Classical music is supposedly dead, and so might be contemporary music, but don’t tell that to the curious and attentive crowds who thronged Disney Hall on Saturday, June 1, for a nonstop barrage of often-thrilling experimental chamber-music pieces, Fluxus provocations and adventurous avant-garde works.
The annual new-music marathon Noon to Midnight wasn’t the final event of L.A. Philharmonic’s indoor season at Disney Hall — director Yuval Sharon’s intriguing staging of Meredith Monk’s rarely performed opera Atlas is still to come in mid-June — but in many ways it was emblematic of the orchestra’s forward-looking mindset during the yearlong celebration of its 100th anniversary. Since the season began in the fall last year, L.A. Phil has paid respectful homage to the past, bringing back former music directors Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen for extended visits, but the focus has been more about the future as the orchestra presented the world premieres of numerous works, including 23 new pieces at Noon to Midnight.
World premieres are like Christmas gifts. You might not always get what you were expecting or hoping for, but the element of surprise is part of the joy. And there is nothing more exciting than unwrapping a mysterious new-music box and realizing that you are part of the very first audience on the planet to hear the fascinating sounds unwinding live around you. While there were a handful of duds at Noon to Midnight, most of the new works were at least interesting and often compelling, and several of the pieces were truly sublime.
As with many music festivals, part of the game involved plotting strategy and mapping out schedules. With about 20 separate ensembles playing inside and outside Disney Hall, including in the garden and on the staircase to Grand Avenue, Noon to Midnight was a three-ring circus of constant activity. Although the schedule was somewhat staggered, many performances overlapped or happened simultaneously. Tough decisions had to be made — how could one choose between two promising world premieres beginning at the same time in different parts of the building?
It was all a gamble, which added to the excitement. As Kenny Rogers once sagely advised, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/know when to walk away.” At times, it was tempting to walk away early from a moderately engaging performance to take a chance on a different ensemble downstairs or outside. Even with the best planning, though, it was impossible to see and hear everything.
Seeing International Contemporary Ensemble’s program inside Disney Hall meant missing Anthony Plog’s Music for Brass Octet and the world premiere of Paul Gibson’s Fanfare for the LA Phil 100, which were scheduled to be performed by the stairs outside of the hall by members of L.A. Philharmonic’s powerful horn section and other musicians. But the ICE program featured seven world premieres, all of which were commissioned by L.A. Phil through its National Composers Intensive. ICE’s specialty is fusing chamber-music instrumentation with electronics, and the seven pieces mixed acoustic instruments (violin, clarinet, cello, saxophone, etc.) with electronics.
Rohan Chander’s iamwhoami was a heavy electronic crush of anxious industrial noise that felt like falling from a tall, never-ending building. Camila Agosto’s Tybontoan was also unsettling, but it started out slower and quieter with an ominous bowing of strings. The sliding, keening sounds soon evolved into a jumble of loud winds and strings intercut with soprano Alice Teyssier’s patterns of chattering, gasping vocals, which were overlaid with sound effects. Nicholas Morrish’s Yoko Ono homage/extrapolation, yokobit, was an early highlight. The piece swam around in a pool of soothing ambient electronica, anointed by chimes and ethereal keyboard tones, which finally faded softly with a hint of the merry-sad sounds of an ice-cream truck driving away in the distance.
Kelley Sheehan’s From gathered leaves and flowers we build ourselves shifted from slower, more atmospheric sections into an aviary of alarmed, squawking horns and screeching winds. Woozy electronics alternated with short horror-movie jolts of strings. Salina Fisher’s Lumina was another darkly moody piece, with Jacob Greenberg’s foreboding low piano vaulting into higher trickles of candied, demented melodies, followed by sour shimmers of winds and strings, which flickered and oozed in scary, empty spaces. Teyssier returned to impressive effect in Nina Shekhar’s [redact], in which her rapid-fire vocals were looped against a grid of rhythmic panting and breathing sounds. Jessie Cox’s After-Were(l)ds: Mey(n)t/Meaning was sometimes as strained and awkward as its title, but Teyssier adeptly tied together its disparate moving parts — cloudbursts of noise, lowing bass, fulsome drums, eerie/random vocals and stagy scraps of poetry — with alertness and energy.
