From what I can tell, Los Angeles is the only major U.S. city with little interest acknowledging or promoting its local concert composers, this despite its pride in two resident world class orchestras and several fine contemporary music ensembles. Yet LA’s illustrious performing ensembles spotlight composer “imports.” Bulletin: LA is home to a very large population of passionate dedicated composers who focus on concert music. That’s why Hear Now: A Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers is so important. Organized and initiated last year by composers William Kraft, Hugh Levick, and the musicians of the Lyris String Quartet, Hear Now held its second annual festival this last weekend of August with two concerts featuring fifteen composers, all either from LA, living now in LA, or working at some point in LA.
Both concerts played to full enthusiastic crowds at the First Lutheran Church of Venice. Both concerts were also very long. It takes a lot of listening energy to absorb new music, so the Hear Now Festival may want to rethink concerts lasting nearly three hours. Attention for the last works on each Hear Now program was difficult. There is that famous anecdote of a Beethoven concert lasting nearly five hours, where even a devoted fan commented “one could have too much of a good thing!” Nevertheless, the programming and performances were superb, filling the audiences minds with new ideas and ears with reverberations of beauty.
What makes listening to fifteen new works (all but one was written since year 2000) so fascinating is that one becomes aware of a larger musical conversation, one that perhaps even the composers themselves are not entirely aware. For instance, despite the variety of different personalities and backgrounds, each composer explored harmonies using similar scalar clusters. That seems to be an idea “in the air” now. Also, each composer embraces a post-modern harmonic aesthetic, comfortably shifting through many different tonal styles ranging from Renaissance modality, to 18th and 19thcentury common practice, to the 20th century chromatic languages, and beyond—all within a single piece. Creating original sounds, exploring new instrumental effects—those have been trademarks of new music concerts at least since the 1950s, and they certainly continued in these concerts. Finally, each composer struggled in a personal way with narrative. Now that we are adrift from the traditional structural devices of classical music, what does it mean to construct and develop an extended work in different sections,? Forget measuring up to the architecture of a Mozart or Beethoven, how does one reach the heights of a Spohr or Busoni? Invariably in contemporary music concerts, most pieces fall short of formal perfection. But attentive listening often reveals tremendous imagination, beautiful sonorities, and even moments of glory.
This second annual Hear Now Festival had all of that—imagination, beauty, and many moments of glory. The composers ran quite a gamut. Some have international, even stellar, reputations— William Kraft, Thomas Ades, Don Davis, and Donald Crockett. Others have solid careers but are less known. One composer, Phillip Golub, was but 18 years old. Yet every one of them have formidable “chops”— impeccable technical equipment coupled with strong confident musical voices. One other thing: unlike the world of celebrity that so dominates today’s cultural conversation, these concerts projected each composer on equal ground, something that the audiences both approved and respected. It’s worth mentioning that contemporary music audiences are among the most attentive and appreciative listeners in the classical music world. Let me give the briefest recounting of some of those moments of glory…
The festival began with an expert and sensitive performance of Don Davis’s Wandering by the Lyris Quartet. Don Davis has fame as the film composer for The Matrix series. But this piece was a solid concert exposition. His control of quartet writing is obvious and many moments of string sonorities were absolutely bewitching. Spaces of silence separated delicious quiet clusters, the music gradually building to a modal scale and an exquisite violin solo expressively played by Alyssa Park.
Damien Montano’s Wind, a three movement trio for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, was in continual pulse. Its marcato and harmonic essence brings easily to mind the neoclassic works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The trio is structurally taut and requires considerable virtuosity from all three woodwinds. An angular first movement includes a humorous, jazzy second theme with a final cadence surprise in C major. The second movement is an expressive C minor essay, and the third movement is an upbeat scherzo.
Ades’ Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face featured the solo piano virtuosity of Mark Robson, who seemed to sprout eight hands to transform the piano at times into a competition with the LisztTranscendental Etudes, and at other times an Impressionist orchestra. There is a quirky ADD quality to the piece, but above all, it struck me as a love poem to Ravel’s great waltzes—La Valse andValses nobles et sentimentales—recalling their overpowering harmonic sweep and complex textures.
