Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Knock Three Times

October 20, 2010

Members of The L.A. Phil New Music Group with Jeffrey Milarsky Photo: mine 2010

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series devoted to contemporary classical music kicked off its new season on Tuesday. And while newer music no longer shares quite the pride of place it once did for the organization as a whole, Tuesday’s program was a significant and enjoyable one. It featured works from the three composers who founded Bang on a Can, the New York-based collective for the support, composition, and performance of contemporary music. Bang on a Can is known for many things including their annual marathon concerts. In fact there are few organizations or individuals that have played as large a role in this area, and hearing a much shorter program of the music of Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang was a nice East Coast moment here by the Pacific. (Though, to be fair, it should be noted that Lang is an L.A. native)

First up was a movement from Gordon’s Weather, a work that the composer notes was inspired by chaotic weather patterns. Scored for a small string ensemble, Weather drew on Baroque techniques, in particular the use of canons, in a modern way that sounded equal parts Arvo Pärt and American minimalism. Although the piece consisted of small repeating units that changed over time through small variations while overlapping one another, it wouldn’t be mistaken for the music of Reich or Glass. Gordon has produced a large and diverse body of work that is not unfamiliar to Los Angeles audiences including Decasia, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and seen here in both 2006 and 2008, as well as the opera What to Wear presented at REDCAT (where else) in 2006 to a libretto by Richard Foreman. Next on Tuesday’s agenda were two quartets from Julia Wolfe. The second, Early That Summer, was for a traditional string quartet. But the first and perhaps more surprising piece was Dark Full Ride for four drum kits. Wolfe fully exploited the physicality involved in this instrumentation, and the sequences of cymbals and kick drums connected with a very receptive audience.

Perhaps my favorite works of the evening, though, belonged to David Lang whose career has been on quite a tear lately since winning the Pulitzer Prize for the little match girl passion in 2008. He’s having a big year in Los Angeles where match girl will receive a local premiere from Jacaranda in January and where his opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field will be presented by Long Beach Opera in June. The first of two pieces Tuesday was a setting of the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” by Lou Reed for male voice and solo cello. The idea was excellent providing a new and revealing context for Reed’s own poetry. There was a video accompaniment by Doug Aitken, that I wasn’t convinced was completely necessary, but Gloria Lum’s sad cello in contrast to the vocal performance by Theo Bleckmann was great. The evening concluded with Lang's Piercedwhich was originally commissioned by Real Quiet, the piano, cello and bass trio—with small string ensemble accompaniment. It’s rhythmically complicated and has an American sound verging on the jazz-influenced but also not oblivious to the contributions of American minimalism. Highly seductive, the piece seems much larger than it is without dramatic pounding and grunting. It was a strong finish to a brief snapshot of the rich musical legacy Bang on a Can and its founder's have created. And it didn't even take all day.


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