Reviews 2010-2011 Season
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: I am not a beach person. And here in Los Angeles it takes a lot to get me west of La Cienega Blvd. But if there is anything that can do it, it’s the superb programming from L.A.’s Westside home for 20th-century music and more, Jacaranda. Directors Patrick Scott and Mark Allan Hilt have built a remarkable series in virtually no time that showcases some of the most exciting music in town. The philosophy centers on playing music that doesn’t get heard enough and the series’ home at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica is typically packed on a Saturday night like the one this weekend. This show, entitled “Perilous Balance,” was an evening of contrasts and symmetry leading up to the main event, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, which was presented by a superb ensemble including, Cedric Berry, Adrianna Manfredi, Elissa Johnston, and L.A. Master Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon. It was another big event for Jacaranda and a hugely successful performance.
Prior to the main course, however, were a number of works spanning the latter half of the 20th Century, all dealing with opposites or contrasting ideas in relatively small musical spaces. There were quartets from two American composers, Elliot Carter and Joan Tower, which were set against organ works from two ex-Soviet legends, Schnittke and Gubaidulina. Carter’s Sonata for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord from 1952 was the oldest work on the program and started things off. This early work is all about icy clarity and what Jacaranda Artistic Director Patrick Scott described as "winter sonorities" in his remarks before the show. The technically involved playing from the ensemble, which included Gloria Cheng on the large more modern 16-foot stop harpsichord called for in the piece, set a high standard for what was to follow. Next up was an initially dark organ solo from Sofia Gubaidulina entitled Light and Darkness played by Jacaranda Music Director Mark Alan Hilt. The composer's trademark crashing keyboard waves of sound were interspersed with much quieter and reflective moments for a very spiritual effect. The first half concluded with a splendid performance from the Lyris Quartet of Joan Tower's 1994 Night Fields. As the name implies, this rather serious single movement evokes the natural world in the dark, but even more so calls to mind the quartets of Shostakovich, albeit in a more readily accessible way.
After the break, we heard Schnittke's Sound and Resound for organ and trombone. An unusual pairing of instruments to be sure, and one that Scott invited us to think of as an overture to The Little Match Girl Passion in describing the immensity of the world she inhabits. Then it was time for the main course, and the performance of Lang's 2007 Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning composition was moving and splendidly done. This is music that sounds deceptively straightforward. A quartet of vocalists, each of whom must also manage some basic percussion parts, travel through 15 movements alternating between narrative recitatives and more reflective ensemble interludes. The four vocalists perform more or less the same text throughout with staggered entrances, placing a premium on perfect pitch and timing. The work is somewhat self explanatory and creates a recognizable musical passion inspired by Bach's own St. Matthew's Passion, but uses Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl as the foundation instead of the traditional religious texts. As with the works that preceded it, Lang draws contrast in his music between the dark cold world of the little girl and the colorful light of her visions in the flame. The music can be halting and there are abundant silent pauses, but when the vocal harmonics burst into existence, they are marvelous, if still like the match flame, short-lived. The crowd sat in appreciative silence afterward before giving Lang, who was present for the performance, and the vocalists a standing ovation. And while those can be a dime a dozen here in L.A., this one was well deserved and it was another feather in Jacaranda's newer music cap.
- Brian - Outwestarts 1/23/2011
JACARANDA BLOOMS IN WINTER:
There was a slight nip in the air in Santa Monica, so Jacaranda, the new music series, took appropriate measures Saturday night to ensure the proper temperature level in the First Presbyterian Church for the first West Coast performance of the chamber version of David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” It turned up the musical air conditioning.
Though not all winter themed, four diverse contemporary works (two American, two from Russia) were meant as a cross-country ski through an icy landscape. Lang’s job, then, was to warm a frostbitten night. In a 35-minute missive from heaven, four solo singers in transfixed harmony, accompanying themselves with gentle percussion, transcended worldly misery.
Why Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” has attracted the fancy of Japanese manga artists, avant-garde German composer Helmut Lachenmann (whose “Match Girl” opera is brilliantly strange) and Sarah Brightman (“A Winter Symphony”) is something I cannot begin to explain. But credit Lang with an epic effort of elevation. Combining Andersen’s text with aspects of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” he found a radiantly hip spiritual core to a maudlin story that stubbornly refuses to go out of fashion.