By the time ICE was finished, it was possible to catch the last third of The Calder Quartet’s program downstairs in BP Hall. Pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks and Calder cellist Eric Byers teamed for the U.S. premiere of Anders Hillborg’s Duo for Cello & Piano. The piece had a jazzy feel, with Loucks’ late-night piano melodies spiraling through a stellar sky, contrasted by the low groaning of Byers’ earthbound cello. When the piano subsided for a spell, Byers pushed out some beautifully spare, sad lines on cello.
Meanwhile, in Keck Amphitheatre outside by the garden, L.A. Phil pianist Joanne Pearce Martin alternated with Jacqueline Zhou, Madeline Barasch, Alexander Demers, Elvy Yost and Mark Skeens — an assortment of actors, performance artists and “non-pianists” — in a pantomimed walk through La Monte Young’s Fluxus conundrum Piano Piece for David Tudor No. 2. Two black pianos sat patiently side by side on the amphitheater’s bare concrete stage as pairs of the formally attired pianists and non-pianists made a big show of approaching the pianos, sitting down and getting up from the benches, and closing and opening the fallboards repeatedly before walking away again. Pearce Martin sat at a bench and stretched her neck over and over, trying to get comfortable, but she never managed to get settled. Two of the actors slipped into the narrow canyon between the two pianos and made faces at the crowd. For all their preening and prepping, none of this crew of mostly faux pianists bothered to play a single note during the entire performance — the music was all in the waiting.
At the same that the contemporary vocal quartet Accordant Commons were performing outdoors by the steps leading to Grand Avenue, the two dozen singers of The Crossing choir were backed by a small ensemble inside Disney Hall. The Crossing intoned the world premiere of Toivo Tulev’s I Heard the Voices of Children with a church-choir reverence as their angelic singing spread across an initially spare, glacial landscape of muted, plucked strings before expanding into soaring waves of overlapping vocals. The work was pleasant but a little treacly, although the choir gave the piece’s long, steady notes a vibrant sheen.
Back outdoors under a blank gray afternoon sky, a trio of Accordant Commons singers whispered Chen-Hui Jen’s In Fading Colors of Autumn Hills, their soft, wordless voices growing in intensity, wrapping around one another like fluttering flights of birds before dropping into a lulling, ghostly drone. The trio imbued the blend of slow harmonies in Kari Besharse’s Palus with a witchy presence. Expanded to a full quartet, Accordant Commons snapped their fingers and rubbed their hands together during Leah Reid’s Apple, which wove together breathy exhalations, doo-wop harmonies, baby talk and nursery-rhyme chanting into playful art-pop.
The six members of the SoCal percussion ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish used mallets to hammer out Michael Gordon’s Timber on six wooden sawhorses, which were arranged in a small circle in the Blue Ribbon Garden. The repetitive thrumming was lulling, and the sawhorses sometimes gave off tones that sounded like marimbas and distant flutes. Inside Disney Hall, Chicago sextet Eighth Blackbird started promisingly, with pianist Lisa Kaplan whipping up the driving, cycling riffs of David Lang’s Learn to fly. The interplay of Nathalie Joachim’s flute, Matthew Duvall’s percussion and Kaplan’s piano gave Holly Harrison’s Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup a jazzy feel, but the composer’s attempt to evoke Lewis Carroll’s writing felt mannered and only mildly cute. Eighth Blackbird closed with the world premiere of Pamela Z’s sound collage Ways of Looking, in which the composer-vocalist interacted with sampled snippets of the musicians’ conversations. In its better moments, Ways of Looking evoked Kate Bush’s cut-and-paste vocal experiments, but some of the sampled words and phrases (in particular a dreary riffing on the word “Um”) were too plain and dry to work as extended rhythmic incantations.
Downstairs in BP Hall, the four members of New York City’s So Percussion were mistreating a quartet of string instruments, which rested flat on their backs on tables as the performers threaded long strings back and forth through the instruments’ bridges. The musicians huddled over the instruments like doctors, pulling and stitching the moaning strings in unison to enact the moody grandeur of Julia Wolfe's Forbidden Love. Sometimes, a sticklike object would be placed through the strings and snapped so that it vibrated like a card in the spokes of a bicycle. There was something oddly hypnotic about the waves of metallic sound that rumbled out of these reluctant, supine violins, viola and cello.
