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Music review: A 'festival' of new music begins where others fear to tread

June 24, 2011 |  2:00 pm


The cats are away, the cats being the big classical music performing arts organizations. Orchestras, opera companies and presenters normally take off the first couple of weeks of summer. So a word of welcome to the mice.

Suddenly, a collection of small, perky, home-grown new music outfits are putting on so many concerts in small and sometimes bizarrely untraditional venues that an eccentrically informal early summer new music festival has unexpectedly emerged. And by small, I mean small. One performance will be in a closet.

Hillsides, alternative spaces and CalArts’ small outdoor amphitheater, the Wild Beast, are some of the other venues. Most of the shows feature local composers and musicians, but there will also be rare performances of two epic new music classics -– Morton Feldman’s nearly five-hour “For Philip Guston” and Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise.”

This festival, if you want to call it that, began Wednesday night at Royal/T with a wonderful program presented by $2 Shows, an enterprising monthly series begun three years ago by a high school student, Spencer Ludwig, in his backyard. The concert was also in support of the Harmony Project, which offers music instruction to underprivileged children and includes Gustavo Dudamel’s beloved Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

The venerable Venice new music record label Cold Blue on Thursday presented works at Beyond Baroque by two of its artists, Christopher Roberts, who played new works for the ancient plucked Chinese instrument, the qin, and the belated world premiere of Peter Garland’s 1994 String Quartet No. 2 (“Crazy Cloud”), a major piece.

The Royal/T event warmed the heart. Until veteran percussionist David Johnson and cellist Roger Lebow ended the program with Johnson’s winningly lyrical “Dark Wing,” this was a beguiling youth fest. Andrew McIntosh, a composer and violinist who is a recent CalArts grad, began the evening playing Renaissance and modern violin duos by Orlando Gibbons and Luciano Berio with two of his Harmony Project students, Susie Perez and Gianna Walker.

There was no theme, just excellent young musicians playing what they like and what they write. The trombonist Matt Barbier kept busy slipping and sliding all through Daniel Corral’s “Diasporic Music #5.” He was later joined by pianist Richard Valitutto (playing on a piano painted with fantastic cartoon figures) in the 20th century avant-garde Russian composer Edison Denisov’s brusque, bony Chorale Variations.

Two of McIntosh’s duos from his “Voice and Echo” series had the violist in moody, spacey call and response with Lebow and Barbier. Ashley Walters, a cellist finishing a doctorate at UCSD, played Berio’s late Sequenza XIV for solo cello with the kind of brilliance that beckons a major new performer on the new music scene.

The concert Thursday at Beyond Baroque demonstrated the influence of Asia on two American outsiders. Roberts, who grew up in the Los Angeles, learned the bass on an instrument that was used as a prop in “Some Like it Hot.” He then went off to Taiwan to study the qin.

A zither that goes back in Chinese lore 5,000 years, it uses a pentatonic scale, but Roberts said, in remarks to the audience, that the bent pitches in between are what tell stories. In four new pieces based on traditional practices, Roberts’ stories were taken from the ocean’s waves, the singing of cicadas on Chinese mountainsides and the “voluntary quivering” of a song of remembrance.

Though amplified, the instrument made a soft sound. A sea of traffic heard through thin walls was sometimes louder. Plucked cluster of notes followed plucked cluster of notes, like sounds in a forest on a lost journey, ineffable and pleasurable.

Garland’s “Crazy Cloud” string quartet takes its title from the pen name of Ikkyu, a 15th century Japanese poet-priest. The titles of the five movements refer to Sado (an island in Japan where Garland began the quartet), Ikkyu and his lover. But he also manages to throw in references to Mexico (where Garland has lived) and to the blues.

In the end, this is unmistakably American music. Garland -- who now lives in Maine and who puts too much curmudgeonly effort into keeping himself out of the limelight –- seems to start where Copland starts in “Appalachian Spring,” in that mystic light of pure tone and stasis. But unlike Copland, he stays there.

The quartet is played without vibrato and features thick consonances full of complex resonances. Garland likes scale-wise motion. He also likes standing still. This is a sound world that feels both timeless and new.

The Eclipse Quartet -– Sara Parkins, Sarah Thornblade, Alma Lisa Fernandez and Maggie Parkins, played the premiere with authority and emotion. They could –- and should -- take it everywhere.
Cats come back, you’re missing out.


A surprising, welcome sight: An informal new music festival hits L.A.

CalArts unleashes its Wild Beast

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Christopher Roberts performing on the Chinese instrument, the qin, at Beyond Baroque on Thursday night. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.