Saturday, April 12, 2014

REVIEW: Maxium Minimalism, 4/8

On Tuesday, I attended the Maximum Minimalism  concert at Disney Hall, featuring Wild Up and ICE. It is a perfectly fitting concert title, being a 4+ hour concert featuring 14 pieces. To be clear, the hefty duration was a good thing. As Feldman said: "Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter." That shift of thinking is something I'd imagine hermetic proto-minimalist La Monte Young might appreciate.

Photo by Chris Votek
Wandering through the pre-concert lobby, one could faintly hear the familiar ostinatos of post-minimal piano. Entering the hall, Wild Up's virtuosic pianist Richard Valitutto was already winding his way through William Duckworth's wonderful Time Curve Preludes. It was clearly going to be a good evening.

After the aural hors d'oeuvres, the concert proper began with Claire Chase's performance of Reich's Vermont Counterpoint. Her razor sharp syncopation, perfect blend with the electronics, and ability to lend the über-quantized piece an air of expressivity demonstrated one of the reasons why she received a MacArthur grant. My only complaint about this piece is regarding spatialization. Chase was in the perfect spot, standing at the pipe organ's console. However, the layered sounds came from the speaker array at the center of the hall. Sitting in the Orchestra East section, it was jarring to see the musician on my left side while the sound came from the right.

These solo performances were followed by Chris Rountree's Wild Up playing an energetic arrangement of Julius Eastman's Stay On It. Eastman is a fascinating composer whose story includes controversies with John Cage and a forceful eviction that led to the large scale loss of his scores. This arrangement accentuated the piece's dichotomy between structure and its apparent opposite, one that seemed to echo the composer's own life. Wild Up gave the piece the vibrant enthusiasm that has long been a hallmark of their performances.

The Calder Quartet then came onstage for a performance of Reich's Different Trains. This electro-acoustic string quartet was approached with the seriousness and accuracy that it deserved, and it is always a pleasure to hear live.

Though many new music concerts might call it a night after this heavy-hitting dose of minimalism, this was only the first of three sets. It was time for the first intermission, which was itself a spectacle. I somehow missed hearing Reich's Pendulum Music, but made it to the outdoor garden to hear a beautiful rendition of James Tenney's In a Large, Open Space. This piece owes more to La Monte Young's original JI steady-state music than the Riley-tinted, pulse-driven, post-Americana that we commonly refer to as minimalism. Wild Up and ICE gave the piece a beautifully delicate performance in the urban oasis of the garden, and the sounds of gentle swells had an intriguing counterpoint in the oceanic wash of the LA Freeways.

After intermission, the concert continued with a precious performance of Andrew McIntosh's Silver and White. Strings and muted brass inhabited an auster, microtonal, post-Feldman gestural space, framed by an extended snare drum roll, gently suggesting that we return to the county of Minimalism Proper.

David Lang's death speaks followed, sounding dutifully like the album. However, the most enjoyable surprise for me was hearing Wild Up's powerhouse violinist Andrew Tholl singing. Steve Reich's Radio Rewrite came after. This piece and the Lang fit together perfectly as works by older composers trying to explore what "indie classical" might mean in relation to their own body of work. An abstracted medley of two Radiohead songs, this piece did Reich as only Reich really can. However, the chord changes lent it an air of Satyagraha...

Though I missed Johanna Beyers' IV during the second intermission, I caught Tristan Perich's wonderfully streamlined Observations, for 1-bit electronics and crotales. I was reminded of his 2009 performance at the wulf of Dual Synthesis, a piece for 1-bit electronics and harpsichord.

After intermission #2, the actual L.A. Phil New Music Group took the reins for the world premieres of Mark Grey's Awake the Machine Electric and Missy Mazzoli's Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres). Both pieces fully inhabited the post-Adams Copeland-icana landscape of contemporary orchestral minimalism. What was most interesting was the way that both pieces attempted to augment the aural palette of the orchestra. Grey used a keyboard sampler filled with hyper-processed digital warblings, which struggled to meld with the skeletal musical framing the orchestra was providing. Meanwhile, Mazzoli used a varied percussion setup and a double-reed array of harmonicas and melodicas to create a sonically rich and well-crafted feast.

Wild Up's arrangement of John Adams' retracted American Standard was a great closer and foil to the pieces that preceded it. It exemplified LA Phil's apparent institutional advocacy of groups like the relatively small and new Wild Up. While other classical institutions struggle and/or fold, LA Phil seems to be thriving through consistently forward-thinking programming, engaging new audiences, and by fostering the colorful community of talented musicians that LA draw to it.

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