Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Bang on a Piano All-Stars

April 14, 2009

 
Marino Formenti, Christian Dierstein, and all those bassists
Photo: mine 2009

The Monday Evening Concert Series wrapped up for the season this week at Zipper Concert Hall with another near capacity crowd. It looks like the city’s go-to folks for contemporary music are going to have to find some bigger quarters sometime soon or tickets may get a little bit harder to come by. The show featured MEC’s patented combination of fare new to Los Angeles and the world played by leading stars of 20th century and newer music. The program, entitled “For Galina Ustvolskaya” was just that and featured a return performance from Italian keyboard great Marino Formenti who last dazzled local audiences with an unforgettable performance of Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles in January 2008. Well-regarded percussionist Christian Dierstein joined him for performances of Ustvolskaya’s dark and sometimes dirge-like works that can make Messiaen sound like Mozart, but simultaneously lend credence to her own claim that “there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.”

Maybe not, but this is unusual stuff particularly considering that it was written for the most part in the mid-to-late 20th century. Ustvolskaya lived a bit of a double life as a composer. Having studied under Shostakovich, she embarked upon a career of conventional and digestible works for a number of public forums all the while composing very different works that remained unheard until much later in her life. In fact much of her work didn’t surface at all outside of the USSR until the 1990s even after it was given public performances in her home country in the 70s and 80s. Monday’s program featured this more "personal" work and it is indeed bracing stuff. Formenti performed two Piano Sonatas, Nos. 4 and 6, which were followed later by Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No 5 “Amen” and Composition No 2, “Dies Irae” for piano, percussion and eight double basses. Ustvolskaya holds all notes in esteem and often dwells on them individually as if giving each and every one its due. The music is often played loudly at full bore and the piano parts can devolve into what seems like little more than banging large sets of keys with forearms and fists in regular and very repetitive sequences. The “symphony” involved tuba, trumpet, oboe, violin, percussion and a speaker who read the Lord’s Prayer in plaintive and dramatic Russian. Both this piece and the “Dies Irae” also call for a large wooden box that is rhythmically struck with various mallets, again often loudly. It’s interesting stuff if for no other reason than the level of intensity called for on the part of the players who all rose to the challenge here. Formenti in particular took no prisoners and made a great case for the relevance of the works if by not rendering them into something that was readily recognizable and immediately pleasurable.

It wasn’t all about the program’s namesake, however. There were two world premieres on the schedule as well. First up was Klaus Lang’s "The Whitebread Man. The Six Frogs" for piano and percussion. It was well set in these environs in that while it is persistently soft and fading, it embraces the same halting respect for its individual tones as Ustvolskaya's works. Later, Dierstein performed Pierluigi Billone’s Mani. Matta for solo percussion. This piece, one in a series referencing visual artists, is largely centered on a marimba the performer plays in non-standard ways that allow him to attenuate the sound either by direct dampening with the hands or using atypical mallets for the job. And while it did seem to stretch on a bit longer than I might have liked, I must admit I was taken by a bit of darkened wistfulness among its charms.

In any event, the show was another example of how MEC continues to stay ahead of the game. And in a city that is about to lose its most visible proponent for new music when Esa-Pekka Salonen wraps up his tenure with the L.A. Philharmonic later this week, Monday may become an even more important day in the near future for those of us who love and follow this music.

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1/18/13
Kodály Háry János Suite
Eötvös DoReMi
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Heras-Casado, dond
w/ Midori
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1/19/13
Reneé Fleming and Susan Graham
recital
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA

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