Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

We're All in This Together

March 26, 2012

Timo Andres with members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2012
If there is anything that’s been reinforced to me lately, it’s that conflict, real or manufactured, seems to draw people’s attention. Even in the field of classical music, the whiff of a cross-country rivalry between Los Angeles and New York serves to do all kinds of things. It’s a marketing strategy for music festivals, and it’s an idea that certainly sells whatever it is big media conglomerates still sell these days the way it crops up again and again in the writing of people who should know better. I was reminded of this on Saturday when I heard a story regarding one of L.A.'s most prominent public writers on all things classical music. Allegedly after hearing a new composition from a young ex-Los Angeles based composer who now resides in Brooklyn, the writer was purported to have remarked about how the composer has “gone soft” now that he works in the apparently toxic confines of Brooklyn. You see, every time you insult New York in Los Angeles, an agent gets his wings.

But luckily, local artists of the musical variety at least are having none of this garbage as evidenced by two local programs that mostly celebrated the connection between themselves and their peers on the East Coast albeit in different ways. What’s more, Brooklyn-based composer Timothy Andres’ music featured prominently in both. Andres was the star attraction at this weekend’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert, which I saw Sunday in its Westwood incarnation. Andres was commissioned as part of the group’s Sound Investment program with donations from individual audience members to bring new work to life. Andres was this year’s choice, and the result was a remarkably interesting 13-minute piano concerto entitled Old Keys. The single movement highlighted Andres' familiarity with 20th-century American music history, but had an accessibility that brought later John Adams immediately to my mind. And while the piano part, which Andres played himself, was no virtuosic tour de force, it subtly achieved its own greatness fully integrating itself within the context of the larger orchestration. This was not the usual individual-vs-society concerto model but something far more nuanced. As Andres' himself pointed out, it's a restless piece constantly on the move, looking for something though not necessarily in an agitated way. If there was any complaint, it was that the piece ended far too quickly as if it were only the first movement of some larger, much more ambitious work.

Andres didn’t completely pass on the virtuosity, however. He followed Old Keys with his recomposition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto, No. 26. As music director and conductor Jeffrey Kahane pointed out before the performance, it is not a well-loved piece by many soloists. This is in part due to the fact that Mozart didn’t write out the music for pianist's left hand which Mozart himself likely improvised on the spot or played from his own memory in performance. Other composers have had a stab at fleshing this sizable gap out, but Andres took a radically different approach, creating a related but completely independent part not intended to conform or mimic Mozart’s style. The result is fiendish to play and nearly schizophrenic, the right hand almost unaware at times of what the left is doing. The orchestra speaks to the soloist as if through a translator or across time in something that feels contemporary in a twisted sort of way. Just to put a point on it, Andres played his piano transcription of Mahler’s “Des Antionius von Paduas Fischpredigt” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn as an encore. He left no doubt in this room that he’s a major talent with some incredible music yet to come.

Andrew Tholl center with members of wildUp Photo: mine 2012
All this bi-coastal good feeling served as a template for the young upstart wildUp collective that returned to Venice’s Beyond Baroque this past Friday and Saturday. The theme was a mocking nod to a N.Y. vs L.A. rivalry with the ensemble playing pieces predominantly from young composers working in either city. The intent wasn’t so much to draw a contrast as it was to point out similarities in two burgeoning music scenes. In the best ironic twist of all, music director Christopher Rountree, who contributed a piece based on Walt Whitman’s ”Brooklyn,” was absent from the show except by pre-taped message as he was in that very same borough this weekend helping out with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. See how easy that was? And nobody had to get off a high horse to do it no less.

Andres’s music featured prominently here as well with the group playing several chamber-sized pieces, many of which had previously been heard as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” new music series. The impressive pianist Richard Valittuto showed that Andres is not the only one who’s capable of making How Can I Live in Your World of Ideas? sound great. Andres’ Ives-inspired Some Connecticut Gospel was also in the first half of the program and was played with as much New England pluck as you could wish from any ensemble. Andrew Tholl revisited Missy Mazzoli’s solo violin piece via Bach, Dissolve, O My Heart, and participated in the violin octet that gave the juice to Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo. Norman will be taking over the composer in residence spot at LACO starting next season so local audiences will hopefully to get to hear more of this kind of great music. These pieces bristled with invention, all very inviting, and, from the look of things, as fun to play as to hear.

The Los Angeles part of the program kicked off with a comical piece from Art Jarvinen, Egyptian Two-Step, that made ample use of the hissing from compressed air canisters with the players breaking out in smiles as wide as the audience's. From here things got a bit more serious with Odeya Nini's Shelter in Swarm, Andrew McIntosh’s Silver and White and Andrew Tholl’s Corpus Callosum, which all showed the markings of European modernism. I was perhaps most taken with Rountree’s Brooklyn, which provided chamber accompaniment to a pre-recorded reading of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s language is as stunning as Ives’ music and Rountree craftily follows along matching the emotional fervency in the building vision of a city from the water. It was all very exciting stuff in large part due to the commitment and excitement of the players. Granted, sometimes that excitement cut into their ability to sell the music in a serious fashion with a rotating roster of emcees for the show who were too inclined toward a little humorous self-deprication, which can go a long way; more than that goes way too far. But better this than something boring, which wildUp never is. Again proving that, yes, we can all get along and have a good time without highlighting our divisions to do so. Who would have guessed?

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