Unable to sell her matches and afraid to go home, a waif spends a frigid New Year’s Eve outdoors turning blue while the heartless world parties indoors with holiday goose and roaring fires. Her matches, lit one by one, illuminate her sad, cold departure from the land of the living.
Lang, one of the three founders of the Bang on a Can new music collective, is a plucky composer impossible to pin down. Twenty-five years ago and just out of Yale, he titled his impudent first orchestra piece (a Cleveland Orchestra commission, no less) “Eating Living Monkeys.” He has written audaciously loud, fast and aggressive scores, as well as audaciously soft and still ones. I am quoted in the program as having once said there is no name for this kind of music. But Lang gave up musical monkey sushi sometime back. Today, I'd call him post-stylistic.
“Match Girl” might even be called post-Pärt, in that it gives an American accent to the numinous style of the Estonian Arvo Pärt. Perhaps Lang was also drawn to the fact that Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, which premiered “Match Girl” at Carnegie Hall in 2007, is an ensemble partial to Pärt. One could now say that there is no name for this kind of beauty.
But there certainly is an audience. “Match Girl” won a Pulitzer. Hillier’s recording got a Grammy. First Presbyterian was full Saturday, and the audience sat transfixed in pews. The performance of this four-voice version -- sung by soprano Elissa Johnston, alto Adrianna Manfredi, tenor Grant Gershon and bass Cedric Berry –- was a stunner. Free-flowing voices floated as if unmoored by acoustics.
What preceded “Match Girl” in the first half was Elliott Carter’s intricate 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, followed by Sofia Gubaidulina’s colorfully out-there “Light and Darkness” for solo organ and Joan Tower’s “Night Fields,” her first string quartet. After intermission, Alfred Schnittke’s crazy duo for trombone and organ served as a quasi-overture to “Match Girl,” a stand-in for the heartless world the pathetic kid found herself in.
Maybe this was all a bit much, but the performances were convincing. Gloria Cheng was the harpsichordist for an engagingly white-knuckled reading of Carter’s challenging quartet. Organist Mark Alan Hilt, Jacaranda’s music director, enlivened Gubaidulina’s mysterious bass rumblings and sizzling clashes of high notes. The Lyris Quartet turned Tower’s Arctic winds and dark moods into a dramatic spectacle. Trombonist Steve Suminski didn’t always keep a straight face, but Schnittke’s grotesque warm-up made the “Match Girl” all the more moving.
I am also happy to report that our own cold, heartless world doesn’t lack pockets of warmth. Jacaranda’s list of supporters seems to grow longer with each concert in this increasingly impressive series.
- Mark Swed - Los Angeles Times 1/23/2010
David Lang's divine pursuit: 'The Little Match Girl Passion' A blend of Bach and Hans Christian Andersen, the Pulitzer Prize winner's 'Passion' has drawn praise from critics and audiences, something the L.A.-born composer had not expected. It has its West Coast premiere in Santa Monica.
When David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion" had its premiere a few years ago, there was every reason for the L.A.-born composer to celebrate.
Equally inspired by Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl," Lang's piece is a rare bird in contemporary classical music: a broadly accessible work on which critics as well as the public bestow their blessings.
Minimalist in form and quasi-medieval in its sublime austerity, "Little Match Girl Passion" was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music and is being performed this year from New York and London to Nashville and Chicago. It will have its West Coast premiere in its original four-singer version on Saturday and Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica as part of a concert program by the chamber-music series Jacaranda: Music at the Edge. Additionally, large-choral versions of the piece will be performed April 17 by the Pacific Chorale at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (formerly the Orange County Performing Arts Center) and in November by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
But initially, Lang was apprehensive about sending his "Little Match Girl" out into the big, cold world.
"I really felt that I was going to get stoned for being a blasphemer after the premiere, for trying to tell the Gospel by taking Jesus out," said Lang, perhaps best known as co-founder and co-artistic director of the pioneering, aggressively innovative new-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars.
