Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Child's Play

January 12, 2010

Luciano Chessa and friend at this week's Monday Evening Concert
Photo: mine 2010

The Monday Evening Concert series kicked off the new year Monday with a program entitled “Mostly Californian” that was filled with a number of surprises. True to its billing, the program included works from three living composers all of whom currently live and work in the Golden State with a dash of Webern and Milton Babbitt thrown in for good measure. And while everything in the program was marked with a 20th-century preoccupation with process over outcome, the strongest bits bookended the show and rose above the thrill of an academic analysis to deliver a little more. First off was Clint McCallum’s In a Hall of Mirrors Waiting to Die for saxophone and piano. At the tender age of 29, McCallum gives off a vibe that one might get from crossing Nico Muhly with Rob Zombie. Currently studying and working in San Diego, he expresses an interest in the physical limits of musicians in the production of sound. Waiting follows this trend by featuring a saxophone part consisting mostly of very high and very loud tones held to a point of near exhaustion. Against this, a piano tempered with chains and books across the strings pounds away ending only with a definitive slamming shut of the keyboard lid. And while it might seem like an academic stunt, I must admit I was rather taken with the jarring, urban, jazz-inflected sound. It came off as a 21st-century Rhapsody in Blue in the lively dialog between the players.

The program built on this saxophone and jazz influence with solid performances of Webern’s Quartet Op. 22 and Milton Babbitt’s All Set which made sense in this context even if they weren’t as immediately compelling here. After the break was a subtle work for a large ensemble by Michael Pisaro called The Collection. Consisting of a number of miniature segments played between different sets of one or two instruments in the ensemble, this passive and quiet piece almost got lost in a program about the theatrical.

And as if to underscore this point, the evening closed with two solo piano works performed by the composer Luciano Chessa. To be fair Chessa is cheating a little bit in that the works presented here thrived on elaborate theatricality that bordered on performance art. First up was Variazioni su un ogetto di scena a collection of three variations on Italian folksongs from his own childhood performed in the most unadorned and basic fashion. When Chessa entered the stage with a large stuffed cow to begin the performance, you knew something was about to happen. What did transpire is that all three songs are actually played by stuffed animals with the composer's assistance. After the large ponderous hooves of the cow, Chessa returned with a teddy bear, and then finally a baby doll. In the finale, Chessa played sequences of notes in a call and response model with the doll as if teaching it this simple melody. Not only did the performance catch some of the childlike glee of the folk songs themselves, but it also showed them as multifaceted. The performance was often just as creepy as it was funny.

Following this was Chessa’s Louganis inspired by the famous diver who Chessa states he remembered from the Seoul Olympics he watched on TV as an adolescent. The work makes reference to both the sounds of wind and water, but is also meant to capture a sort of nostalgia for childhood. Next to the piano was a small living room set with chair, side table and television. The television was intended to play a video created by Terry Berlier, but was plagued by some technical difficulties, so Chessa let the television play on with a snow pattern as he proceeded with the musical part of the performance. Here he worked inside the piano with a number of electric toothbrushes vibrating against the strings creating a rushing sound akin to aerated water. This was periodically punctuated with his playing a simple melody on the keyboard while wearing bracelets of sleigh bells around his wrists. Oddly and unexpectedly the piece worked for me, creating a sense of the past with a kind of physicality. It may be equal parts theater, but the music of Luciano Chessa presented here left me wanting much more.



Luciano Chessa is the bomb. I'm so glad his pieces, which I've never heard or seen, worked for you. And yes, he's a man of the theater but his music is always interesting too.
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