Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Return of the new

December 12, 2006

Zavalloni brings the noise
Photo: Jamie Rector/LAT 2006
One of the more notable music stories in LA in the last two years has been the near-demise of the long-running Monday Evening Concerts program formerly held in the Bing Theater on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus. The program has been around in various incarnations for decades and had always been an important venue for new music including numerous local and national premieres of works by many of the mid-to-late 20th century’s greatest composers. Much has been written about the manner and timing of LACMA unceremoniously pulling the rug out from under this storied program and I won’t spend more time on it here other than to note that once again lack of public funding support for music and the arts in this country is creating a progressively more homogeneous and uninteresting atmosphere. When LA County (or more correctly the quasi-private trust) that runs LACMA imagined a chance to generate another buck or two, artistic concerns rapidly faded into the mist. (There are many recent disturbing examples of this at LACMA from 2005’s TUT II exhibit to the increasingly undifferentiated existence of the museum and Eli Broad’s money and interests.)

But I digress - this is not about the end of an era but about the perseverance by a community to keep something alive. Monday was an evening of rebirth. Following the loss of both a regular home and MEC’s long-time leader Dorrance Stalvey, a committee of interested parties, including Pierre Boulez among others, stepped in to keep this important cultural series going here in Los Angeles. With their work, Monday Evening Concerts came roaring back last night without giving an inch in spirit or ambition. This first concert in the revived series was a tribute to Stalvey and included a piece of his own, Streams (2002), as well as some of the music he himself had championed. The show took place at the REDCAT Theater in the basement of the Walt Disney Concert Hall although the other three remaining programs in this year’s series will occur at the Zipper Auditorium.

The show was amazing. One of the many reasons for this was the appearance of the remarkable Cristina Zavalloni. She is a force of nature. Think of a Diamanda Galas who actually sings with a new music pedigree and minus all the goth overtones. This is her second major LA appearance this year – the first being her stunning performance of Andriessen’s Racconto dall’Inferno as part of the LA Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox concert series. ( A recording of which is available on iTunes here. You should get it if you don't have it already.) This time around she tackled Berio’s Circles (1960) with the LA Phil’s harpist Lou Anne Niell and percussionists Ross Karre and Steven Schick. Zavalloni has been an advocate of Berio’s work and has a strong interest in the work of his wife, vocalist Cathy Berberian. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting of these e.e. cumming’s texts and Zavalloni delivered every last drop of the intentionally theatrical elements of the piece without breaking a sweat. As if that weren’t enough, Zavalloni then performed a piece written by Berberian herself entitled “Stripsody,” a six-minute romp through comic book gestures and onomatopoeia for solo voice. I can think of few soloists that could pull this off with such flair and it was highly entertaining.

The other big moment in the program was the LA premiere of Gèrard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum from 1995, a 45-minute play on a single arpeggio from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé that is sped-up, slowed-down and turned inside out in seemingly endless ways. The amazing centerpiece of the work is a wild piano cadenza here delivered in a jaw-dropping and appropriately maniacal fashion by Vicki Ray. Challenging, clever, and spooky, it was pure magic.

Did I mention the show was sold out? Did I mention that when I arrived at least an hour before the concert there was a line for returns? However, there were tickets left for the LA Master Chorale's Messiah sing-along program that was being performed that evening upstairs in the Disney concert Hall. But as readers on this blog have noted, the viability and support of new music is not unusual in Los Angeles. In case anyone still has questions on this topic, please check out Mark Swed's review of this show in today's Times.

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