Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Give Me That Old-Time Religion

April 12, 2010

Tom Bogdan, Kimberly Switzer, Meredity Monk, Grant Gershon, Theo Bleckmann, Allison Sniffin, Katie Geissinger, and members of the LAMC
Photo: mine 2010

Meredith Monk and members of her ensemble returned with their other-worldly music to L.A. on Sunday for a performance with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The show, which also featured music from Arvo Pärt, was a follow-up to a successful appearance the composer made with the chorale a few years back. However, despite this desire for collaboration, the chorale itself felt strangely absent from much of the music for the evening - typically playing a secondary or supportive role to others. The centerpiece of the night was a new commission from the LAMC for Monk, WEAVE, which received its West Coast premiere at the concert. WEAVE, like many of Monk's more recent works involves increasingly large amounts of instrumental music in addition to soloists and a choral ensemble. Two members of Monk's ensemble, Theo Bleckmannn and Katie Geissinger, performed the solo parts consisting more of vocal sounds than actual "singing" which is not unusual in the composer's sonic world. The seated chorus murmured along in the background. Monk’s program note for the composition refers to “layers” of music and sound that intersect and change one another, which sounds as apt a description as any I could come up with. However, despite the presence of several capital letters in the title, the work seemed rather non-committal to me like much of Monk's more instrumentally intensive music. It's pleasant enough, but often feels focused on process over content - kind of like watered-down Steve Reich. Or is that the other way around?

Things dramatically improved on the outskirts of the rather long evening with Monk herself and her ensemble performing excerpts from Songs of Ascension, a theater work she and collaborator Ann Hamilton developed over the last few years. Ascension was seen here in a fully staged version at REDCAT in 2008 and was not particularly memorable. But here, the music seemed alive and new. While I’m sure it has been refined over time, I think the piece also benefited from the removal of some of the more pretentious elements of the theater piece including a wandering string ensemble which was now stationary, and a dance component that was reduced to a very small amount of movement for ensemble and chorus. Songs of Ascension was also beefed up for a much larger chorus here, which gave the LAMC a chance to shine in an evening where they were sometimes overly sidelined. The work makes clear references to eastern spirituality and connecting with a higher power. It's lovely and engaging music that suffered only one misstep in the semi-staging at the end when the ensemble members rearranged themselves on the stage taking supine lying positions on the stage as they continued to sing. For some odd reason, Grant Gershon, who had been at the rear of the ensemble conducting the chorale, also took a siesta on the floor evoking laughter from the audience in what was otherwise a serene and uplifting moment. But outside of this one bad call, it was the highlight of Monk's works on the program.

Truth be told though, the best music on Sunday came in the form of Arvo Pärt’s Miserere. The chorale had limited involvement here, too, providing only two short segments of light in a rather somber and dark arrangement for five soloists and a handful of instrumentalists including organ. Pärt is also a composer with an interest in the spiritual, one heavily influenced by his own experience with the Eastern Orthodox Church. But despite its own Eastern influences, the spiritual comes off in his work as something more structured and tradition bound. In comparison to Monk's Songs of Ascension, Pärt's Miserere sounded like the B Minor Mass. But whatever your belief system, it was a night of some lovely music making.


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