Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Wade in the Water

March 08, 2016


Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducting the West Coast premeire of Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 6, 2016. Photo: Patrick Brown

The years just get bigger and bigger for New York’s Bang on a Can collective. Never wanting for recognition, both the composers who founded the group and the magnificent All-Stars, the musicians who make up the group’s performance ensemble have been grabbing larger headlines in recent months even by their prior standards. David Lang popped up behind Chris Rock on this year’s Oscar telecast following his nomination for Best Song from Paolo Sorrentino’s film, Youth. (Though he was denied the common courtesy of having his work performed during the telecast.) Meanwhile his fellow colleague Julia Wolfe has been on a tear of her own recently winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. It was a big and well deserved win for a “downtown” artist (in the parlance of Kyle Gann) and a rare acknowledgment by the judges of compositions by women (she is only the 6th woman to win in the Pulitzer’s history). The prize winning work, Anthracite Fields, received its West Coast premiere Sunday night with the assistance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, their Artistic Director, Grant Gershon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It was a stunner and probably the best single performance the Walt Disney Concert Hall has hosted this season. And after a weekend full of Gustavo Dudamel’s bloated, ponderous Mahler with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Wolfe and her collaborators provided a much needed aesthetic antidote on just about every level.

Anthracite Fields is an hour long oratorio about coal mining in Eastern Pennsylvania, a region very near where Wolfe herself grew up. It functions on some levels as an oral history of laborers working in these mines and can swing between elegy and a call for social and economic justice. But before diving into Wolfe’s grand choral work on Sunday, the Chorale presented a number of American folk songs from the Sacred Harp collection. More often associated with a raw sound or edge when performed in a more typical community setting, these folk songs were beautifully performed with a restraint lent by the polish of a professional ensemble. It was a smart introduction for what followed, though, in that while Anthracite Fields concerns the lives of coal miners, Wolfe did not tied the piece musically to elements of traditional folk music of the Appalachian region. Instead Wolfe uses a more contemporary language and sound inspired more by late 20th-century minimalism and rock’n’roll. Anthracite Fields unfolds over five movements starting with Foundations, which opens with low rumbling invoking a journey into the depth of the earth. This is soon replaced by the repeated names of injured coal miners, all starting with John followed by monosyllabic surnames, which provides a back drop to imagery of the formation of coal in the earth and what the miners endured to pull it out of the ground. The focus of the work pulls back over subsequent movements, including passages that set the words of labor leader John Lewis, and later builds on a couplet from early 20th-century advertisements for coal-powered trains. The piece concludes with a masterful movement called Appliances. Here the names of injured miners have been replaced with daily living functions we all participate in from turning on lights to calling a friend. All of these activities consume the power these miners have suffered for through their labor. And the final image above this sonic backdrop is of the imagined New York socialite Phoebe Snow traveling by train in the ads of a locomotive company from over a century ago. She arrives with her white dress pristine and unblemished thanks to traveling under the power of coal. This deft and insightful imagery packs a punch and it highlights Wolfe’s ability to deliver a huge amount of material with relatively minimal words.

In just over an hour, the Master Chorale and Bang on a Can All-Stars had taken us out of the ground but we were no longer able to clean the metaphorical coal dust from our own hands. The performance was accompanied with video projections designed by Jeff Sugg consisting mainly of photographs and animation of coal miners and their work environment from the early to mid- 20th century. It worked well without overwhelming the content of the musical performance. The Chorale masterfully wound around the many turns in the score from the soft moaning and whispers that laid the ground work of each movement to the raucous and rhythmic passages when the power of motion of the energy produced in this particularly American history of labor was in full operation.

It was a great night for the Chorale overall and it continued their great work with the Bang on a Can artists. Next up in the collaboration will be the release next year of the Chorale's first recording for Cantaloupe Music featuring David Lang's the national anthems and his own Pulitzer winning the little match girl passion.


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