"What kind of blasphemous Jew would do that?" the 54-year-old composer, who is Jewish, added rhetorically, with a laugh.
Clearly, he needn't have worried. The affection and protective urge that Andersen's story has inspired in generations of readers is akin to what many listeners feel upon hearing Lang's approximately 40-minute composition. Tim Page, a USC professor of musicology and journalism and a member of the Pulitzer panel that named Lang's work as a finalist, described "The Little Match Girl Passion" as a deeply affecting piece of great beauty and purity.
"It's very spare, it's very simple," Page said. "The thing that I love about it is there's not one wasted note."
Intended as a kind of secular Passion, Lang's work replaces the narrative of Jesus' suffering in his final days with Andersen's pathos-laden 1845 tale of a shoeless girl traipsing through snowdrifts while futilely trying to sell matches. Scared to go home and face her father's beatings, she takes refuge under a Christmas tree, lighting matches and having visions of her grandmother, the only person ever to treat her with kindness. The next day the match girl is found frozen in the snow by passersby.
Lang, who was raised in a Reform Jewish household and attended University Synagogue on Sunset Boulevard, said that writing "The Little Match Girl Passion" helped him come to grips with the explicitly Christian bent of Western classical musical that had its birthplace in the church.
"I love this music, but I'm not a Christian, so it's always been an obstacle for me," said Lang, who has lived in New York for many years but still follows the Dodgers with fanatical fervor.
Lang said he'd been considering various secular source materials, including newspaper obituaries, to build his "Passion" around, but nothing had quite worked. Then his wife suggested Andersen's story. "I just jumped on that because it was exactly right," he said.
Invested with a reverence befitting sacred music, Lang's "Passion" in its original version is performed by four singers who are also required to play a battery of percussion instruments. The relative simplicity of the arrangements coincides with the story's theme that a humble heart and a soul able to endure severe hardship are the surest conduits to the divine.
In Jacaranda's version, the singer-percussionists will be Grant Gershon, a tenor; Elissa Johnston, a soprano (married to Gershon); alto Adriana Manfredi; and bass Cedric Berry. Gershon, who also serves as music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall, will conduct the Chorale's November performance of Lang's "Passion."
"When I listen to the recording, it's impossible to get through the piece without weeping," Gershon said. "It seems to me there is that aspect of his musical language that universalizes the story and certainly takes it beyond the boundaries of this specific narrative and does it through his use of techniques that are non-Western structurally and — how to put it? — austere…. There is so much Bach in the piece. But it is Bach distilled down to its absolute essence."
Johnston described the work as "sort of an endurance piece, so you really have to stay focused as you set up this trance world."
"The piece itself is so restrained, you can't sing it in a heart-on-your-sleeve way, and yet there's room to be really expressive," she continued. "I really find when we stop [rehearsing] that it takes me awhile to get my feet back on the earth."
Patrick Scott, Jacaranda's artistic director, praised the work's skillful braiding of storytelling with meditative sections that "allow your mind to spiral away from the story and into the ethos of the moment." He also was struck by how "Little Match Girl Passion" contrasts with the bulk of Lang's prolific catalog of orchestral, opera,, chamber and solo works, which the composer's own biography characterizes as "by turns ominous, ethereal, urgent, hypnotic, unsettling and funky." (Lang's opera, "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," based on an Ambrose Bierce story, will have its Southern California premiere in June at Long Beach Opera.)
"I find this work so startlingly different than the rest of his music and so counter to his image as this hardened, downtown- Manhattan, Bang on a Can guy with closely cropped hair," Scott said.
A number of prominent music critics hailed "The Little Match Girl Passion" as an instant classic. Typical was the New Yorker's verdict: "With his winning of the Pulitzer Prize for 'The Little Match Girl Passion' (one of the most original and moving scores of recent years), Lang, once a postminimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master."
Lang expresses gratitude for that reception and gratification that "The Little Match Girl Passion" already has been "sung many times in Christmas and Easter services and in churches" and that its message apparently speaks to so many.
After all, he said, that message is pretty simple: "You need to pay attention to the suffering of people around you."
"It's not like Grimm's Fairy Tales where you wonder, 'Well, what's that story about?'"
