Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

All together now

April 13, 2008

Concord Ensemble prepare to beam up
Photo : mine 2008

Sometimes music is about that do-it-yourself attitude. Here in Los Angeles, one of the up and coming proprietors of just such a vision are the good folks who run the Jacaranda concert series out in Santa Monica. If there is something they want to hear and they don’t see enough of it around, by golly, they are going to do it for themselves and everyone else in the vicinity. Under-programmed 20th century composer? It’s yours. Atonal, jarring, or “difficult to listen to? At your service. Music too difficult to be played by mortals? You got it. They’re in the middle of two years of programming honoring the centenary of Olivier Messiaen under the moniker “The OM Century,” and on Saturday they presented a show entitled “Vortex Nebula” featuring works by two of Messiaen’s students – Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen. And, while it may not have been perfect, it was a huge amount of fun and more interesting than anything else out there this weekend.

Things started off with Xenakis’ legendary Nomos Alpha for solo cello. Technically and intentionally unplayable, the work is more about the choices artists make in striving for an ideal than it is anything else. It is a wonder of 20th century technique, and Jacaranda called on the daring Timothy Loo to take on the challenge. And that he did in spades. He is human, though, and when faced with this task who you gonna call? Why Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, of course, who helped out with the impossible note or two over the course of the otherwise solo piece. It was amazing playing to watch and a real treat to hear.

Following this feat of daring-do – the Jacaranda percussion ensemble amassed to perform the “Metal” movement from Xenakis’ Pleiades. Here all six musicians play the “sixxen” a marimba-like instrument designed specifically for this work consisting of large metal slabs and wood. The players hammered away at various and contrasting rhythms that built to a cacophony of gleaming vibration. It was an intense sound for the space and overwhelming in a pleasant way. I can’t recall the last time I saw people covering their ears due to the volume of sound at this sort of show before. It was seriously messed-up (in the good sense of the word) and fantastic.

What do you follow with on a program such as this? Stockhausen’s Stimmung, of course. The six member Concord Ensemble delivered a very high-quality and appropriately free-spirited version of this ‘60s psychedelic classic. The detail and clarity were phenomenal. If I had any criticism, it is that the piece is a somewhat delicate affair, given that it is in many ways still a product of its time, and rests on a feeling of communal and spiritual elements. While one would think the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica would be ideal for this in its natural state, the performance here was hampered with a make shift Doctor Who set that was more distracting than helpful. The six singers, dressed in white dashiki-style clothing, were seated in a circle of chairs covered with a white parachute around a sort of large globe containing a bowl-shaped lamp that changed colors throughout. It reinforced the retro aspects of the piece, making it seem like some kind of relic. Being brave sometimes means you go a little over the line. But, all-in-all, Jacaranda can’t be faulted for sticking its neck out, and once again delivered goods that may be hard to come by, at least in this neck of the woods.

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