Review: New music and nature meet under a green umbrella
There were no green umbrellas Wednesday night when the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented a Green Umbrella concert for the first time at Ford. Although the green umbrella happens to be the surreal symbol of the LA Phil New Music Group’s prophetic concert series, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, a charming object meant to shield us from something once known as rain would have looked ridiculous on Ford, with its beautiful green and rugged hilltop behind the stage.
The place for Ford was chosen a century ago as a natural setting for spiritual spectacle, and is still an excellent place to think about art and the environment. That is not necessarily the purpose of the place. Powered by LA Phil since 2020 at the request of LA County, Ford mainly serves to present a wide range of musical genres at more or less popular prices. LA Phil seems to otherwise keep classical music away, and has three other enviable venues – the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and the Beckmen YOLA Center – for that.
But new music fits Ford perfectly. Wednesday may have been a new music program without the usual green umbrella bells and whistles, so to speak. No composers came to talk about their music. No program notes. If you wanted to know what was being played, you had to pull out your phone and find it on an app. If you want to know something about music, try Google and hope for the best.
No helpful bells and whistles, but the stage boasted of many percussion noisemakers on stage. Ticket prices were kept at a reasonable $ 20 for all seats, attracting a largely young audience and some families with young children. The pieces were short, between four and 15 minutes, and varied. Percussion, curated and directed by LA Phil principal paukenist Joseph Pereira, dominated. Music was only heard as music, take it or leave it.
Maybe it was just as well that there were no program notes for the short opening piece, Gérard Grisey’s “Stèle”, where two percussionists, on either side of the stage, play large bass drums, and slowly build up an impressive sonic and rhythmic profile. Grisey’s purpose was to evoke the mysterious excavation of an ancient ceremonial stone slab (or stela).
About the same time as “Stèle” was being written, LA Phil commissioned one of Grisey’s latest pieces, “L’Icône Paradoxale”. A Times review mercilessly ridiculed the French composer’s explanations of his “spectral” technique, an imaginative use of the harmonic harmonic series to create a sense of sound amazement in the listener. “Stèle” did just that on Ford. Not only have times changed significantly, but in the large Ford outdoors, a stela from a pilgrimage from the Theosophical Society that was played a century ago could easily be thought of buried in the hillside.
What followed was one type of music after another, each of which interacted with the not always benign environment. Vivian Fung’s “Pizzicato”, a string orchestra arrangement of a movement from her first string quartet, begins with plucked strings and ends with the players tapping the wood of their instruments as if they were percussion. At Forden, a small plane suddenly flew overhead and went into sonic play with that banging.
Had this been a string quartet concert, the effect would have been an ugly break-in. But since percussion and electronics were meant to be a significant part of the evening, and everything was clearly amplified, I heard the plane as an improvement.
The most striking piece was Juan Felipe Waller’s “Teguala” for reinforced tiles and electronic playback. In a dazzling display of rub, rattle and roll, four percussionists beat dozens of Mexican tiles with clubs, while a fifth fiddled with a laptop. The Mexican Dutch composer, who seems to have one foot in the kind of spectral electronics that Grisey was pioneering and the other in Mexican music traditions, builds musical structures from complex interlocking rhythms, while the electronics sound like trucks or trains rumble through, mosquitoes buzzing next to your ear, crickets chirping in the woods, planes buzzing over your head. I can not say for sure if any of these sounds came from the environment instead of the performance.
Gabriella Smith’s “Riprap” for marimba and strings, which followed the break, was written in 2013, the year the Berkeley composer took his bachelor’s degree in composition from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and turned 22. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra gave it its LA premiere. three years ago, when Smith had already become an LA sensation and has since been eagerly commissioned by LA Phil and shown at the Ojai Festival.
“Riprap” has the freshness, spike and originality of a young Mendelssohn. The strings make wonderful sounds. The marimba dances around them. Underlying all of Smith’s music, however, is a deep commitment to environmental issues, presenting music as a representative of what the world around us may be and may not continue to be. The sun had set for “Riprap”, and the stage lighting made the hillside seem dark and mysterious. But the outside remained friendly, undisturbed by this happy music, happily performed.
The last piece was Kaija Saariaho’s “Trois Rivières” (Three Rivers). Four percussionists rhythmically speak a French translation of the 8th-century Chinese poet Li Pos “La nuit de lune sur le fleuve” (Moonlight night on the river) while playing an extensive collection of instruments. A fifth percussionist drives surround sound electronics.
The night was moonlight. By this time, I had moved to an empty section with seats at the back of the stage, since mask use is not yet back in vogue at Ford. The theater is not large, but I was too far back to understand the instruments, and the electronics contributed to the feeling of being in a cavity.
Words that were barely grasped, a lot of percussive sounds and the reverberating electronic mood helped to produce an eerie feeling of being in the distance of nature. How it can be, I can not say. But when a plane flew overhead, it felt too far away to mean anything.