The BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH event at a sold-out Disney Hall on Friday, March 22, was billed as a tribute to the work and music of Yoko Ono. But with a large and nearly all-female cast of musicians and vocalists, including Shirley Manson and St. Vincent, the concert felt like it was more than an homage to one person and was instead a celebration of the creativity of all women.
BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH represented an unusual collaboration between the L.A. Philharmonic and Anna Bulbrook’s local empowerment organization and feminist-minded rock-music series, Girlschool. The performances saluted the songwriting of Ono, whose music is finally receiving critical respect after being overshadowed for decades by the career of her late husband, John Lennon. But the presentation also invoked the Japanese-American multimedia artist’s poetry and demonstrated her influence as one of the key figures in the 1960s Fluxus community, a movement that centered on the process of creating art more than on the actual art itself. In fact, BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH was part of L.A. Phil’s ongoing Fluxus Festival, a series of performance-art and music spectacles that are in turn part of the orchestra’s yearlong commemoration of its 100th anniversary.
Elements of Ono’s provocative Fluxus event scores and artistic riddles/exhortations filtered throughout the musical performances, which were enlivened by a couple dance sequences. But Ono’s art also was scattered throughout Disney Hall, particularly in the lobby, where viewers could interact with such Fluxus pieces as the aptly titled Painting to Be Stepped on, a blank white rectangle painted on the floor that was scuffed with faint footprints.
In keeping with the experimental spirit of Ono’s work, the performances of her songs — via arrangements by conductor Shruti Kumar — varied significantly from the composer’s original recordings. Kumar had to keep an eye on many moving parts, including a 22-woman choir all dressed in white, which included such notable local vocalists as Sydney Wayser (Clara-Nova), Lelia Broussard, Gabrielle Wortman (Smoke Season) and Lauren Ruth Ward. Kumar had to balance the amplified sounds of an electric rock band (with drums, bass, guitar, organ, synthesizer) with an ensemble of acoustic musicians (violin, viola, cello, harp, percussion, piano, flute, clarinet).
Sweeping across the stage in a layered white dress that somewhat resembled a winged nurse’s smock, Miya Folick was the first of the night’s vocalists. Her cool, confident vocals animated “Soul Got Out of the Box” with a Patti Smith–like fervor that was imbued with the local pop singer’s own radiant, pure delivery. Folick turned more introspective on “Toy Boat,” which was gently dreamy.
La Santa Cecilia’s La Marisoul was next, and, like most of the evening’s vocal soloists, she sang two songs. Decked out in a bright blue dress, her rich vocals swelled with a maternal warmth on “Born in a Prison.” Kumar gave this version a retro girl-group/garage-pop veneer. At times, Kumar’s arrangement was too sugary, but La Marisoul powered through it with a soulful force until her howling voice was breaking with overt passion. The singer was comparatively low-key on the ensuing piano ballad “Let Me Count the Ways,” which she sang in English and Spanish.
Dancer Brooke Shepard made the most dramatic and visually striking entrance, stalking through the middle of the crowd before making her way to the stage for a performance of Ono’s “Dance Piece IX: A,” which was characterized by Nina McNeely’s inventive choreography. The mostly naked Shepard wore a helmet, which had several long, thin fishing pole–like sticks extending horizontally outward and from which dangled various trinkets and bells. As the chorus hissed “shhh!” sounds to a prerecorded electronic backing, Shepard strutted, bowed and prowled the stage with fierce gestures as her headpiece of bells rang lightly with each movement.
Madame Gandhi followed and said a few words, reminding women of the importance of “owning your voice — the future is female.” Gandhi then recited Ono’s Fluxus-minded short poems “Life Piece V” and “Life Piece VI” before leading the crowd into “Voice Piece for Soprano,” in which she urged everyone to scream as loudly as possible at, by turns, the walls and the ceiling. “We’re going to scream against the wind,” Gandhi said, describing the audience-participation rite as “a cellular bath.” There was indeed something astonishingly forceful about the impact of more than 2,000 unrestrained voices screaming in unison, turning a simple Fluxus instruction into a visceral and sonically exhilarating show of unity.