- Reed Johnson - Los Angeles Times 1/16/2011
ROCKING: Jacaranda, the Santa Monica new music series, began its season over the weekend with “strong sincere voices nurtured while America was inventing itself afresh,” as wrote artistic director Patrick Scott in his detailed program notes. Such invention has, it appears, become harder in our choleric country with its widening rift between left and right, rich and poor, greed and giving, science and religion.
Music can be just as divisive. But Americans may, at least, still agree upon a common heritage of old hymns, popular songs and spirituals. American composers –- populist or classical, conventional or avant-garde -– have long used these natural musical resources the way inventive chefs deconstruct local ingredients to come up with new tastes based on the old.
Charles Ives showed the way, and Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, Jacaranda turned to this first great American original in 12 short numbers, written between 1897 and 1934. Songs, solo piano pieces and strange ensemble works were given illuminating performances by soprano Elissa Johnston, pianist Scott Dunn and a chamber orchestra conducted by Jacaranda music director Mark Alan Hilt.
Ives loved the past yet fought for a better future. The composer was by day an idealistic businessman who helped create the insurance industry. At night, Ives wrote music that honored nostalgia and chaos. He retained a place for innocence and one for progress.
Dunn began the program with a hilarious solo piano march based on Handel’s “See the Conquering Hero Comes” in which high-toned Baroque music, vaudeville and the modern sounds of an approaching new century commingle. The score is still, 113 years after it was written, unpublished.
The set included Ives the serious (the song “Like a Sick Eagle” with its uneasy microtones); Ives the riotous (“Impression of ‘St Gaudens’ Boston Common," a piano predecessor of the first of “Three Places in New England” and also unpublished); Ives the radical (the fabulously clangorous “From the Steeples to the Mountains”); Ives the wistful (“Serenity”); Ives the outspoken (“Gyp the Blood or Hearst? Which Is Worst?”). And my favorite Ives: the mystical. A goose-bump-raising performance of “The Unanswered Question” featured ethereal strings in the lobby behind closed glass doors, a hidden solo trumpet and chattering woodwinds on stage.
After intermission, pianist Mikhail Korzhev brilliantly turned to Ernst Krenek’s startling, little-known “George Washington Variations,” written in 1950 by the Austrian composer who emigrated to Southern California. Krenek took an 18th century military march through a set of variations that get increasingly complex, in a way that anticipates the pieces of such contemporary American left-wing modernists as Frederic Rzewski and Christian Wolff.
The Denali Quartet then offered the world premiere of Ben Johnston’s “Revised Standards.” Johnston, who is 84 and a master of microtones, began his string quartet in the '80s but put it aside until recently. The first movement is based on Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and Richard Rodgers’ “Little Girl Blue.” The middle movement is a set for Billie Holiday. The final movement concentrates on Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You.”
Familiar strains come in and out of focus as if filtered through a pleasant dream. Strange harmonies in the second violin and viola alluringly distort the image of old songs. In the Billie Holiday movement, blues tones and microtones are shown to be the same, magical thing.
The evening ended with nostalgia not -- as in Ives, Krenek or Johnston -- tempered. Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” for soprano and ensemble, is loved by some. But James Agee’s self-involved text and Barber’s sentimental score (written in 1946 as America emerged from war) was never helpful for reinvention. There are no evolving old songs here, just old music. Elissa Johnston’s performance was committed, but it was the rest of a long, meaningful concert that mattered.
- Mark Swed - Los Angeles Times 10/25/2010
Prussian Blues seeking the enigma of Richard Wagner
Reviews 2009-2010 Season
Jacaranda’s season finale last Saturday evening was homage to Richard Wagner, its contribution to the current two-month Ring Festival LA that explores the works and influence of the dominant European musical voice from the mid 19th Century until the end of World War I. It comes as LA Opera mounts, beginning this coming Saturday, three complete Ring cycles.
Like a Cubist painting, each of the pieces in the program – by Schubert, Mahler, Hindemith, and Wagner himself - angled a different perspective on the composer, from antecedents to personal reflections, and finally to later developments.
