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.
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.
The career of Pablo Heras-Casado has been rocketing along as of late –- a debut with the Berlin Philharmonic last October, landing an American post as principal conductor of New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s in December, and so forth. He has a lot on his plate -– chamber music, early music, opera, standard symphonic repertoire -– yet seems to be most celebrated for his work with new music.
So in his return to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon, Heras-Casado offered something new -– the West Coast premiere of a violin concerto by James Matheson, director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship Program –- following a rather blunt, lean-and-mean rendition of Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture with the orchestra.
The Matheson concerto was first performed in December by Esa-Pekka Salonen (who recently wrote an impressive violin concerto himself) and the Chicago Symphony. It must be a coincidence that both Matheson’s and Salonen’s concertos open in a similar way, with perpetual-motion violin right from the starting gate.
When asked at a pre-concert talk Tuesday whether the two remarkable soloists in the evening’s U.S. premieres at Walt Disney Concert Hall of two fresh (in both senses of the term) works were his muses, Louis Andriessen dismissed the term as being a bit bourgeois. Of all the unconventional risks the Los Angeles Philharmonic has taken in recent years, embracing this profoundly significant anti-bourgeois 72-year-old Dutch composer –- who doesn’t have much truck with orchestras, nor they with him –- has been perhaps the most daring.
There is no question that violinist Monica Germino and the soprano Cristina Zavalloni were muses for a curious violin concerto, “La Girò,” and the theatrical “Anaïs Nin.” The dramatic as well as musical talents of these women clearly motivated Andriessen’s shockingly fanciful scores, which received riveting U.S. premieres Tuesday at a Green Umbrella concert by the L.A. Phil New Music Group. Each work, moreover, is about a muse.
PHOTOS: Green Umbrella concerts
But bourgeois the pieces are not. Instead, Andriessen reveals how meaningful musery, at least among artists who flout convention in search of insight, all but invites perversion. The violin concerto is a sad, funny and sharp chronicle of an older composer’s obsession with a young singer, Anna Girò. The inspiration for “Anaïs Nin” was a frank diarist’s erotically explicit delight in her incestuous relationship with her father, the Cuban-Catalan composer Joaquin Nin. Andriessen pulls no punches.
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.
One of the many pleasures of the monthly Sunday afternoon chamber music series Le Salon de Musiques is its intimacy. The Salon venue on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion feels as if the listener is in a carpeted living room with large windows overlooking the city and hills. This special ambience, which includes a brief introduction by a musicologist, Champagne-fueled conversation between audience and performers, and a buffet, allows listeners to get closer to the music and musicians.
For example, after harpist Marcia Dickstein’s lovely, rippling account of Arnold Bax’s rarely performed “Elegiac Trio” for flute, viola and harp, several people said it was the first time they had ever seen and heard the instrument up close.
Dickstein, a Bax scholar, has recorded most of the British composer’s music for harp. His 1916 trio, which shows the Impressionist influence of Ravel, found sympathetic interpreters in Dickstein, flutist Pamela Vliek Martchev and violist Victoria Miskolczy. The trio’s richly harmonic language was perfectly placed between two more substantial French neighbors: Poulenc’s Flute Sonata with piano, composed for Jean-Pierre Rampal in 1957, and Fauré’s late-Romantic Piano Quartet No. 1 in C-minor (Op. 15).
Flutist Martchev offered a technically stirring, lyrical rendition of the Poulenc, superbly accompanied by pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s delicately calibrated touch. You could almost feel her breath transformed into music.
For the Fauré, John Walz, principal cellist of the L.A. Opera orchestra, got permission to take off from the second half of the matinee performance of “Simon Boccanegra” to fill out a quartet (with Vanhauwaert, Miskolczy and violinist Tereza Stanislav) upstairs. Together they generated an alternately poetic and earthy intensity, never losing the work’s propulsive rhythmic impetus. The pianist’s clarity in playing softly (the piano lid remained open) blended sensitively into the opulent fabric created by his partners.
Photo: The February gathering of Le Salon de Musiques at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Credit: Henry Lim
The Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit has a reputation for working fast and knowing what he wants. He was exactly what the Los Angeles Philharmonic needed on Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he led them in a program of Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev. It was the orchestra’s first concert on its home stage since repeating its recent Mahler symphony cycle in Caracas, Venezuela, with music director Gustavo Dudamel.