So Percussion were also scheduled to perform Suzanne Farrin's a diamond in the square. But the chance to hear the piano duo Hocket unfold John Cage’s Two² in Keck Amphitheatre at the same time couldn’t be missed. After the frantic, showy arrangements of some of the festival’s earlier works, Cage’s Two² felt like a peaceful oasis of meditative calm as pianists Thomas Kotcheff and Sarah Gibson answered each other’s tentative, fragile signals with similarly delicate chords and long, mind-clearing spaces.
In Disney Hall, the local ensemble Wild Up wound through the world premiere of Andrew Greenwald’s A Thing Made Whole (II), a murky piece in which spare splashes of Richard Valitutto’s piano and Matt Barbier’s muted trombone lines occasionally emerged from the slow soup of sounds. Despite some enigmatic moments, the work wallowed in a state of what felt like constant hesitation and never really got going. Conductor Christopher Rountree led a string-centric version of Wild Up (with five violinists, three violists and three cellists) into another world premiere, Julianna Barwick’s Star Luz Black, with the composer singing and playing piano in tribute to a dead friend. That piece was overtly beautiful, with Barwick’s somber piano swept up in a consoling, comforting wash of strings before her breathy vocals finally emerged in the song’s quiet spaces and branched out into a fan of multiple looped voices and celestial harmonies. Barwick’s performance was another major highlight of the festival.
Not long after that, The Lyris Quartet took over BP Hall in front of a large crowd. Even when big audiences gathered in Disney Hall, the smaller adjoining venues continued to attract good crowds. Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 2 welled up with edgy shivers of strings, which simmered ominously as violinist Alyssa Park dug out her parts with increasing urgency until the piece’s frenetic quivering segued into a languid spell. With its anxious, spare strokes of violin and viola, Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria was another work that felt a horror-movie soundtrack.
International Contemporary Ensemble returned to Disney Hall for the world premiere of George Lewis’ Soundlines: A Dreaming Track, in which the composer adapted ICE percussionist/conductor Steven Schick’s account of the time he walked from the U.S./Mexico border to San Francisco into musical form. Schick narrated the piece as he moved around the stage, but, despite his game efforts, Soundlines was an ultimately uninspiring journey.
Downstairs, the L.A. collective WasteLAnd set forth Chaya Czernowin’s Manoalchadia, in which vocalists Leslie Leytham and Stephanie Aston’s wraithlike shrieking and spoken-word utterances were inserted to moderately diverting impact among Rachel Beetz’s choppy flute rejoinders. This was another piece that was weighed down by stilted, ostensibly weird vocal affectations such as singing with a choking delivery. Manoalchadia was an unfortunate example that even the wide-open sonic explorations of contemporary music can be riddled with its own stylistic clichés. Liza Lim and Dustin Donahue’s Love Letter was an unremarkable percussion work in which soloist Donahue scratched his hands across the skins of small, bongo-like drums. Ann Cleare’s unable to create an offscreen world (b) was unable to sustain much interest as Beetz’s thin, straw-like flute parts and Donahue’s percussion eventually gave way to an anticlimactic ending. Conductor Nicholas Deyoe guided saxophonist Marta Tiesenga and bass clarinetist Brian Walsh through the stops and starts of Katherine Young’s Master of Disguises, as vocalists Aston and Leytham tried to make their occasionally ethereal lines heard over the noise of a mob of people milling around in the lobby. For all its muted rustling around in the bushes, Master of Disguises didn’t stand out from some of the similar pieces heard earlier in the day.
Wearing a black L.A. Phil T-shirt with the word “STAFF” printed in large white letters on the back, legendary composer John Adams took the podium at Disney Hall to conduct L.A. Phil New Music Group and The Mivos Quartet in a far more satisfying and richly varied program of four pieces — all of them world premieres. The intense, dense early sections of Freya Waley-Cohen’s Changeling were followed by a slow, serenely beautiful interlude before the tempo sped up in a jazzy rush of chords and Stravinsky-style phrasings. L.A. Phil violinist Rebecca Reale’s intense solo emerged from a surging, bubbling cauldron of clarinet and strings, and the crowd-pleasing work juxtaposed busy parts with austere, lonely flecks of piano.
Adams followed with Donnacha Dennehy’s Overcasting, in which eerie, low strings were contrasted by Joanne Pearce Martin’s sparkling celesta and an increasingly urgent foray of brass. The piece was always interesting if sometimes cluttered, and it closed with a lovely shimmer of violins that folded together in layers like bird wings. Adams shepherded The Mivos Quartet through Jeffrey Mumford’s amid still and floating depths, which felt like a relatively traditional chamber-music piece mixed with seemingly inevitable hints of a Béla Bartók–style, horror-film undercurrent. Sometimes the strings droned together like an organ or even a harmonica, and then other parts slithered by with a glassy-eyed, zombie moodiness.
