultaneously?

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.