Mark Robson’s annual Piano Spheres recital Tuesday was true to form. The program was personal, full of surprises, insights and sensational pianism. Robson has an effortless, old-school, monster technique that he applies to the new school. He expresses pleasure in modern music that is progressive, and modern music that is charmingly not, just as long as it has something to say about the piano.
Also true to form, Robson lived up to his reputation as the best-kept keyboard secret in Los Angeles. Piano Spheres holds its concerts at Zipper Hall, for which there was a decent turnout of regulars on Tuesday. The hall is part of the Colburn School, at least physically. I can’t say for sure that no students attended, but from appearances, it didn’t look as though any did. About a third of the seats were empty.
Perhaps Colburn students are too careerist to care about a major pianist who is not glamorous (at least in the Lang Lang or Yuja Wang way). If so, Tuesday was a sad night. But it wasn’t sad for those of us in the audience.
It is tempting to view the performance by virtuosic, maverick Norwegian group asamisimasa, Monday at Zipper Hall, as comic relief from the contemporary music scene’s more serious side. After all, the concert menu included a megaphone trio, a percussionist holding forth on “household implements,” a conductor/composer writhing spastically onstage before falling off it, and other John Cage-meets-Dada-meets-Spike Jones doings.
But to dismiss this conspicuously gifted young chamber group as a novelty would do disservice to the group’s considerable, serious artistic powers. Given its coolly absurdist theatrics and dazzling musicianship beneath the zany surfaces, asamisimasa’s concert was one of the freshest and funniest new music performances in the Southland in memory.
This was the U.S. debut of asamisimasa, formed in 2001 and named after the baffled psychic scene in Fellini’s “8 ½.” Leave it to the venerable yet always newness-seeking Monday Evening Concerts series to broker this enthralling encounter.
Dressed in vibrant violet leggings and a black bodice with its strings dangling ostentatiously in front, the redheaded pianist Kathleen Supové suggests a kind of Lady Gaga without the stage entourage. Her program for Piano Spheres on Tuesday at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall was similarly striking and colorful.
Supové, a performance artist with a degree from Juilliard, revels in electronic and theatrical elements that turn a classical recital on its head. At one point, the Portland, Ore., native told audience members they were free to examine the handmade bodice “up close.”
She has commissioned more than 75 piano works in her career and has said she looks for “the kind of music Debussy would write for piano if he were alive today.”
A prime example: The trills in Lainie Fefferman’s “Barnacles,” which was written for Supové, sounded like a gloss on Debussy’s “Island of Joy,” which includes some of the most joyous trilling in the piano literature. A recorded voice, not always heard through Supové’s shimmering sound, says things like, “Evenness creates the illusion of speed.” At the end, the pianist’s fist pounding bass chords echoed Debussy’s “Engulfed Cathedral.”
Ballet has become so culturally irrelevant that people need to be reminded that a century ago it was cutting-edge contemporary art, enlisting the titans of the age in choreography, music and design. Robert Joffrey loved the groundbreaking works of that era and not only revived and reconstructed them for his own company (founded in the late 1950s), but embraced and updated their guiding aesthetic.
His story and that of his partner Gerald Arpino is retold in the 82-minute documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” through the reminiscences of former Joffrey Ballet dancers and associates. There’s a lot of valuable information here, but for all the archival footage on view, dance is rarely allowed to make its effect. It's nearly always shackled to voice-over commentary or dismembered by nervous editing. If “Ballets Russes” and the recent “Pina” made you understand the speakers’ enthusiasm, this film makes you take an awful lot of gush on faith.
Directed by Bob Hercules, the film will have its Los Angeles premiere on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School downtown. A VOD/DVD/digital release is planned for June.
When L.A. Opera music director James Conlon conducts two one-act operas at the Colburn School this weekend, the occasion will mark the first time that his company’s Domingo Thornton Young Artist program and musicians from the Colburn Conservatory have worked together. The program also marks the first time that Ernst Krenek’s “The Secret Kingdom” and Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” have shared a bill.
Both are examples of music that the Nazis forbade, a genre especially dear to Conlon’s heart. Yet more than a common enemy unites these two short operas -– the first composed in the mid-1920s, the second in the midst of World War II.
“Both of these operas are fairy tales, and the dramaturgical link is that they both involve a ruler who abdicates,” Conlon said. “And this is why I wanted to do this pairing: I saw through my previous experience that you can set off works in a special way when you find the right connection.”
The conductor describes Krenek’s “Secret Kingdom” as “delightfully comic and very touching,” adding, “it gives you – as the court jester tells you at the end – a lot to think about. The meaning of life is to be found in something quite different from power.”
Ullmann’s “Emperor of Atlantis” is also a fantasy, but it’s a much darker one. “It’s about the Grim Reaper and the Great Dictator, and then the Grim Reaper goes on strike,” Conlon said. “I imagine it as a Freudian wish-fulfillment dream on the part of Ullmann to convince Hitler to desist. Yet you have a witty and deeply moving affirmation of life here as well.”
-- David Mermelstein
Photo: Conductor James Conlon rehearses with musicians of the Colburn Conservatory. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times
Violinist Nigel Armstrong, who won fourth prize in last year's 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition, will make his debut with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra this weekend.
