Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Dean (and more Dean)

October 19, 2006

Mr. Dean

The Los Angeles Philharmonic continued its long-standing support of new music this week with two very strong shows devoted primarily to the work of Australian composer and violist Brett Dean. Dean played for many years in the Berlin Philharmonic, but as his profile as a composer grew, he left in 2000 to return to Australia. Over the weekend, the Philhamonic included his Viola Concerto in a program with the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Haydn's Symphony No. 82. On Tuesday, the Philharmonic turned over an entire evening of its "Green Umbrella" series (don't ask me, I don't have any idea on this one either) to programming chosen by Dean. This evening included not only his own works - 1996's Voices of Angels for violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano and 2000's Pastoral Symphony for small orchestra - but also compositions by fellow Australians Liza Lim and 27 year-old Anthony Pateras. There are two excellent write ups of these shows by Jerry Zinser at Sequenza 21 as well as another one by Mark Swed in today's LA Times if you are interested in further details about the works themselves.

Both shows were well attended and quite strong on the whole. The music was both evocative and at times moving and thoughtful. But still I had some reservations about many of these pieces. The viola concerto was marked by virtuoso playing and contained both a playfulness and darkness that were easy to get drawn into. However, it was hard to ignore what seemed like an internalized stereotype about the viola's role within the larger context of the orchestra. Violas often get a bad rap as being "second string" players in the larger group, and the concerto did little to refute this idea. In fact it seemed to reinformce it in a strange way. Much of Dean's own playing in the first half of the concerto seemed intentionally drowned out by either piano or too-clever percussion effects. Maybe this was some sort of statement about the viola's emerging voice from a larger cacophony but the somber ending of the piece would seem to belie this.

Tuesday's pieces seemed more hampered by Dean's explanations of them than anything else. He made comparatively lengthy comments of the pieces and their genesis before each performance. Certainly while there was much to be admired in them both, the explanations made the works sound overly naive. Angels was reportedly about the notion that angels may actually be considered as ambivalent or even at times negative or bad agents. Given how long this notion has been around and that he claimed it was inspired in part by a coffee table book, I couldn't help but think "So what else is new?" The Patoral Symphony was a reflection on the natural beauty Dean found in his Australian homeland and the tension that rises over seeing this beauty threatened through processes of development. Frankly, Joni Mitchell covered this ground in Big Yellow Taxi over 30 years ago and the sentiment seems a little stale now without a little more to it. Maybe it would have been better to leave well enough alone and let the otherwise wonderful music speak for itself.

I think the real stars of the Green Umbrella show were to be found in other pockets. The first was the hall itself for contending exceedingly well with multiple pieces from both Pateras and Dean that called for amplification. Disney Hall is notorious for resisting any kind of amplification and on Tuesday it sounded perfect. The other star was Pateras himself. A composer whose youth made his utter lack of stage-presence still seem charming, Pateras had two compisitions in the program - an 8 piece chamber work for 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 2 bass entitled Chromatophore and a solo work called Continuums & Chasms, Movement vii for prepared amplified piano which Pateras performed himself. Both of these pieces played on formal structural elements in an environment of repeated and alternating sets of sounds. Tension was created, as it is in many minimalist works, by creating a sense of inevitablity and release in the work when the forseen and logical conclusions of a process is reached. This work was alive and refreshing, though I suppose it may wreak of the cleverness present in a grad-school assignment at times.

No matter how you slice it though, these were evenings to be treasured. As Salonen pointed out on Thursday, how often do you get to see a classical composer perform his own music these days?

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