The first programmed was the last written, the Septet for Winds of Paul Hindemith. This unsentimental excursion into a garden of earthly delights was composed in the composer’s Sicilian backyard in 1948. In the aftermath of the European disaster of war and chaos, it is a rejection of everything vainglorious and excessive, in other words, everything Wagnerian. Intimate, witty, full of musical puns, fugues and retrogrades, its playful conversations between the instruments feature piquant woodwind dissonances that suggest the buzz of insects and nearby colorful flora. The evening’s nuanced woodwinds executed its delicacies with a gentle sassiness.
A canny choice to launch the program, the Septet, in context, felt like a wine taster’s elaborate procedure to erase the aftertaste of what went before. As such it prepared us to travel back in time before Wagner’s dominant legacy and hear, with fresh ears, Franz Schubert’s proto-Romantic sensibilities beginning to flower in five deeply moving vocal pieces for male ensemble that clearly anticipated Wagner’s later elaborations. An ensemble of eight male singers performed them a cappella or with various instrumental accompaniments, conducted by Jacaranda co-producer Mark Hilt.
Sehnsucht’s gnarled chromaticism aches with the untenable separation of its lovers (“Only he who knows longing knows how I suffer.”). Nachtgesang im Walde’s seraphic atmospherics are enhanced by four horns - beloved of Romantic-era composers from Weber through Wagner - the deployment of which in the back balcony was a good idea, but presented coordination challenges to the ensemble.
Der Gondelfahrer, a blend of German and Italian musical traditions, features a deft harmonic shift on the piano for the tolling of its church bells. Nachthelle, one of the great Schubert Nachtmusik pieces in any genre, was written for male quartet, piano, and "a principal and damnably high tenor” according to one of the composer’s contemporaries. On this evening, soloist James Callon's light voice was damnably high but not principal enough for the urgent passages that cry out for the “the last barrier” to be broken.
The big work in the Schubert group was Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, for two male choirs of four voices each, with two violas, two cellos, and a contrabass. A setting of the great transcendental poem of Goethe, this was Schubert's last and most ambitious of four attempts. The poem contrasts the recycling journey of water in nature to the vicissitudes of man’s soul through life. Octave leaps and dissonances depict waters over cliffs and down chasms; melismatic passages the flow of water on more level contours, gently stirred by the wind. On this evening, it seemed also to anticipate the Ring’s fated Rhine river. Conductor Hilt and his committed voices and strings gave it their all in a riveting performance.
Siegfried Idyll could be Wagner’s nod to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as well as Richard Strauss’ inspiration for his own Domestic Symphony. It is Wagner at his most relaxed, ironically so in that much of its melodic material is derived from that most urgent of operatic projects, Der Ring des Nibelungen. This evening it received as serene a performance in its original 13-instrument form as was likely heard by Wagner’s wife, Cosima, at her birthday on the staircase of the couple’s chalet at Triebschen.
The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony could have declared “Go not gently into that dark night,” laden as it was with yearnings, regrets, and remembrances of the mortally ill Mahler, reliving in his mind his tempestuous marriage to the infamous Alma Schindler. She may later have landed on our Hollywood-adjacent shores as a frumpy, middle-aged émigré, but in 1911 she was Mahler’s demonic muse. Hilt and his string ensemble made this performance the highlight of the evening, one that explored every tortured byway to its final, relieving cadence.
Romantic suffering before, during, and after Wagner had many musical resonances, but also political and social consequences. Exacerbated by the tensions of a dysfunctional Central European society in the exact century between Romanticism’s first clear expression - Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade of 1814 - and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, this uneasy state of mind, expressed most intensely in the works of Richard Wagner, wore its heart dangerously on its sleeve and could never find a way out.
Prior to its commencement, Patrick Scott, Jacaranda's other co-producer, dedicated the program to the memory of the late music critic, Alan Rich, a champion of Jacaranda Music from its beginnings seven years ago.
- Rodney Punt - LA Opus 5/27/2010
JACARANDA BLOSSOMS: In Santa Monica the season began for this most admirable chamber-music series, and I cannot remember (or even want to remember) a better-imagined, better-played program supercharged with the pleasure of discovery that you could somehow feel and share on either side of the stage.
