Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

10 Questions for...
Andrew Norman

October 03, 2012

Andrew Norman
Hot young composers seem to be everywhere these days. It takes something special to stand out, especially in this world of social media and hyper-connectivity, but American composer Andrew Norman has quickly made an ever growing name for himself. And best of all he manages this remarkable feat with something decidedly old fashioned – his music. His work has been featured on local stages many times including some notable performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this former USC student begins making a big splash of a return on the local scene this month when he takes up a three-year stint as Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which will open its season at the Alex Theater in Glendale this Saturday October 6th. Included on that program conducted by LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will be Norman’s The Great Swiftness and the orchestra will continue to feature his works and new commissions on several occasions over the next few years. This is more good news for everyone as Norman, one of this year’s finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music, will be bringing his energy and insight to a local audience with a huge interest and appetite for contemporary music. Before things get started, though, Norman was kind enough to take a minute to answer the OWA 10 Questions to tell a little about where he’s going, his favorite hamburger, and his love for working with kids.
  1. How important is contemporary technology to your creative process?
    My relationship with technology is complicated. I'm not a natural with computers. At all. So I have yet to write a piece that has any component of electronic music in it. Which I feel bad about, but am also growing to accept as part of my (possibly anachronistic) creative identity. But I do use notation software - sometimes early in the writing process, sometimes late - and occasionally midi playback, depending on the kind of music I'm writing.
  2. What’s your current obsession?
    Rearranging the furniture in my living room. I find endless fascination in the many ways objects can be in a room.
  3. You’ve been appointed Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra starting this year, one of several such positions you’ve held with various ensembles. How important is this sort of long-term collaboration with a specific group of musicians to your work?
    SO IMPORTANT. Music making can and should be personal thing, and the more we can do to make new orchestral music a more personal sort of collaboration, the more honest and energized the final product will be. I love getting to know an orchestra and writing for them as people, not just players.
  4. Music education and working with young people has played a big part in your career to date. How does this activity contribute to your work as a composer?
    Young people have so much creative energy! Working with young people is like tapping into this huge, unbridled energy source; I can fill up and take it back to my own work. Sometimes I feel bad because I get SO much out working with kids - I hope they get something, too.
  1. What music made you want to be a composer?
    When I was a little, little kid my parents would play this compilation tape of the greatest hits of the Baroque. I think it was somewhere between Air on the G String and Pachelbel's Canon that I decided to become a composer.
  2. What’s your second favorite opera after Berg’s Lulu?
    Britten's Peter Grimes. I stood through half a dozen performances of it as an usher at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion back in the day.
  3. When should I clap?
    Whenever you feel like it.
  4. You’re one of The USC Thornton School’s most beloved graduates. What do you miss most about living in Southern California after your time in Europe and New York?
    Disney Hall and In-N-Out Burger.
  5. You recently completed a concerto for theremin and orchestra as part of your tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Are there other unusual instruments or combinations of them you have future plans to write for? And may I suggest more pieces for the ondes martenot?
    Actually, the theremin concerto was written first for Carolina Eyck and the Heidelberg Philharmonic, and later adapted for BMOP. But yes, I tend to be drawn to instruments with dangerously wide vibratos (theremin, ondes martenot, aging mezzo sopranos...), and I learned so much from writing the theremin concerto that I want to write another, and another. There's so much you can do with it! And I've got a shot at being the Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps of the Theremin world - like in a 100 years thereminists in conservatory will earnestly debate the varying merits of Norman 4 vs. Norman 3 or 5. That's the kind of immortality I want.
  6. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Andrew Norman?
    I don't know! Let's focus on me figuring out how to write music today, and once I've got that down I'll get back to you.


The Wrong of Spring

October 01, 2012

The Joffrey Ballet's 1987 production of The Rite of Spring used the original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel returned to their winter home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this very hot weekend to open up the 2012/2013 season. I’ve always found these initial performances of the fall season a little unsteady over the years. There’s something about the move that while relieving in the acoustic sense, still feels unsettled like everyone is getting back to the way things ideally should be with the better programming and better sound that audiences have been starving for all summer. This year was no exception, but it was a particularly unsatisfactory weekend for Dudamel and the Philharmonic. In fact, this weekend’s show, which I caught on Sunday, may have been the worst single performance I’ve heard him and the orchestra give together over his musically erratic, artistically lackluster tenure as music director here in L.A.

Of course, part of the reason for this may have been the works programmed for the occasion, which included Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, a work that served as the calling card for the orchestra under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and one they recorded together to some acclaim. Those very familiar interpretations were well known to virtually all regular members of the L.A. Philharmonic’s regular audience. And certainly a different interpretive style is natural and to be expected. But Dudamel’s take on this landmark of the 20th Century fell short in virtually every way imaginable. Gone was the percussive, rhythmic dance sense of the piece. Gone was the brisk, ferocious aggressiveness grabbing at your throat and the sharp edged clarity and uniformity cultivated by the orchestra – the sound that in part had catapulted them to the forefront of world orchestras for their performances of 20th Century works. Instead Dudamel led the orchestra through a performance that had some animalistic qualities, but was disorganized and confused often to the point of cacophony. Gone was the sense of rhythm and timing with Dudamel’s trademark indulgent and inexplicable tempi. The sound went in all directions, at once blunting the force of the performance and leaving one perplexed as to what the point was. This was not a Rite that sounded like the harbinger of the 20th Century, but one that was lost wandering in a disorganized sea of noise.

The rest of the evening fared little better. The show started with a lifeless and cold tour through Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte. This did little to pave the way for the world premiere of a new work from longtime L.A. Philharmonic collaborator composer Steven Stucky whose 20 minute single movement Symphony rounded out the first half of the evening. The work was of a similar structure to his prior Radical Light and Silent Spring in format with contrasting material that waxes and wanes from a more subdued entrance the composer refers to as “peaceful” to contrasting moments more reflective of turmoil. The piece isn’t programmatic in any way as Stucky himself insists, but instead relies on a series of orchestra gestures execute with flair by Dudamel and the players. But it was hard to get behind the piece with much excitement when the overall feeling was that the music was somehow resting in the background of something else. Granted the work didn’t get shown in the best of lights sandwiched between two musical debacles as it was, so further listening is warranted. But in the meantime, one can only hope that as in year’s past, the show that opens the regular weekend programming of the fall season for the L.A. Phil is not the standard bearer for the year to come but a transition period from which much greater things will happen.


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