Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

This Is The Sound

December 09, 2009

Mario Caroli and Alice Teyssier
Photo: mine 2009

Monday Evening Concerts returned for its new season this week in a very rewarding show at Zipper Concert Hall downtown. And in case you were wondering, European modernism is alive and well and living in Los Angeles. Which is good news when you consider that there is less and less competition with the MEC programming from anyone across the street these days. But I digress. Monday's program featured three works, Tempio di fumo by Donia Rotaru, Territories de l’Ouble by Tristan Murail, and Salvatore Sciarrino’s La Perfezione di uno Spirito Sottile. And despite any differences between these composers' techniques or training, all three chamber pieces were closely related in their exploration of the most basic sound elements reproduced in a context where silence often has as big an importance. This was music much less about notes, and much more about sound. Instruments were pushed in ways to produce noises that aren't typically the goal in their use from subtle clicks to ringing overtones.

First up was Rotaru’s “Temple of Smoke” for solo flute played here by Mario Caroli, a musician who has built a reputation for his performance of contemporary compositions. Rotaru is a Romanian composer without much of an international reputation. The ethereal structure of her smoke-filled temple consists of as much subtle clicking of keys as beading notes and vocalized chords. It had a lovely and mysterious quality for a solo flute work. Closely following was Murail’s solo piano work performed by Marilyn Nonken. True to Marail’s "spectralist" label, Territories exploited the resonance of chords played one atop another at the expense of any individual notes or line. Much of the sound is generated at the far ends of the keyboard with broad soft-edged attacks that produced a wash of sound. It was remarkable considering that the piano almost sounded as if it had been "prepared" in a way similar to many other contemporary compositions. But as far as I can tell, this was all old-fashioned technique mustered by the remarkable Nonken.

Then came the main course. Sciarrino’s 40-minute work for solo flute, soprano, and percussion involved more players, but little more in the way of complexity. The flautist, Caroli and soprano Alice Teyssier entered the stage with Teyssier seating herself on the floor facing away from the audience. Behind them hung a white sheet lit with what appeared to be a low hanging yellow sun. Caroli then embarked on a lengthy flute solo punctuated with regular bursts of silence and repeated flurries of single notes. The effect was as if watching a woman seated on sand dunes with the whistling wind flying all around her. Suddenly she sings in similarly repeated syllables as if talking to the wind. After about another 10 minutes or so this combination is joined by soft and subtle chimes emanating from various locations around the hall. The chiming steadily grows to where it is more clearly audible but never loud as the flute and vocals fade away and the room is filled with dusk. Although the sound surrounded the audience, the minimal staging had a way of making you feel as if you were intruding, watching a scene happening that you weren't a direct part of. It was really involving despite the simplicity of it all.

It's exciting to see Monday Evening Concerts back and off to such a strong start this season. They continue to stand out in providing Los Angeles with music that no one else has done before. (The Sciarrino piece was a U.S. premiere.) There's not much else quite like them in town and we're definitely the better for it. Check out their schedule for the rest of the year, which is sure to contain further surprises.


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