Ben Johnston’s Fourth Quartet has been co-opted by Jacaranda’s Denali Quartet; its brash and aggressive harmonies seem to generate hordes of new friends with every playing. (I heard it first at a private concert, with the 85-year composer in pleased attendance, some months ago. The work is a set of free variations on the old Slavey hymn-tune “Amazing Grace”; and Johnston, music’s great renegade, has made free use of the harmonies of old-time organs and fiddles, as if to return to its own nativity. The Denali has made it their own – progressively so; this was my fourth hearing. The partnership of Jacaranda’s programming genius and the young energy of its performing forces has created an inimitable standard in local music-making.
“Programming genius?” Saturday’s concert began with Morty Feldman’s Rothko Chapel,his evocation of that haunting Texas artwork for small chorus, drums and an ecstatic solo viola, the work of Feldman’s most easy to describe as “beautiful.”. Then came Ben Johnston’s Fourth Quartet, its radiance intensified by the handsome small church that Jacaranda calls ome. Then – wonder of wonders!!—there came music from that legendary masterwork we all long to have in our midst, Einstein on the Beach: not with Bob Wilson’s magical, madcap sets and staging, but at least with half-an-hour of Philip Glass’s music, enough to intensify our craving for the entire work on a local stage sometime in our lifetime.
These were Einstein’s “Knee-Plays,” the interlude pieces that served as flexible joints between episodes. A chorus intoned quick sequences of numbers, which in the original could be seen dancing on a back screen. A solo voice (KUSC’s Gail Eichenthal) intoned the near-jabberwock of an autistic child (the young Christopher Knowles back then, whom Wilson had adopted and groomed into an artistic career). A violinist (Joel Pargman) delivers roulades and cadenzas, symbolic of Einstein’s violinistic skills. If you have evolved a supicion that this doesn’t make sense, you just haven’t discovered the magnificent rationale of Einstein on the Beach.
Even unstaged, undanced and unorchestrated, this Einstein teaser — led by Mark Alan Hilt and with the L.A. Children’s Chorus and with Sandra Tsing Loh and Ken Page also among the narrators – makes a convincing case for the whole kaboodle, and sometime soon. So, in fact did this entire superlative concert venture.
- Alan Rich - So I've heard 10/30/2009
Music review: 'Einstein' at the beach
So “Baby Einstein” won’t make your kids smarter after all. Last week, the Walt Disney Co. confessed that plopping kids in front of its video does not count as instant education and offered to refund gullible parents their money. But the few enlightened parents who tried “Einstein on the Beach” instead may have a wiser tale to tell.
Saturday night, Jacaranda, the West Side’s new music series, concluded its first concert of the season at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica with excerpts from Philip Glass’ groundbreaking opera he conceived with director Robert Wilson in 1976. Glass offers the option of replacing the women’s voices at the end with a children’s chorus and that is what Jacaranda did.
Asking youngsters to show up late at night to sing the last eight minutes of a five-hour avant-garde work is, obviously, unreasonable. Then again, little about putting on “Einstein on the Beach” has ever been practical. Glass has presented the score in concert on several occasions and performed the “Spaceship” scene with his ensemble at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. But despite repeated attempts to find funding for a revival, the magnificent Wilson production has not been seen for a generation.
Four years ago, Jacaranda did its bit by turning the opera’s most modest segments, the five Knee Plays (Wilson’s term for short connecting scenes) into a 40-minute concert work. Saturday, a block from the beach, the Knee Plays were back, this time with three dozen angelic Einsteins, courtesy of Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.
For many of us who have found “Einstein on the Beach” in the theater a religious experience, “Einstein” in a church is not a stretch. Still, Jacaranda’s concert made a considerable spiritual statement.
The evening began with two works full of sacred connotations written just before “Einstein” in the early '70s: Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” and Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Amazing Grace”). Feldman’s score for chorus, viola, celesta and percussion was intended for Houston's interfaith Rothko Chapel, built to house haunting late paintings by the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko.
This is music in which no notes touch ground, no downbeat is felt and pianissimo is the dynamic of choice. The chorus is asked to sing chords with a consistent “open hum.” The viola has the wisps of melody, slightly Hebraic at first and hinting at Ravel later.
