Music review: John Adams conducts premieres by emerging Brooklyn composers
Brooklyn is the new Montmartre, John Adams proclaimed Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall as he introduced works from three emerging Brooklyn composers commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its final Green Umbrella concert of the season. He's got a point.
Missy Mazzoli, Gabriel Kahane and Andrew Norman (all born between 1979 and 1981) have joined the influx of young American composers, painters, writers, chefs, beekeepers, brew masters and other creative types who are making a New York borough increasingly hip. The shared sensibility is eclecticism, entrepreneurship and user-friendliness. Anything and everything goes — and goes together — as they re-mold Rococo art in an effort to produce narrative sense out of an overstimulated Internet epoch.
Whether a lasting stylistic school will emerge remains to be seen, but Mazzoli, Kahane and Norman are big musical talents with distinctive voices. Their careers are beginning to take off, with major commissions coming in and big projects in the works. And the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group, for which Adams was the conductor and violinist Jennifer Koh a soloist, provided a smart and excellent West Coast launching pad.
Mazzoli was the odd woman out at Green Umbrella, mainly because her work, “Dissolve, O my Heart,” was commissioned by the orchestra as a solo for Koh's “Bach and Beyond” project. In it the venturesome violinist combines Bach's solo partitas and sonatas with new works, and Mazzoli's daunting ghost was the D minor Chaconne. She began with Bach's chord, then went her own way in a beautifully structured score.
Post-Minimalist repetition is an element of the current Brooklyn fashion sense, and Mazzoli liked to return, in this short piece, to elegantly simple phrases. But she decorated them with compelling complexity, alluring sliding tones and an exquisite flamboyance designed for Koh's virtuosity. The performance was exciting, with horsehair, shorn from the violin bow, fluttering in the wind.
The son of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra music director Jeffery Kahane, Gabriel Kahane wears many hats. He is a fluid pop singer of rare musicality and depth. He is an accomplished jazz pianist. He is a guitarist. He is at home in any number of classical and non-classical musical styles.
There was a little of all this in his “Orinoco Sketches,” titled for the ship his grandmother took to flee Nazi Germany on her way to Los Angeles, stopping off in Cuba and depositing her in New Orleans. Kahane evoked those worlds in four sweet songs, which he performed singing at the piano and accompanying himself on the guitar in an all-around dazzling performance, for which the orchestra was almost superfluous.
There is a lot of atmosphere in “Orinoco,” be it a ship's lounge music, the sounds of Cuba, New Orleans and urban L.A. Amplification was reverberant, drowning out many words (the L.A. Philharmonic has a poor policy of not printing texts). Orchestral balances needed work. The score doesn't always breathe when it needs to, and went by too quickly, too nervously, to catch on first hearing. But clearly more hearings will bring out more. This is music with something to say.
Norman's “Try,” an instrumental piece, was all over the map, which was its giddy, impossible-to-miss point. Gustavo Dudamel conducted Norman's hyperactive student work, “Gran Turismo,” last season. “Try,” however, makes that seem almost a Model T version of the video game.
“Try” tries, and usually succeeds, to change direction every few seconds, and when it intentionally doesn't succeed, it is all the more amusing. There is no end to the odd sounds Norman entices from a fairly conventional chamber ensemble. Strings buzzed like insects. Winds burst in with pinpoint dabs of color. Frequently the action stopped and the piano hit a single note or two, a Chaplinesque stunt.
Adams, who was at his most persuasive all evening, conducted with the necessary rhythmic facility of the video-gamer but also with a well-honed sense of humor. The audience, for all the right reasons, loved it.
And the audience loved the final piece on the program by Steven Mackey, who isn't a young Brooklynite but rather the chairman of Princeton's music department and an electric guitarist who likes to cross over to the other, rock side. His “Four Iconoclastic Episodes,” a double concerto in which he and Koh were the soloists, is just such an untroubling crossover.
The performance, the West Coast premiere, was entertaining, with Koh, again impressively excited, breaking a string but the score breaking no new ground. Mackey didn't here attempt to reach the depths of his memorable violin concerto, “Beautiful Passing,” which the L.A. Philharmonic performed two weeks ago.
This, instead, was a night for the hot composers of the next generation. And we're lucky to have them, even if they insist on settling on the other coast.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: above, Violinist Jennifer Koh and guitarist Steve Mackey with John Adams conducting, perform Mackey's "Four Inconoclastic Images" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night; below, Gabriel Kahane. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times