Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


January 29, 2007

Steve Reich with Grant Gershon and members of the LAMC
Photo: mine 2007

Birthday mania continued in LA this weekend with our local installment of the celebrations for Steve Reich’s 70th. Reich had a tribute of sorts last year in a program solely of his work during the LA Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox events. This time around, it was the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s turn to pay their respects and they did so with excellent performances of two of Reich's major recent works. First up was You Are (Variations) a piece commissioned and first performed by the LAMC in 2004. The other half of the program featured the West Coast Premiere of Daniel Variations, Reich’s tribute to slain journalist Daniel Pearl. The works were each paired with shorter motets by Josquin des Prez and William Byrd to help denote influences on Reich’s work as a composer.

These are two magnificent pieces and the Daniel Variations washes over with both joy and sadness simultaneously not unlike memory itself. These beautiful settings of brief texts from the Book of Daniel and expressions spoken by or associated with Pearl are moving. They work amazingly by managing to incorporate both the personal and political in a single text without overwhelming the whole. There are clear references to terrorism but the piece remains tied to more universal themes. The motets were a nice compliment and the Chorale was in excellent form showing off their own new music chops.

However, as always, the LAMC can’t resist the urge to undercut itself and so it was again last night. The biggest problem was (surprise) the amplification. The singers and orchestra were so over-amplified during the first half of the program in the beautiful but unforgiving acoustics of the hall that the whole thing became a shrill screech at higher volumes where I was sitting. While the LAMC has a great reputation and is intimately involved with new music and challenging programming, it constantly seems to bend over backwards to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. Sing-along Messiahs, odd on-stage choreography, and awful program notes continue to make their operation seem less than serious. One particular pet peeve of mine is the atrocious and inane writing of Victoria Looseleaf who regularly contributes to the program notes for the LAMC as well as freelance material for the LA Times and other outlets. In last night's program she offers this commentary about Josquin des Prez, "Consdered the greatest music maker of the high Renaissance, he was also willful and expensive to commission -the Usher of his day- ..." Apparently Looseleaf thinks the average audience member for the LAMC can't get their heads around "willful" and "expensive to commission" without a reference to a current-day R&B heartthrob.

The good news is that many of these issues are cosmetic and relatively easy to ignore and, with program's like this one, it is easy to love the LAMC.

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