Performing “Rothko Chapel” is like capturing wind. Feldman asks for a calm 30 minutes; this reading conducted by Mark Alan Hilt was an ever-so-slightly nervous 24. Still, the choral singing was sensitive; Tamara Bevard handled the soprano solos smartly and Alma Lisa Fernandez was a soulful violist.
Fernandez is a member of Jacaranda’s superb resident Denali Quartet, which has made Johnston’s “Amazing Grace” its calling card. Johnston pulls the 18th century hymn tune in directions it has never been and asks the players to use pure tunings. The result is the amazement of grace made palpable in sound. The Denalis made that evident in, to repeat the only word that describes the music and its rendition, an amazing performance.
Following all this, the “Einstein” Knee Plays, which Hilt conducted with evident affection, were in danger of too much churchliness. They began with a pipe organ intoning the bass line Glass played in more rock’n’roll fashion on an electric organ. The chorus’ “libretto” consists of either counted numbers of the changing meters or the solfege syllables of the pitches. The impressive Jacaranda Chamber Singers made even these sound more eloquent than spunky.
A solo violin – the Denali’s Joel Pargman – played Glass’ classic Minimalist etudes with style and two actresses (the familiar radio personalities Gail Eichenthal and Sandra Tsing Loh) alluringly read stream-of-consciousness texts that included an incantation on the line “Oh these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends.” I would have liked more electronic punch from Eichenthal and Loh, who were amplified, but they were not displeasing as exquisite aural wallpaper.
“Einstein” ends with a final speech about lovers on a park bench that was written and originally delivered by an elderly actor in the original. Ken Page read it wonderfully for Jacaranda, accompanied by the solo violin, organ and the children singing their one-two-threes and do-re-me's with marvelous clear voices lifted to heaven.
There are critics who once called “Einstein on the Beach” baby opera. But those were other days my friends. Saturday, Jacaranda brought “Einstein” to the beach and it was transcendent.
- Mark Swed - Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2009
Last Night in L.A.: Feldman, Johnston, Glass
The new Jacaranda season began last night with a concert that almost filled the church and brought out the Los Angeles Times critic, with photographer as well. The program comprised three key works from the 70s: Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel from 1971, Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” from 1973, and Philip Glass‘ Einstein on the Beach: Five Knee Plays from 1976. God, it was a gorgeous concert.
I didn’t want the performance of Rothko Chapel to end, but it did, and too soon, coming in at less than 25 minutes. The spaces between notes could have been a bit longer, and some of the notes could have hung in the air a bit longer. The three instrumentalists were Alma Lisa Fernandez on viola, Aron Kallay on celesta, and Kenneth McGrath on percussion, and they seemed to breathe the sounds. A group of local singers billed as the Jacaranda Chamber Singers risked all of those exposed pitches, and they handled all the challenges. This was a great experience.
Few works could follow something like the Feldman, but Johnston’s “Amazing Grace” could do so, and fortunately it took a little while to remove the instruments and risers to give some space between the two. The Denali Quartet now plays this work with seeming ease; perhaps they’ll make it their calling card, as the Phil under Salonen made the Rite of Spring. But the Johnston quartet leaves me wanting more; perhaps the Denalis could expand their Johnston offerings. Or perhaps Monday Evening Concerts could give us a Johnston evening.
The Jacaranda series has recovered the “Five Knee Plays” from Einstein on the Beach, with approval of Glass and the publisher. At the time of their first presentation of the set, in 2005, only the middle work was available; three other segments had been issued for children’s chorus but were no longer available, and the opening segment had been withdrawn and had to be reconstituted. Jacaranda has given us the full set, with pipe organ instead of electronic keyboard, with mixed chorus, with children’s chorus (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, of all riches) for the final set, with violin (the violinist of the Denali Quartet) and with three narrators, including Gail Eichenthal and Sandra Tsing Loh of NPR broadcasts. The music still grabs at you.
Jacaranda’s next Santa Monica concert, November 14, serves as an introduction to the Phil’s exciting new “West Coast Left Coast” series with music by John Adams, Ingram Marshall and Lou Harrison. Better get your tickets.
- Sequenza21 - October 25, 2009
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