Phillip Golub’s Orange Windows for piano quintet imparts a particularly beautiful language, especially in the openings of its movements. The first movement begins with a slow moody passacaglia; the second movement opens with a lovely haze of piano clusters accompanied by sustained strings. While clearly a work in progress (the extended second movement was especially problematic), the writing shows remarkable skill and expression. At 18 years old, Golub, who currently attends the New England Conservatory, more than held his own.
Singing bowls, wooden planks, and high woodblocks (performed by M.B. Gordy) accompanied flutist Heather Clark in Eric Guinivan’s Autumn Dances. The bowls particularly lent a special aura without obscuring the flute in a lively syncopated texture that characterized the piece.
Sarah Thornblade’s violin was more sensed than heard over the traffic outside as she began Vera Ivanova’s Quiet Light. The piece contrasts harmonics and open strings, often playing with a string technique called bariolage to alternate between them. The piece experiments beautifully with fingering the two inner strings almost as highly as possible while the outer strings sound as drones.
Gernot Wolfgang’s Still Waters is a brief gorgeous slow chordal essay for solo piano, and pianist Gloria Cheng made each chord count.
The three movements of Burton Goldstein’s String Quartet No. 2are gritty, intense, and chromatic, written with superb craftsmanship. The Adagio opening of the last movement made a powerfully expressive impression and summation of the complexity of the work.
Donald Crockett’s piano trio Night Scenes opened the second Festival concert. The title refers to imagined movie scenes. It begins with beautiful bitonal chords in the piano coloring the strings and eventually moves to a pulse driven texture. An expressive second movement features the violin and cello in doubling a deep melody over piano harmonies. The third movement has a gentle blues reference and the finale returns to the pulse texture of the opening.
Veronica Krausas’s elegiac quartet, Il Sole e Altre Stelle (“by the love that moves the sun and the other stars”—from Dante’sParadiso) is a long breathed, delicate piece that had lovely moments with stochastic pizzicati between slow lines in the outer strings.
Stephen Cohn’s Sea Change and Hugh Levick’s Code 5 were both scored for Pierrot Ensemble, a much used contemporary instrumentation inspired by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire— piano, flute (piccolo), clarinet (bass clarinet), violin, and cello. Cohn’s work contrasted strong pulsed melodies with quieter music. In the finale, all instruments careened together in frenzied melodic unison, bringing the work to a rousing end. Levick’s Code 5 also used a unison effect, moving between atonal and tonal sections. It had several effective moments, including a violin solo and a swaying motive that was tossed between the clarinet, cello, and piano.
Jason Heath’s Rain Ceremony for viola and electronics skillfully employs a structure not dissimilar to Ravel’s Bolero. This haunting, rather orgasmic work involves the viola encouraging accompanying electronics to make rain. Violist Alma Fernandez made the most of this convincing the audience in three stages. First open strings and harmonics trigger sounds like wind. A beautiful drone on the C string and simple melodic chant on the viola also trigger different tonal harmonies. Then pizzicato triggers drizzle. Finally, tremolo ignites the sounds of a thunderstorm, all done with digital delays and sample triggers.
Brett Banducci’s Basque Suites for flute and cello was another virtuosic work, with idiomatic flute effects, cello snap pizzicati, and high energy aerial arpeggios, executed expertly by flutist Pamela Vlick-Martchev and cellist Timothy Loo.
The final piece of the festival was William Kraft’s Settings for Pierrot Lunaire, sung by soprano Suzan Hanson with a Pierrot ensemblesensitively conducted by Elizabeth Wright. Kraft’s piece is a clear tribute to Schoenberg’s masterwork, even to the frequent use of Schoenberg’s distinctive half-sung, half-spoken effect calledSprechstimme, but this is also very much Kraft’s own creative expansion and exploration. Phenomenally moody and beautiful, the cycle includes four songs separated by instrumental interludes. Those interludes go deep into the interior of Pierrot’s moon world, with striking moments like a dark bass clarinet solo, powerful scrapes and bowed percussion, dramatic chords in a solo piano, and a violent duo of tom toms and bass drum. The final song Suicide is punctuated with strums of the low piano strings and descending instrumental clusters accompanying the labored breaths of the soprano, a powerful depiction of Pierrot’s last moments.
This was a lot of music to absorb in just two concerts. It was exhilarating, inspiring, and exhausting. The level of composition and performance was equal to any fine contemporary music concert in the world today. That point was made. Los Angeles composers deserve better attention from the major performing ensembles in their city.