Category: Josef Woodard

Music review: Morton Subotnick, California E.A.R. Unit at REDCAT

March 25, 2012 |  2:25 pm

A beautiful retro-futurist atmosphere hovered over REDCAT on Saturday night as iconic electronic music composer-performer Morton Subotnick’s seminal “Silver Apples of the Moon” and “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” were brought vividly to life, here and now, with tools spanning the ages. 

Subotnick, the conceptualist and conjurer at the center, manned his laptop and Buchla200e synthesizer as the intrepid California E.A.R. Unit lent its piano/violin/percussion forces in a guided improvisational tour de force.

Subotnick’s original 1966 recording of “Silver Apples,” commissioned by Nonesuch Records, is a veritable “greatest hit” of electronic music history, appealing to an uncommonly wide public. It broke the esoteric mold of electronic music, an artistic landmark nonetheless accessible in its rippling rhythmic pulses and harmonic shimmer. “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur,” from 1977, was made with the same mix of Buchla synths and tape recorders. In short, claims of his being the “godfather of techno” are more than idle hype.

Subotnick and the E.A.R. Unit are allies with a layered history. They have previously collaborated and share an academic-experimental common ground at the California Institute of the Arts -- of which Subotnick was a founding faculty member. It is now a home base for current Unit members pianist Vicki Ray, violinist Eric KM Clark and percussionist Amy Knoles (here equipped with an extended “drum kit,” including jumbo bass drum and bodhran).

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Music review: 'Cage 2012' at Southwest Chamber Music

March 4, 2012 |  1:10 pm

2012-03-03 Shalini Vijayan plays Cage's One-6 with sculpture by Mineko Grimmer_ Photo by Jan Karlin (2)

This is officially the Year of Cage, 2012 being the centennial year for the late, great American avant-gardist composer/conceptualist John Cage. Los Angeles has a special stake in the celebratory spirit, as the composer’s birthplace on Sept. 5, 1912, and sometime creative stamping ground. To that end, Cage is being feted by Southwest Chamber Music, which launched its four-concert “Cage 2012” series on Saturday night at the Japanese American National Museum.

Starting the series with gentle force, Saturday’s fare consisted of the uniquely minimal, meditative works “One6” and “One10" -- with original collaborator Mineko Grimmer’s audio-kinetic sculpture and solo violinist Shalini Vijayan -- written in 1990 and 1992 (the year of Cage’s death).

Atmospherically, the museum’s high-ceilinged, glass-walled atrium proved an ideal and ideally unconventional concert setting for Cage, with its ambient sounds of traffic, cricket song and the occasional siren. He no doubt would have appreciated the space, sonic stowaways and all.

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Music review: U.S. debut of Norway's asamisimasa at Zipper Hall

February 28, 2012 |  2:01 pm

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.

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Music review: 'Art Jarvinen Birthday Concert' at Beyond Baroque

January 29, 2012 |  4:35 pm

The Formalist Quartet
Getting a neat and tidy fix on the complex musical persona that was Art Jarvinen (1956-2010) is no easy feat, which speaks to his special place in the lineage of contemporary music, in Los Angeles and beyond. He was a percussionist who played with the California EAR Unit for many years, a composer with a distinctive perspective, an avant-rocker and absurdist who looked great in a fez. He was also, to quote new music concert series director Daniel Rothman’s introduction at a special concert at Venice’s Beyond Baroque on Friday, “an excellent cook and a real surrealist.”

Arthurguitar-1Further complications and attributes, including Rothman’s assessment of Jarvinen’s “incredible sense of humor,” which never compromised “the depth of his seriousness,”  became evident to listeners over the course of Friday’s event, “Art Jarvinen Birthday Concert.” Friday would have been Jarvinen’s  56th birthday, but, as they say, his music does live on, at least in the domain of new and experimental music.

Though neither a long nor varied concert, with only two chamber works on a program clocking in at 90 minutes, Jarvinen’s birthday show nonetheless conveyed something larger than the sum of its component parts about his special voice and vision as a composer. Along the way, we encountered humor and seriousness, minimalism and irreverence, and new ideas about sound and structure.

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Music review: Vicki Ray at Piano Spheres recital at Zipper Hall

November 16, 2011 |  2:46 pm

Vicky Ray copy
This post has been corrected, see details below.

One of the sure, reaffirming virtues of the long-running Piano Spheres recital series is its recurring promise of things new and unexpected. Tuesday at Zipper Hall, in her annual appearance in this context, contemporary music heroine Vicki Ray upped the freshness ante by stocking her entire program with world premieres, including a rare piece with Ray’s own name in the composer role.

