Multigifted Timo Andres Morphs From Pianist To Composer For Premiere

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Composer Timo Andres, left, wrote ‘Made of Tunes’ for pianist Aaron Diehl, center, who premiered the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by John Adams. (Photos by Elizabeth Asher, courtesy of the LA Philharmonic)

LOS ANGELES — Timo Andres is one of the most accomplished composer-pianists of his generation. As a pianist, the 39-year-old performed four Philip Glass Etudes in Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 19, bringing an almost epic imagination and virtuosity to pieces that can easily just lull. Perhaps it was his instinct as a composer, but his ability to locate and sustain a narrative held the sold-out audience rapt, and he received perhaps the biggest ovations on a night that included four other fine pianists completing Glass’ full set of 20 etudes.

A few days later, Andres was back in Disney Hall to hear John Adams conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere of his quasi-concerto, Made of Tunes, an LA Phil commission written for pianist Aaron Diehl.

At least on March 23, when I heard the work, Andres’ focused dramatic instinct abandoned him for over-the-top orchestral effects in the rather diffuse two-movement score. Perhaps expectations were unfairly high. Andres is enjoying an especially productive period in his career. A CD of his third piano concerto, The Blind Banister, has just been released on Nonesuch, and the Calder Quartet gave the premiere of his piano quintet, The Great Span, in October at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The work is part of their April 2 program in Napa.

Meanwhile, what to make of Made of Tunes? While not as traditional a concerto as The Blind Banister, it’s eminently listenable, a piece by a daring composer still experimenting. The first movement, “Come, Labor On,” takes its tune and title from Thomas Tertius Noble’s hymn, which Andres develops through a stately slow-fast-slow configuration. Diehl began the first of several long, ruminative cadenzas or cadenza-like passages after the large orchestra’s haunting introduction, which includes nods to Ives, with tubular bells and a wide array of percussion. But the subsequent lack of partnership or effective contrast between solo piano and orchestra left a troubling void.

Like Andres, Diehl, an accomplished jazz and classical musician, enjoys exploring where the two genres merge and contrast. His lyrical approach carried the most memorable sections of Made of Tunes, but the composer gives him little time for repose amid all the ostinato patterns and cross rhythms.

Adams also conducted his own ‘City Noir’ and Copland’s ‘Quiet City.’

In his conducting of the Phil, Adams emphasized the work’s broad outlines, but even with Diehl amplified (there was a speaker under his piano), his solo parts often got smothered, especially when organ and brass kicked in to play a hymn verse in complex harmony.

The final (second) movement, “American Nocturnal,” six variations on an original theme, has plenty of American (hints of Ives and Copland) but not enough nocturnal. A brief, touching jazz-like interplay between piano and bass is followed by another long solo passage. The orchestra erupted, Diehl’s frenetic playing once again became buried in the din, and the score (a rhapsody? fantasia?) ends quietly with piano and saxophone.

Ultimately, Made of Tunes feels like a work still in progress. Perhaps Andres can take a page from Adams, who is well known as a careful reviser even after a premiere.  

Diehl’s tone, hard and on the bright side in the concerto, warmed up for his generous encore, a lovely rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the premiere of Timo Andres’ ‘Made of Tunes’ days after the composer took part in a concert there featuring all of Philip Glass’ etudes divided among five pianists.

After intermission, Adams conducted his City Noir, a major work that honors his love of the atmospheric noir novels of Raymond Chandler and others. Gustavo Dudamel made his 2009 debut as music director of the LA Philharmonic with the premiere of City Noir. Mostly, it celebrates the music of noir films, including Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score for Chinatown. Adams called it a symphony that can be “experienced as a soundtrack to an imagined noir film.” But it’s more as if Philip Marlowe or Jake Gittes read Schopenhauer, with complex instrumental layering and rhythms, along with hints of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Symphony in Three Movements.

Sometimes intellectuals have trouble getting out of their own way, and that was the case here, especially with Adams conducting. Many of the solo instruments struggled to fully project over the orchestral denseness. Even the wonderful saxophonist Timothy McAllister, given a moody and colorful part, seemed at times buried within the orchestral fabric of a score that’s essentially a concerto for orchestra. Along with McAllister’s stellar playing, trombonist David Rejano Cantero, hornist Andrew Bain, and violist Ben Ullery, among others, also provided impressive contributions.

As the curtain-raiser, Copland’s Quiet City created a haunting, nostalgic introduction to all the Americana to come. Adams and the Phil strings took care with Copland’s telescoped harmonies, but once again the balances were not quite right, with Thomas Hooten’s trumpet a bit too loud, as if mansplaining loneliness to Carolyn Hove’s quietly eloquent English horn.

As the Shaker song puts it, it’s not easy to find the gift to be simple.