Downstairs, a large crowd waited in a line that stretched outside Disney Hall to witness Annie Saunders and Christopher Rountree’s Fluxus homage If You Will Forgive Me in BP Hall, where Rountree reprised John Cage’s performance of Water Walk in 1960 on the game show I’ve Got a Secret. The piece’s instrumentation included a piano, a wind-up toy, flowers, a drink mixer, a tape deck, a kettle and a bathtub half-filled with water. Like a harried party host, Rountree dutifully marched back and forth among the various objects, placing the toy atop the piano’s strings and putting flowers into the bathtub in an amusing performance-art spectacle.
Afterward, The Mivos Quartet reappeared outside in the Blue Ribbon Garden. By now, it was cold and the sky was black as the string musicians added to the darkness with their version of Ursula Mamlok’s String Quartet No. 1. The ambient sounds of traffic on Hope Street and Grand Avenue and a jet passing by overhead mingled with creaky violins, which scurried with squeaking, rat-like lines amid Mamlok’s sour, smeary chords. Sometimes, the seesawing string parts sounded like whistles, flutes and theremin, and the quartet’s performance was a strangely moving idyll apart from the busy hive of activity going on indoors.
Back inside Disney Hall, the Chicago ensemble Dal Niente roamed through a variously entertaining set. Igor Santos’ Two-Two mixed woodpecker percussion and skittish winds and horns with madhouse saxophone breaks, which was followed by a more spacious interlude. Mario Davidovsky’s Festino had a string trio working off Jesse Langen’s acoustic guitar, with tinkling plucked guitar riffs bumping into the strings’ rumbles up and down the neck, but the thin-toned guitar noodling felt like an afterthought compared to the fuller-sounding strings. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece: Segment of the Fourth Letter was another lightweight distraction, with winds and strings approximating the mumbling, muttering chatter of vocals, but its building sense of anticipation was never really resolved. Michael Lewanski conducted a larger version of Dal Niente in Anthony Cheung’s The Natural World, in which evocations of birdsong abutted against a traffic jam of horns. Satellites of sound floated by in clusters of blooming lines as an accompanying short film supplied unnecessary visual accompaniment, with overly obvious subtitles (“rain pattering,” “the orchestra plays a tender melody”) matching the musicians’ actions.
Downstairs in BP Hall, Southland Ensemble pumped out some of the hardest-hitting music of the day (and night) when the horn-heavy group pounded out driving, blues-jazz rhythms in excerpts from Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music. It was one of the few times during the festival when the heady experimentation of the brain was anchored solidly with the rhythms of the body. Noon to Midnight culminated in a strong fashion inside Disney Hall when Jacaranda Music closed the evening with a dramatic trio of works. Thomas Kotcheff’s and through and through and through was a string-laden, atmospheric piece that was overtly mellow and mildly trippy. Sarah Gibson’ tiny, tangled world centered on a lyrical game of hide and seek as violins feinted and parried with one another in the fast sections, followed by a sense of dread before descending into a haunting loveliness.
The world premiere of Dylan Mattingly’s Gravity & Grace might have been the most gorgeous work of the day, and it was an exhilarating finale. The piece sounded at first like a simple but catchy 1960s-style garage-rock song, which was suffused with rich, vibrant sheets of organ from Joanne Pearce Martin mixed with sugary pop melodies from pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay. The circus-y music continued to evolve slowly even as it seemed to repeat into a dub-like psychedelia. When the instrumentation subsided so that the focus was on the cotton-candy swirl of keyboards, Gravity & Grace morphed into one of the most poignantly entrancing passages of beautiful music in recent memory. Then the piece picked up again with a sprightly beat and increasingly intense flurries of organ and piano before closing forcefully. It was transcendent moments like this that rewarded the steadfast listeners who had been rushing around the hall for 12 hours and rummaging in the dark in search of such precious, lost treasures. Afterward, as the dazed and beaming audience staggered outside, L.A. Phil treated fans to ice cream and cake at David Robbins’ Ice Cream Social, although the ice cream disappeared quickly.