Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Discontents and Their Civilization

February 03, 2010

Kiera Duffy, Stefan Asbury and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2010

The Green Umbrella new music series from the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned on Tuesday night with a program focusing on some 20th-century works dealing with madness. The show took place under the watchful eye of John Adams, the L.A. Philharmonic’s Creative Chair, who proved he’ll be no absentee landlord when it comes to the orchestra's New Music Group programming. Even in the absence of his own music, he spoke during the pre-concert lecture about his memories of first hearing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the cornerstone of the evening’s selections. Starting things off though was a much bigger surprise. Joseph Pereira, a composer and the L.A. Phil’s Principal Timpanist since 2007, entered the stage shirtless and barefoot to perform Vinko Globokar’s ?Corpore. The work calls for a percussion soloist to literally play himself – slapping, tapping, scratching his or her own chest, body and head. Placed in the center of a set of microphones, Pereira did just that, often accompanied by vocalizations indicated for responses to the self-inflicted blows. Needless to say the thrashing about in a state of semi-undress resulted in a distinct vision of madness with definite musical overtones. We already knew Pereira was a great timpanist, and frankly rather easy on the eyes, but this performance was something brave, unique, and, I would wager, beyond the call for many musicians. As Adams himself noted, this is not a piece you just approach someone about performing, “they have to come to you.”

With such a high standard set, the rest of the evening was in danger of seeming pro forma. But it wasn’t and there were other surprises around the bend. Next up was Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King made famous in a recording by fellow composer Julius Eastman. Here, baritone Thomas Meglioranza embodied George III in the wildly dynamic screeching, hollering, and whispering that make up this score. It’s music that is alternately creepy and comical from the high pitch parody of Handel’s Messiah to his prowling about the stage, eventually smashing a (fake) violin relieved from one of the other performers. Davies wrote for an ensemble largely the same as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and the similarities between the two works are multiple. Meglioranza had the nearly impossible task of sounding both totally unhinged and precisely musical and he did an admirable job of it. And while the entire performance may not have lived up to the standard set by Eastman, it was still a rather bracing one from the entire ensemble.

After the break, a new ensemble returned with conductor Stefan Asbury and soprano Kiera Duffy for Schoenberg’s touchstone song cycle. In some ways the cards were stacked against it, in that by then, Pierrot almost sounded pedestrian and restrained given what preceded it. Duffy, who is featured in Susan Froemke’s film The Audition about the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, gave a solid reading of the vocal part. I personally felt she was singing it a little too much as opposed to placing it in the Sprechstimme Schoenberg intended. The poetry is still beautiful, but sanity reigned more than anywhere else in the evening. I know it may be hard to believe that Schoenberg could be the sleepiest music on a program, but there it was. Which may speak more to how much things have changed in music since Pierrot Lunaire. Now madness has many faces and contemporary artists have found a new vocabulary to talk about these ideas building on Schoenberg's legacy.



It was a real violin! :)
I should probably clarify my comment. Yes it was a "real" violin that was destroyed. However, it was not the violin Bing Wang, the violinist in Tuesday's performance, usually plays with that was smashed. In fact she clearly had switched the violin she was initially playing with a second one just prior to the vocalist taking it from her to destroy. There was some atypical black skirting around her chair that she used for the slight of hand involved.

So while it was in fact a violin that was destroyed, it was one that was specifically chosen for that purpose that was used in the act.
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