Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

We're All In This Together

May 05, 2010

Esteban Benzecry

Tuesday brought the last performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” contemporary music series for the season, which was notable for also being dedicated to the late Alan Rich who had been one of the biggest advocates for new music and Los Angeles’ place in the contemporary classical world. As to whether or not he would have thought highly of the show, we’ll never know, but as L.A. Phil president Deborah Borda noted, he certainly would have been there. The evening’s program was also the final major program in the Philharmonic’s “Americas and Americans” festival. Despite banal platitudes from music director Dudamel and others about music breaking down borders between peoples of the Americas, the festival has been notable for bringing a lot of unfamiliar music to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. The “Green Umbrella” program ran like much of the rest of the festival in presenting equal parts multi-cultural exploration and world-music kitsch on offer.

Music director Gustavo Dudamel conducted three works on the program in his first appearance at any Green Umbrella program this season. He clearly has some interest in 20th- and 21st-century music as evidenced by some of his performances this season, and it was nice to at least see him advocate for a living composer by his presence. Of course, he’s yet to say two words about any of it directly to a local audience either onstage or in a pre-concert venue as of yet. But before he took the stage in either half of the program, there were two solo performances by guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee. The first was a work based on a Bach prelude and the second was Leo Brouwer's Sonata, both of which featured Lee’s exquisite guitar virtuosity. I certainly admired the technical skill of his playing, but I must admit, I’m no connoisseur of guitar music. Listening to this stuff is just as likely to make me feel I’m in some restaurant waiting for a drink refill between the appetizer and main course.

However, there was plenty of other music on the program from other living composers. USC alumnus Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo provided a lively little race for eight string players in the first half. Written while he was still a student, he noted before the show that the work has continued to garner him an unexpected amount of attention. It was fun, if brief, with its rapid sequences and interruptions between players. Norman has been commissioned for a new piece for the L.A. Philharmonic next year, so there is more to come. After this, Derek Bermel premiered one of the evening’s two new commissions with a work entitled Canzonas Americanas for small chamber orchestra. Bermel was asked to compose a piece inspired by the festival’s theme of musical and cultural integration and he went for broke, throwing in an amazingly wide array of American popular music idioms and Latin rhythms in what sometimes seemed a completely random haphazard fashion. There was a sort of sincerity about the piece, which could be charming, but also naïve in its wholesale incorporation of elements without any irony. The final movement of the work provided a brief vocal solo from Luciana Souza in a lovely coda.

Probably the more satisfying of the two premieres was Esteban Benzecry’s Fantasia Mastay. I wont trouble you with the mythological underpinnings of the piece, but it did concern the same new-agey riffs on peoples coming together across borders. The work slowly grew out of a swirling cacophony of contradicting sounds into a rushing ascending pattern of notes particularly in the percussion parts. Here the influence of musical traditions both Northern and Southern were fused together in a more hybrid way creating a new unitary construct in contrast to a hodgepodge of the typical references. It was by far the smartest work on the program and perhaps the most challenging work in the whole festival in its relatively few brief minutes.


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