Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Rites of Springs

April 11, 2012

Oscar Bettison Photo: Molly Sheridan
The Green Umbrella used to denote the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 20th century and newer music series reopened on Tuesday for a surprisingly energizing show. It was a program originally designed to be led by composer John Adams, the L.A. Phil’s Creative Chair, but he backed out several weeks ago due to scheduling constraints, passing the figurative baton to Jeffrey Milarsky. This may have worked out for the best in that, even though Adams has led some wonderful new(ish) music programs here in L.A., his conducting is not his strongest suit. Instead Milarsky stepped in and led three spritely and performances of work not always thought of in that sense. The first half of the evening went to the old hands, the kind of “new” music that was written by composers who are now deceased. The evening started out with Stockhausen’s FÜNF STERNZEICHEN, which was receiving its U.S. premiere. The work features five short movements or songs Stockhausen had orchestrated from an earlier 1970s performance piece based on astrological signs. The pieces is playful on many levels and in a way make a connection with Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra even if only on a structural level. The "songs" in each moevemnt were surprisingly accessible given Stockhausen’s overall reputation, and Milarsky gave them a strong sense of organization and direction. Following this was John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra with soloist Gloria Cheng. Cage’s music has been everywhere in this anniversary year and, though this evening was not specifically designated to honor that event, there was an element of memorialization to the performance. It sounded both contemporary and oddly historical simultaneously. The prepared piano is almost an everyday occurrence in some L.A. music circles. But here it's audacious, unpredictable, calling out with giggles and jeers amid the crumbling wayward orchestral ensemble that still held some surprises.

With so much history before it, there was a lot of weight bearing down on the world premiere of Oscar Bettison’s Livre des Sauvages that occupied the second half of the evening. Bettison is known for making the most our of unexpected objects turning them into the musical instruments they never knew they were. So Stockhausen and Cage certainly provide a road map to how music got to where Bettison starts out. And yet, little did anyone expect that Bettison’s music would be in such a fighting spirit itself, diving in with jarring, rhythmic stretches. The piece in three movements takes inspiration from an identically titled collection of faux-ancient pictographs that more likely originated around 200 years ago. The figures in these pages represent all varieties of figures, animals, and symbols, and Bettison ran with this borrowing liberally from both Stravinsky and Messiaen. That’s not a bad thing when you consider he was kind enough to avoid that nasty bird-mess clean up you get in the latter’s case. But the effect was similar, with a ritual feeling to music that was also filled with unexpected noises from an electric guitar and miniature bellows blowing air across the surface of microphones adding to the minimally amplified mix. The strings played furiously throughout the work and the energy level started high and pretty much stays there. If the desired effect was winding the audience up in a good way, success was achieved. No one was bored or disinterested with Bettison’s offering, and his name and this piece won’t likely be forgotten by Tuesday’s audience soon. It was smart and direct music, excitingly played by the L.A. Phil new music members. It’s also the kind of music the Green Umbrella series thrives on, and why the crowds for it are consistently so large.


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