Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

So, Percussion.

May 09, 2012

Joseph Pereira
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic “Green Umbrella” new(ish) music series wrapped up its run for the season with percussion and Luciano Berio’s love for Cathy Berberian. The program was to have been conducted by L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel who withdrew from the concert just last week due to what was described as his need for more time to prepare for the world premiere of John Adams’ new evening length opera/oratorio The Passion According to the Other Mary just over three weeks from now. So while the maestro was apparently holed up somewhere diligently committing the new score to memory or whatever else it might be that he does to prepare, conductor Jeffrey Milarsky got down to the actual business of music making and performing some challenging new pieces including a commission and world premiere from one of the L.A. Phil's own.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the evening was that world premiere of a new percussion concerto written by composer and L.A. Philharmonic principal timpanist Joseph Pereira. The L.A. Phil has a tradition of composer/timpanists, most notably William Kraft, who achieved similar success with the orchestra not so long ago. (Interestingly, Pereira has performed Kraft’s own Percussion Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra in 2009.) For Pereira’s own piece, he recruited the talents of Colin Currie who was seen recently in Orange County playing the Higdon Percussion Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony. The piece is scored for both strings and winds that are separated into small groups at either side of the stage. There are also two additional percussionists, one for each set of players who accompanied Currie with a wide array of sounds. The idea, as Pereira pointed out in his own remarks, was to have the soloist work from a more restricted range of instruments and allow the back-up percussionists a broader palette in the supporting role. Percussion concertos often allow soloists time with everything but the kitchen sink. Take for example Sofia Gubaidulina's recent Glorious Percussion that calls for an entire group of "soloists" to cover all the instrumentation she calls for. In Pereira's work, the goal was to focus on only a couple of instruments and explore the contrast between "unpitched" drums in the first movement and "pitched" marimba and vibraphone in the balance. The music and its development with the small orchestra plays with the notion of each group being "pitched" or not, and Pereira specifically asks each collection to express itself in the language of the other. For example, in the opening of the second movement the marimba part is restricted to only a couple of tones relying instead on other "unpitched" qualities of the sound for expression. Of course, none of this stayed stable for long, and Pereira played with the tension, passing material back and around with constant commentary from the cornucopia of other percussion instruments in the hands of the orchestra players. The work adhered to a traditional concerto structure which early on moved from bursts of dance rhythms to more esoteric forms and the piece mostly began to cook as it entered its final stretches.

In the first half of the program, Pereira's concerto was paired with Andy Akiho’s Alloy for the 12-member Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble. The work is scored for eleven steel pan players and a drum set. Additionally, the players each had bits and pieces of scrap metal that they would also play. The work cleverly played with the Carribean musical heritage associated with these instruments in an indirect fashion. It bounced along in a regular repeating way reminiscent of something straight out of Stomp that was a crowd-pleaser. Despite its ambitions for something greater, though, it came off as more of a trinket than a part of the crown jewels.

The balance of the evening moved away from percussion and towards more vocal fireworks even if they were still of an unconventional variety. The concert closed with Luciano Berio’s Recital (for Cathy), a 40-minute fever dream inside the mind of a soprano during the course of a recital performance. Written for Berio’s muse Cathy Berberian, the work demands as much acting as singing and playfully quotes a wide variety of composers and musical idioms in a dizzying succesion. Soprano Kiera Duffy was the protagonist and picked up and dropped Purcell, Rossini, Wagner and many more almost as quickly as she found them. Berio's own music from prior works is mixed in as well, and even when the music is immediately familiar, the substituted multi-lingual text, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, is nonsense. Or at least it's meaning is largely subconscious filled with the musings and wayward madness of the recitalist character. There's a doppelganger that appears to repeatedly try to pull her offstage and even the soprano's own accompanist, in this case a role played by L.A. Phil keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin, lunges onto the scene half way through. Meanwhile, conductor Milarsky leads his small band of strings and winds like some Greek chorus commenting on the action and egging it on. It was lots of fun to watch, and Duffy gave a very physical and engaged performance. Still, the part plays with this notion of the mind of the diva and its wayward subconscious tributaries which calls for a certain grandeur to give the thing another layer of comic irony that Duffy didn't quite tap into. The performance, which was directed by James Darrah, reminded me of the San Francisco Symphony's recent huge success with John Cage's Song Books and the nuanced insanity from experienced vocalists such as Jessye Norman and Meredith Monk who were able to trade on their own histories and images for another level of meaning in Cage's theatrical insanity. The L.A. Phil needed a little more of that on Tuesday in what was otherwise a solid show.

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