Armstrong, 21, a graduate of the Colburn School Conservatory of Music, will play Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major in concerts Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall. The program, which will be conducted by principal cello Andrew Shulman, also includes Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major and Walton's Sonata for Strings.
LACO booked Armstrong before he gained attention at the Tchaikovsky, the prestigious quadrennial competition held in Russia. Music director Jeffrey Kahane says he first met Armstrong several years ago when Armstrong, who is from Sonoma, played for him at his home in nearby Santa Rosa. "I was enormously impressed," he recalls.
Last spring, Kahane asked a friend at Colburn if she knew any students who could perform a Mozart concerto with the orchestra. "She told me there was a young violinist named Nigel Armstrong and I said, 'Oh, I know Nigel!'"
Kahane and concertmaster Margaret Batjer arranged to hear Armstrong play. "We were just knocked out," Kahane says. "Great Mozart playing is the most demanding kind of playing there is. Every single note is exposed and has to be perfect in so many ways, has to be felt and thought and cared for. He's one of many violinists with technique to burn ... but to find that depth of musicianship in a young person is very unusual."
Monday Evening Concerts has, in recent few years, become a significant source for news of the uncompromising avant-garde from Western and Eastern Europe. This month, the subject was Klaus Lang, a 40-year-old Austrian organist and cryptic composer who has said that sound is sound just as mollusks are mollusks, that composing is different from coming up with a formula for LSD and that acrobatics belong in the circus.
His music moves with self-conscious slowness and strangeness. He gets a lot of his ideas from John Cage and late 20th century American experimentalism. He approves, moreover, in provocatively enigmatic statements, of Donald Duck and Michael Jackson. But he is also a professor in Linz, Austria, who has not divorced himself from history. Far from it.
Lang began Monday night at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall by performing three short early 17th century organ pieces -– two “Elevation” toccatas by Frescobaldi and a durezze (a slow moving style with melody and accompaniment in different tempos) by Ercole Pasquini. The small portable organ was in Baroque meantone temperament, meaning it was tuned to what to us now sounds microtonal and exotic.
Under normal circumstances, Samuel Beckett's nihilism can take your breath away. But the circumstances for the Monday Evening Concerts opening of its 72nd season at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall were not normal.
The program, titled "Kurtág’s Beckett," concluded with the U.S. premiere of the Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s “…pas á pas -- nulle part…,” which is a setting of 27 ethereally pessimistic texts by Samuel Beckett for baritone, string trio and percussion.
But before baritone Nicholas Isherwood began what proved to be a devastating and incomparably cathartic performance, he addressed the audience, quoting the first sentence of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” “Mother died today,” it begins. This evening, Isherwood said, his mother had died and he was dedicating the performance to her. He also pointed out two particularly relevant Beckett poems in Kurtág’s score. One of them reads, “sleep till death/healeth/come ease/this life disease.”
Jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was in the audience for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s opening night gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night. No surprise there. Herbie Hancock was soloist in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Shorter and Hancock were in Miles Davis’ “second quintet,” one of the greatest chamber ensembles of all time, ample evidence of which can be found on a new CD/DVD set of live performances from the quintet's 1967 European tour.
The Ebène Quartet, an impeccable young French string quartet winning awards left and right for all the right reasons, will open the 108th season of Coleman concerts at Caltech Sunday afternoon in a traditional program of Mozart, Borodin and Brahms. That’s no surprise either. The Ebène has just released an eloquent new Mozart CD.
What do Shorter and Miles have to do with the Ebène? Plenty.
The Ebène, with the help of a drummer, enjoys morphing into a smooth-jazz quintet. That Ebène alter ego has a new release as well, a DVD entitled “Fiction” documenting a live concert at the Folies Bergère in Paris. And the first number is none other than Shorter’s “Footprints.” Also on the program is Davis’ “All Blues/So What,” along with some film music, Latin bits by Jobim and Piazzolla, and a guest appearance of French opera star Natalie Dessay blandly singing “Over the Rainbow.” The Ebène’s violist even croons his way through Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”
The late composer Luciano Berio called his small but potent book of Harvard lectures “Remembering the Future.” And that seemingly paradoxical phrase informed Gloria Cheng’s nearly all-British Piano Spheres program Tuesday night at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall.
In the first half, the pianist offered the United States premiere of Bernard Rands’ 12 Preludes. An impressionistic, emotionally draining 40-minute work, it’s the first of 15 premieres planned this season by the venerable recital series, now in its 18th year.
Before the performance, the English-born Rands, based in the United States since 1975 (he became a citizen in 1983), touchingly told the audience that he owed “much of what I am as a musician” to Berio, his mentor and friend. And a Berio-like sense of music history and lyricism pervaded Rands’ Preludes. Dedicated to the pianist Robert Levin, who performed the world premiere in 2007, the score conjured a sound world that Debussy would recognize. At the same time, the melancholy cast of many of the pieces was Rands’ own.
Cheng’s precision, warm tone and sensitive, resonant pedaling conveyed enough variety to put the largely elegiac work across, whether in the fourth Prelude, Elegia (In memoriam Luciano Berio), the introspective eighth, Lamento, or the haunting concluding Notturno (In memoriam Don Martino).