Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

California Dreaming

May 20, 2012

Members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus and the Jacaranda Festival Orchestra Photo: mine 2012.
Santa Monica’s Jacaranda Music series wrapped up its season Sunday night in a big way. That’s not unusual for this rapidly expanding predominantly 20th-century music series that brings rarely programmed works to the far west side of town. The big part on Sunday was about scope of performance. Jacaranda has mostly been about chamber works during the course of its existence, but this time around, the group recruited a 39-member Jacaranda Festival Orchestra who played alongside the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus atop a riser covering the altar right up to edge of the first row of pews at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, the group’s usual home. Artistic Director Patrick Scott acknowledged that this was specifically a test to see if Jacaranda could pull off much larger scale works than they had previously, and the evening’s results indicate that the group is headed into exciting new programming territory.

The evening’s theme was California mavericks and consisted of two rarely performed large-scale works from Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Harrison’s Suite for Violin and Strings was presented first in a maximal version that included all the different movements associated with the work at different points in its development. Harrison originally composed the work for violin and the American Gamelan, an instrument he helped create to further explore his interest in Asian musical traditions. However, the complications of maintaining the instrument limited the work’s frequency of performance and eventually, Harrison and his student Richard Dee helped craft a version orchestrated for a more conventional chamber orchestra. The resulting work, which includes parts for harp and celesta, attempts to capture some of the same ethnic overtones as the original. But it doesn’t quite achieve it at all times, giving the feel of a big budget movie soundtrack here and there. Soloist Alyssa Park gave a fluid and sometimes meditative performance that proved popular.

But the show’s concluding performance of Riley’s Olsen III was a hypnotizing wonder. Riley composed the work for young musicians of the Royal Academy of Music in Sweden in 1967. The notorious premiere was recorded for radio and includes the catcalls, shouting, and angry exits that greeted the work then. It’s still the primary reference recording of the piece, and to rectify that lack, Jacaranda recorded Sunday’s performance. Olsen III shares many similarities with Riley’s In C in its open ended approach to the size and composition of the performing ensemble and the overall length of the performance. Sections of repeating structures change slowly based on a conductor’s signal and after the initial performance of all the composite parts, the group returns to them in canonical format with different, performer-determined entrances and alignments. In addition to the orchestra members, the Los Angeles Children’s Choir provided the vocal accompaniment for the piece. The music starts big and stays there, oscillating between different combinations of sound for something that grows with warmth and energy over a period of about 40 minutes in this instance. This music is not as straight forward as it sounds and music director Mark Alan Hilt alongside Anne Tomlinson and her choristers gave a wonderful first-rate and very well coordinated performance. It was simply thrilling to hear. One of the things that always strikes me about Riley’s work is how accessible it seems. The most fascinating versions of his works I’ve heard are often by either young ensembles or ad hoc groups suggesting that a sense of community takes precedence over the kind of individualist virtuosity that’s the hallmark of so much Western art music. The big wonderful wall of sound swelled the church and filled my mind with the promise of the many larger works this successful evening promises for the future of Jacaranda. Of course, we’ll learn more about that when the group introduces their plans for next season later in the coming week.


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