Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Best of Both Worlds

January 23, 2011

David Lang shakes the hand of Cedric Berry while Grant Gershon, Adrianna Manfredi, and Elissa Johnston look on Photo: mine 2011

I am not a beach person. And here in Los Angeles it takes a lot to get me west of La Cienega Blvd. But if there is anything that can do it, it’s the superb programming from L.A.’s Westside home for 20th-century music and more, Jacaranda. Directors Patrick Scott and Mark Allan Hilt have built a remarkable series in virtually no time that showcases some of the most exciting music in town. The philosophy centers on playing music that doesn’t get heard enough and the series’ home at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica is typically packed on a Saturday night like the one this weekend. This show, entitled “Perilous Balance,” was an evening of contrasts and symmetry leading up to the main event, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, which was presented by a superb ensemble including, Cedric Berry, Adrianna Manfredi, Elissa Johnston, and L.A. Master Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon. It was another big event for Jacaranda and a hugely successful performance.

Prior to the main course, however, were a number of works spanning the latter half of the 20th Century, all dealing with opposites or contrasting ideas in relatively small musical spaces. There were quartets from two American composers, Elliot Carter and Joan Tower, which were set against organ works from two ex-Soviet legends, Schnittke and Gubaidulina. Carter’s Sonata for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord from 1952 was the oldest work on the program and started things off. This early work is all about icy clarity and what Jacaranda Artistic Director Patrick Scott described as "winter sonorities" in his remarks before the show. The technically involved playing from the ensemble, which included Gloria Cheng on the large more modern 16-foot stop harpsichord called for in the piece, set a high standard for what was to follow. Next up was an initially dark organ solo from Sofia Gubaidulina entitled Light and Darkness played by Jacaranda Music Director Mark Alan Hilt. The composer's trademark crashing keyboard waves of sound were interspersed with much quieter and reflective moments for a very spiritual effect. The first half concluded with a splendid performance from the Lyris Quartet of Joan Tower's 1994 Night Fields. As the name implies, this rather serious single movement evokes the natural world in the dark, but even more so calls to mind the quartets of Shostakovich, albeit in a more readily accessible way.

After the break, we heard Schnittke's Sound and Resound for organ and trombone. An unusual pairing of instruments to be sure, and one that Scott invited us to think of as an overture to The Little Match Girl Passion in describing the immensity of the world she inhabits. Then it was time for the main course, and the performance of Lang's 2007 Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning composition was moving and splendidly done. This is music that sounds deceptively straightforward. A quartet of vocalists, each of whom must also manage some basic percussion parts, travel through 15 movements alternating between narrative recitatives and more reflective ensemble interludes. The four vocalists perform more or less the same text throughout with staggered entrances, placing a premium on perfect pitch and timing. The work is somewhat self explanatory and creates a recognizable musical passion inspired by Bach's own St. Matthew's Passion, but uses Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl as the foundation instead of the traditional religious texts. As with the works that preceded it, Lang draws contrast in his music between the dark cold world of the little girl and the colorful light of her visions in the flame. The music can be halting and there are abundant silent pauses, but when the vocal harmonics burst into existence, they are marvelous, if still like the match flame, short-lived. The crowd sat in appreciative silence afterward before giving Lang, who was present for the performance, and the vocalists a standing ovation. And while those can be a dime a dozen here in L.A., this one was well deserved and it was another feather in Jacaranda's newer music cap.



Who is Gloria Chang? Has Gloria Cheng changed her last name? Just wondering...
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