Chilean vocalist Francisca Valenzuela ignited the crowd further with a torrid “Give Me Something,” which had a Latin-pop groove. Picking up the folds of her long, black-and-white polka-dot dress and kicking up her heels with dance steps, she was a lively presence, although the volume of the electric band overwhelmed the string and wind instruments on this song. Valenzuela sat down at the piano to play the introduction of “Sister, O Sister” before moving back to the microphone.
Piped-in bird sounds filled the hall during intermission. Following the break, We Are King enchanted with a stripped-down version of “Yes, I’m Your Angel” with just piano and vocals, followed by a full-band performance of “Don’t Be Scared,” which was characterized by endearing, childlike vocals and a kind of tropical/light-ska groove. Amber Coffman gave “Listen, the Snow Is Falling” a breathy tone that was backed with sheets of ’60s R&B/pop organ. Coffman’s performance of “Run, Run, Run” was less engaging, as the song was burdened by a treacly easy-listening arrangement.
Local singer-violinist Brittney Parks, who performs under the name Sudan Archives, sparked the crowd with her makeover of Ono’s “Dogtown.” The barefoot singer vamped it up in a stunning, flowing, long black dress that was intercut with bare and sheer patches designed to reveal daring glimpses of her legs and torso. Her musical interpretation was just as memorable, as Parks gave the song an air of shadowy mystery that was artier and more deeply atmospheric than most of the other arrangements. She plucked at her violin as if it were a guitar, looping those melodies into the febrile wash of sounds enveloping the room before adding smeary, strange streaks of violin on top of everything else.
Kamil Oshundara used Ono’s “Question Piece” as a launching point for her own original poem about life in the Trump era, asking such pointed and timely questions as “If he caged white children, don’t you think he would be impeached?” The bold, green-haired poet was paired with the rabidly frenetic interpolations of violinist Victor Ekpo, who was the only male performer onstage Friday night, apart from several men dancers who followed as part of a coed troupe that enacted McNeely’s choreography for “Dance Piece IX: B.” In that second dance piece, McNeely had the women and men dancers split up in pairs as they feinted and parried and climbed on each other’s shoulders with a romantic ferocity.
St. Vincent’s appearance was relatively anticlimactic, as the art-pop singer didn’t perform any music. Instead, she read six of Ono’s “Cleaning Pieces,” a series of whimsical, Fluxus-style poems. Outfitted in a black dress and matching thigh-high black boots, which were overlaid with a semi-sheer white frock, St. Vincent juxtaposed each of Ono’s six poems with six similarly short poetic parodies by bad-boy new-music composer Nico Muhly. But the combination of Ono’s idealistic, hopeful verses with Muhly’s jokes about anal sex just felt crass and distracting rather than shocking, and St. Vincent’s brief performance felt like a missed opportunity.
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“All right, bitches, let’s roll,” Garbage’s Shirley Manson grandly announced in a thick Scottish accent before lighting up the room with a majestic interpretation of “What a Bastard the World Is,” in which her vocal declamations exuded a heroic presence and humanist commiseration. On a night of charismatic divas wearing glamorous dresses, she had one of the most fantastic gowns of all. Manson’s floor-length white dress billowed with oversize, puffy black sleeves and was marked with arty slashes of black words, while a matching floor-length scarf was tied with a big bow around her neck. Backed by the choir and a string-laden arrangement, her version of “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” was unabashedly romantic and stirringly entrancing.
“I have been tasked with finishing the evening,” Manson remarked, before introducing Yoko Ono, who waved from her seat in one of the front rows. Manson succinctly described the artist as “a badass witch.” Ono didn’t get up onstage to sing or talk; she apparently was content to watch the proceedings as just another fan. Nonetheless, Manson’s shoutout to Ono charged the crowd with excitement. Ono hadn’t been listed as one of the night’s attendees, so her appearance came as a surprise to most of the crowd, who gave the artist a standing ovation.
Manson humbly walked over to the back of the choir as she led an audience sing-along for the last song of the evening, a version of “Imagine,” which Ono co-wrote with Lennon. The oft-covered anthem took on a newfound resonance when the voices of Manson, the chorus and the crowd blended together with Kumar’s arrangement of piano and strings. Near the end, most of the instrumentation fell away, leaving only the chimes of bells and a churchy organ as the combined voices rose together like a solemn prayer.