Clearly, Piano Spheres is intent on promoting new musical piano culture, not only by affording a handful of L.A.’s finest a regular showcase, but also helping to expand and update the existing solo piano repertoire and offer needed encouragement to young composers. Tuesday’s affair was a triumph on all those counts.

Ray presided over a gamey piano program that also involved “tape” and video elements and extended techniques and instrument manipulations. Linda Bouchard’s “Gassho,” for instance, combined its piano part with a prerecorded haze of Tibetan Bowl tones, in a piece balancing furtive dissonant bursts and gentle tonal breezes that befitted the composer’s claims of channeling Zen and Schubert.

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Music review: Wadada Leo Smith’s 'Ten Freedom Summers,' REDCAT

October 31, 2011 | 12:38 pm

Ten Freedom Summers
This review has been updated, see note below for details.

For all the noble efforts made over the decades to effectively merge the worlds of jazz and classical music, most often the fruits of the labors remain stuck in the “noble effort” category. But there are blissful exceptions, a list to which we can now add Wadada Leo Smith’s ambitious five-hour, civil rights-surveying “Ten Freedom Summers,” given a moving world premiere at REDCAT on Friday through Sunday nights.           

Of course, it helps that the 70-year-old “jazz” trumpeter-composer Smith, a longtime CalArts faculty member with roots in the fabled AACM (Assn. for Advancement of Creative Musicians), has worked on both sides of the mediumistic “aisle.” His magnum opus, 21 movements spread over three nights, boldly conjoins his various impulses.

For the performances, the REDCAT stage was divided between Smith's “jazz-”minded Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music. Video elements by Ismail Ali and Robert Fenz added modestly to the sensory whole. This blending made for a fitting gesture in a work addressing heroes -– including Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. -- and heroic moments in Civil Rights history, a movement about striving towards equality and freedom.

Southwest Chamber, known for braving contemporary musical challenges (including past work by Smith), proved an ideal ensemble for the job. Conductor Jeff von der Schmidt led the nine-piece group through strictly through-composed passages and moveable modules. A wafting of minimalist textures runs through the section titled “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age,” while the sterner stuff of post-serialist writing arises elsewhere, asserting necessary rage and indignation.

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Music review: Itzhak Perlman with the L.A. Phil at Hollywood Bowl

September 7, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Itzak Perlman
A certain theory of orchestral hierarchy holds that when an orchestra is conducted by a notable and respected instrumentalist, the group performs in a different, particularly sympathetic way. It’s as if the familial relations of instrumentalists warm up under such circumstances.

Whether or not this theory was holding true Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave an especially strong and integrated performance –- gave its all -- when indisputably respected and beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman seized the podium in conductor mode, for a stirring all-Beethoven evening.

As conductor, a role he has been taking on more of late, Perlman is seriously engaged and seemingly  appreciative of the challenges away from his fiddle. He brushed aside audience attempts at applause when the recovered polio victim walked slowly on his crutches across the broad Bowl stage to the podium. This was serious business, not show business.

Though this was not a night about showcasing Perlman as violin virtuoso, he opened the program on a tender note by soloing on Beethoven’s Romances Nos. 1 and 2, with his innately singing phrasing and suppleness of tone intact.

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Music review: Piano Spheres season finale at Zipper Hall

May 11, 2011 | 12:22 pm

Although pianistic fireworks of the modernist/contemporary kind are commonly heard in the much-valued Piano Spheres recital series, for the finale of the current 17th season, Tuesday at Zipper Hall, pianist Susan Svrček called more on a virtuosity of tranquility. Her coolly compelling program could be subtitled “Zen and the art of focus maintenance.”

Susan From the Zen-ish corner came John Cage’s lyrical and airily beautiful “In a Landscape,” a 1948 piano work with strong echoes of one of Cage’s heroes, Erik Satie. Pentatonic melodic patterns float atop rippling arpeggios, with a meditative character unperturbed except by the occasional stowaway dissonance.

For the evening’s main event, Svrček gave a rare public reading of conceptual composer Tom Johnson’s deceptively pleasant, self-defining “An Hour for Piano.” Its lilting minimalist score has the added audience-interactive component of a rambling, hypnotic program note “to be read while hearing” the music.

Though partly a conceptual prank, Johnson’s piece is also a meditation on the process of balancing surrender and analysis, as active listeners. Written in 1973, before minimalism had spread to wider audiences via Reich and Glass, Johnson’s text ploy is, in a way, an ironic art-about-art gesture dealing with appreciating the then-more-esoteric art unfolding before us.

