Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Ashes of American Flags

November 18, 2010

Avery Roberts, Tony Arnold and members of the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Groups with Jean-Michaël Lavoie Photo: mine 2010

The music of American iconoclast George Crumb was the focus of this week’s “Green Umbrella” contemporary music program hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday. More specifically, the evening consisted of two of the composer’s song cycles, perhaps some of his best-known and most-appreciated music. Crumb, of course, is a 20th-century musical deconstructionist par excellence from the extended playing techniques of his scoring to the spiraling visual artworks of the printed scores themselves. The evening was led by French-Canadian conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie, and the primary vocalist for the evening was soprano Tony Arnold, an expert in this corner of the musical world.

The first half of the show consisted of The River of Life (Songs of Joy and Sorrow) the first volume of an extended project originally conceived on a much smaller scale for his daughter Ann. (Another volume of the series will feature prominently in next year’s Ojai Festival in a performance with this year’s music director, Dawn Upshaw.) The American Songbook series is one that wears Crumb’s love of Charles Ives on his sleeve. Crumb takes traditional American songs, largely preserving their vocal lines and melodies, and tosses the rest out the window scoring them for piano and a huge array of percussion instruments, creating dark, brooding, discordant and sometimes jarring music underneath the surface. The principle drama in these songs stems from the contrast between the pretty and often simple vocal lines placed against markedly dissimilar music. The arrangements can be brilliant at times, especially when Crumb’s music changes the context of the song as it does with “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” The unquestioning faith of the original takes an ironic tone in a somewhat menacing setting complete with a skipping and repeating segment of lyrics at the end taken from Crumb’s own memory of a scratched recording of the song familiar to him from his childhood. Arnold was equally able to turn other songs into the most spiritual meditations. Although she occasionally got lost in the sound, she provided needed ballast throughout the set. And though many of the other songs in The River of Life were equally beautiful, at just around an hour, these 9 songs did run the risk of seeming just a bit gimmicky by the end.

After a break, Arnold returned with a few more players including a prepared guitar and harp for Ancient Voices of Children, a song cycle from 1970 that also calls for a child soprano who in this instance was the impressive Avery Roberts. The young man availed himself splendidly in a high-pressure situation singing both off stage and then later directly into the strings of a prepared piano. Unlike the American Songbook Series, Ancient Voices is entirely original music set to the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. It is also more of a unified work expounding on Lorca’s themes of innocence, both lost and found, in the human soul. Crumb punctuates some of the most pointed moments in the text about the metaphorical death of children with the sound of a toy piano. Again Ancient Voices has a dark, sonorous feel to it and, like the other songs on the program, has a rather concrete, almost didactic approach to its lyrical content. Despite the thirty years separating the two cycles, Crumb's ability to create a surprisingly meditative sound from the most unexpected instruments remained in tact and made for a solid Tuesday evening.


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