Returning Sunday from a trip partly marred by bouts of food poisoning, head colds and flu, the musicians had Monday and Tuesday off to recover from jet lag, and then went into a five-hour double rehearsal on Wednesday.
Before the scheduled program began, Philharmonic president Deborah Borda announced that Lorin Levee, a 36-year veteran of the orchestra and its principal clarinetist since 1981, died on Wednesday. In his honor, Dutoit and the orchestra gave a lovingly shaped account of Ravel’s “The Enchanted Garden,” the moving finale to the ballet “Mother Goose.”
In his short but powerful organ recital on Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Olivier Latry, the organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, performed solo works by Anton Heiller and Jehan Alain. But the big event was Latry’s pipe organ version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for four hands and four feet, where he was joined by Korean organist Shin-Young Lee.
Latry opened with Heiller’s brief Tanz-Toccata, composed in 1970, and quickly demonstrated a breathtaking mastery of the Disney Hall instrument by shaping the score’s restlessly shifting meters and thick harmonies into a compelling dramatic whole. In Alain’s “Three Dances” -– “Joys,” “Mournings” and “Battles” -- Latry contrasted gentle and more emotionally conflicted passages to create a sense of epic adventure in just over 20 minutes.
Alain’s dances were accessibly, if strangely, tonal, employing medieval plainchant style to shattering effect. Weeks before the Nazi invasion of France, Alain mailed his “Three Dances” to a friend. He died in a firefight in 1940 at the age of 29.
After intermission, Latry and Lee gave a high-voltage rendition of “Rite of Spring,” which was adapted by him from the composer's own original piano-duo version. Latry added extra elements unavailable to pianists. For example, Lee’s virtuoso pedal trills in the lower registers were used to brilliant effect.
Carnival starts on Monday in Caracas. But the chaos outside the Teatro Teresa Carreño on Saturday night as crowds arrived to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct a gargantuan Mahler's Eighth Symphony was indication that something was already in the air.
Venezuelans love monster concerts, the more performers the better, partly as a matter of national pride at their extensive and inclusive music education system. This was Mahler's “Symphony of a Thousand” with 1,400 performers, and many people without tickets showed up anyway, jostling to get past an ineffective security cordon. Their backup was a free outdoor screen area where people could sit and watch the performance while enjoying the lovely Caribbean breezes.
Inside, a chorus of 1,200 mostly young, uniformly ecstatic singers unleashed vast reserves of controlled energy filling every inch of the hall. They also let loose additional reserves of adrenaline at the curtain calls, with the chorus cheering Dudamel even more lustily than the audience, creating an amazing antiphonal applause.
Forget the Shrine Auditorium. That is where Dudamel had conducted an eventful but acoustically crippled Mahler's Eighth two weeks earlier with the combined Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, a chorus of 1,000 Angelenos and eight vocal soloists in a venue with room for an audience of more than 5,000.
The mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra -– made great by Fritz Reiner and turbocharged by Georg Solti -– last visited Southern California 25 years ago this month, playing one concert in then-new Segerstrom Hall and three in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Much has happened at the CSO since. The Daniel Barenboim era came and went. More than half of the personnel has changed over and it landed the much-coveted Riccardo Muti as its new music director. And with the convenient convergence of the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial and Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 25th anniversary, the CSO was finally lured back Friday night -– this time in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Yet our ears have changed too. I remember when the CSO blew through town and turned heads with its staggering precision and ability to get a big sound out of recalcitrant halls like the Chandler and old Segerstrom. Now, with the upgrade in technical standards here and elsewhere, the CSO no longer seems so startling. And in newer Segerstrom, the still-brawny Chicago brasses worked too hard, which they didn’t have to in this space, where the adjustable setting was much too reverberant.
There was only one concert this trip, but it was a bold one -– loaded with future-shock pieces past and present and one oldie that has dropped off the radar, Franck’s Symphony in D minor. At 70, Muti looks exactly the same and conducts with the same vigor and expressiveness as he did in his last visits with the Philadelphia in the 1980s.