Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Into The Black

April 28, 2010


Tuesday saw the end of the Piano Spheres season at Zipper Concert Hall downtown with a program dedicated to the late Alan Rich who had been a big advocate of the series for many years and will be greatly missed by many in the L.A. music community. Perhaps it was appropriate, though coincidental, that the program featured the music of Olivier Messiaen, a composer who wore his spiritual and romantic heart on his sleeve most times. The single piece on the program was Harawi, a song cycle for soprano and piano based on the Tristan and Isolde myth with Messiaen’s own devout, yet psychedelic take on things. (To hear a sample listen to the clip below.) Like the best of all his music, Harawi eventually enters that space where time seems to stand still and the heavens themselves threaten to open up.

That the players achieved this is a testament to the prodigious skills of pianist Vicki Ray and soprano Elissa Johnston, two figures well known in L.A.’s contemporary music scene. Johnston took a somewhat subdued approach to the vocal lines, keeping them light and understated. While at times I yearned for more of a piercing clarion call in the performance, the strategy paid off more in the other-worldly moments of these 12 songs. Messiaen mixes nonsense syllables in with his text in passages with a more urgent and darker edge and Johnston and Ray made the most of these.

Also of interest in the performance was a video work by Lars Jan that was presented in conjunction with the performance. Jan took footage from two different films both entitled “The Holy Mountain” in English: Leni Riefenstahl’s 1926 silent feature (see the top video clip) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal 1973 art film. The pieces were spliced together to enhance the Tristan elements as well as the more psychedelic overtones in Messiaen's music. There were beautiful moments where the film and performance meshed perfectly, the Tristan figure in Riefenstahl's film lost on a freezing mountainside hallucinating in technicolor about Jesus and toads. Video of this sort is always a risk in that it can overwhelm one's perception of the musical performance, but Johnston and Ray were not cowed on Tuesday leaving the audience with a glimpse of something from above.


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