Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


January 11, 2008

The LA Philharmonic with Michael Gordon, Bill Morrison, and David Robertson
Photo: mine 2008

This weekend marked the last two performances in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Concrete Frequency” series in which our wonderful local ensemble continued presenting late 20th century masterpieces under the guidance of guest conductor David Robertson. All of this continued to be spuriously yoked to the concept that this music has something to say about urban existence. Robertson certainly continued to make eloquent arguments from the stage as to why. But even if this all seemed a bit of a stretch for me, I have no problem with the Phil coming up with whatever flimsy excuses it needs to program this great music.

Probably the most challenging and rewarding of the shows was on Thursday. The theme that night was the role of nightlife in cities so (surprise!) it was filled with smoky, jazz-influenced numbers like Zimmermann’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, performed here with the exemplary assistance of Alison Balsom. The Phil even imported some jazz-band ringers for an encore of Monk's Round Midnight. In an equally forced, but far more successful move, Robertson paired Ives’ Central Park in the Dark not with the typical The Unanswered Question but with Berio’s Sequenza X for trumpet here played by Gabriele Cassone. The usually winning Ives mania worked well in this context creating a real sense of foreboding and tension. But the real prize of the evening was the extremely quiet and jarring performance of Morton Feldman’s The Turfan Fragments. Twenty minutes of these dissonant and shifting pulsations probably said more about the city that is Los Angeles than any of the skyscraper/industry stuff that littered the rest of the program. Here is a city Angelenos know – multiple fragments, never working together, but strangely affecting, each in their own concurrent way. Mark Swed is right, any orchestra daring enough to program this deserves kudos, and this was a performance to remember.

The final show on Saturday started off with a rather Messiaenic sounding …explosante-fixe… from the mind of Pierre Boulez. Robertson didn’t even try to force the whole city rubric here. He just let it rip with the assistance of two sharpies from IRCAM in Paris on the laptop. It was great and very, very pretty. It’s too bad the series had to end in the way that it did with the ultimately disappointing Dystopia, a world premiere from composer Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison. Obviously the series was going to end the way that it began. The first piece in the first show was Copland’s suite for the 30s propaganda film The City presented with the film to remind us all about the soulless destructive nature of the urban environment. With Dystopia, "Concrete Frequency" had finally moved away from the East Coast and gotten around to focusing of the urban landscape of Los Angeles. Morrison's combination of local archival footage spliced with his own work was designed around Gordon's score. Sadly, Morrison has little new to say on the topic in the intervening 70 years since The City. The piece heartily embraces every worn out cliché about a dystopian Los Angeles as the modern template for the distressed, alienating urban landscape. Here you have it all – garbage dumps, traffic jams, poverty, and pollution. Morrison was even able to find all five or six skyscrapers we have downtown for some typical empty soulless alien landscape shots. Gordon’s music pulses along in an urgent if pleasing post-minimalism sort of way that nevertheless has its charms. But at the core of Dystopia is a hollow and pointless commentary that apparently still has a market.

If you want to learn about music and the urban experience in the city of Los Angeles, why not start with Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep just recently available on DVD for the first time. This is a film I first became aware of through Thom Anderson's 2003 documentary about the representation of Los Angeles in film history, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Anderson explores the problems with "dystopian" views of Los Angeles far more eloquently than I can here. Killer of Sheep may not be Boulez or Feldman, but it may in fact have something to say about a “concrete frequency,” whatever that may be.


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