As music, it’s a harmless hour “for” (not “of”) the piano, a willfully simple minimalist amble, evolving ever so gradually. So, likewise, go the mumbling program notes, should we choose to read them while listening –-  the composer leaves the option entirely open. Often, harmonic textures or rhythmic tactics shift beneath high single tolling notes. About 40 minutes into the piece, a jarring flatted fifth note outside the chord offers a moment of relatively “high drama,” breaking with the code of the work. It ended, expectedly sans fanfare.

Technically, Svrček was a model of restraint and attention to detail and dynamics, as both pieces demand, and also stamina, which the Johnson opus especially requires.

For an encore, Svrček returned with Cage’s “Dream,” a more melancholic companion piece to the longer opener, bringing the program home to a more purely sensuous place.

--Josef Woodard

Photo: Susan Svrček. Credit: Piano Spheres

Music review: Musicians From Marlboro at the Broad Stage

April 5, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Marlboro At musical levels that count most -– real-time sonic surfaces and fundamental musicality -- the Musicians From Marlboro amply showed their worth Monday when a touring arm of Vermont's famed music program took Santa Monica’s Broad Stage. In a program of Janácek, Mozart and Mendelssohn, in an expanding stage population of quartet, quintet and octet, eight fine young musicians delivered the goods with clarity and power.

Beneath the actual music-making, though, are relevant back story, behind-the-scenes virtues. There is, for one, the impact of the prestigious Marlboro Music Festival summer program, founded 60 years ago, which brought these young professionals together and, secondly, the fact that these disparate, casually connected musicians could produce such a deep, integrated sound.

In the mobile Marlboro ranks were violinists Jessica Lee, Miho Saegusa and Yonah Zur; violists Mark Holloway, Maiya Papach and Scott St. John; and cellists Susan Babini and Na-Young Baek. On Janácek’s Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”), the Czech’s emotive muscularity came boldly to life. The score’s 1923 vintage is most strongly stated in the third movement, as a rueful pleading melody is interrupted by scratchy-toned outbursts, an effective modernist curveball.

As for the Broad Stage, a housekeeping malfunction with season program information left out movement information and identified Mozart’s String Quintet in E-flat, K. 614, as a quartet, causing confusion when five musicians filed onstage. That glitch was corrected from the stage, after the fact.

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Music review: L.A. Phil's new music series Green Umbrella at Walt Disney Concert Hall

March 16, 2011 | 11:14 am

Balance and mischief held sway, to impressive effect, in the latest installment of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new-music-geared Green Umbrella series, Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Benjamin_Shwartz_Credit_Jennifer_Hui_Bon_Hoa_0 Program-wise, the evening was neatly, even symmetrically divided between two mid-career composers very much alive, and lively in musical thought. Swedish Anders Hillborg and South Korean-in-Berlin Unsuk Chin presented works involving enlightened playfulness, wry humor, cultural cross-filtrations and expressive uses of sound.

This evening’s conventionality-goosing flavor emerged directly, in Chin’s opener, “Allegro ma non troppo,” both absurd and meditative. Expressively and physically flexible percussionist Joseph Pereira moved from artfully crumpled paper to an elaborate assemblage of “actual” percussion instruments, dialoguing with a supple palette of electronic, virtual sounds.

Further intellectual circus act action came through Hillborg’s captivating recent “Vaporized Tivoli,” given its U.S. premiere here, crisply realized by a 16-piece ensemble conducted by Benjamin Schwartz. Accessing the definition of “Tivoli” as amusement park, the composer’s musical scheme summons kinetic, antic energy and childlike attention diversions, though hovering and nattering around narrowly defined pitch ranges. After a raucously rhythmic climax, the piece airs out into microtonal vapor, to a hypnotic end game.

Chin’s “Cantatrix Sopranica –- “co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group and given its U.S. premiere in 2006 –- proved the concert’s grandest and wildest gesture. Citing it as an example of her ability to “set text” would be a half-truth: Chin engages in neo-dadaist efforts in “upsetting” text, drawing connections between words, musical deeds and the cathartic delight in nonsense. Chin uses (and abuses) such disparate sources as dadaist poetry, China’s Tang dynasty, gibberish and a crazed operatic mash-up (“Con tutti i Fantasmi”), with countertenor Michael Maniaci and sopranos Kiera Duffy and Audrey Luna gamely indulging in a comically theatrical pile-up.

For contemplative relief, Hillborg’s string quartet “Kongsgaard Variations” spins out from a simple Beethoven quotation, swiped from a wine bottle label (the piece is dedicated to winemaker John Kongsgaard and his wife, Maggy). As a whole, the work unfolds with luminous chords and a disarmingly languid elegance.

-- Josef Woodard   

Photo: Benjamin Shwartz. Credit: Jennifer Hui Bon Hoa                                              


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