Southwest Chamber Music’s LA International New Music Festival

May 13, 2012 | By Theodore Bell | Category: Classical Music and Opera

Opening night of the LA International New Music Festival on May 9 was a shining example of Los Angeles’ premier role on the cutting edge of the modern chamber music scene, and also marked a significant artistic achievement from Southwest Chamber Music.

The Festival, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of Southwest Chamber, will feature 25 works, including 14 Los Angeles or West Coast premieres, three U.S. premieres and four world premieres. Southwest Chamber has commissioned four of the works to be presented.

In the inaugural concert, Artistic Director Jeff Von der Schmidt brought together an impressive group of five prominent composers from Korea, Mexico, Vietnam and San Francisco, all of whom have established credentials as leading artists of new music.

Korean composer Hyo-shin Na discussed the philosophy behind her music in a pre-concert interview with Martin Perlich.  She described a psychology where the individual instruments have different characters that do not abandon their basic nature in the interests of harmony, or even beauty.  That description sounds austere, but the composition certainly did possess a transcendent beauty that was not unlike the inspiring natural phenomena she depicted.

Na’s Ocean/Shore 2, written in 2003, continued her work with literal impressions of the coast of California, and this performance was an LA premiere.  The piece was commissioned by the Zellerbach Foundation to celebrate the 100th year of Korean-American immigration.  True to Na’s philosophy, Shalini Vijayan (violin), Jan Karlin (viola) and Peter Jacobsen (cello) were distinct in their individual musical characters, but collectively formed an airy interleaved figure that loosely coalesced and evolved as the piece progressed.  Jim Foscia’s sustained pianissimo clarinet tones blended beautifully with the strings and their sliding pitches, then his delicate tremolos introduced a unique energy, as did his extended, ascending scale-wise gestures.  Jacobsen’s cello was animated and added a nuanced feeling with his variations in attacks and timbres.  Von der Schmidt interrupted his conducting to deliver a moving recitation. His timing was effective, and his delivery was emotional.

Gabriela Ortiz, born in Mexico City, is an emerging international composer whose music is a unique synthesis of the traditional and the avant-garde.  This performance of Rio de las Mariposas, written for two harps and steel drum in 1995, was a U.S. premiere.  Lynn Vartan was masterful with the percussion.  The blend of harps was compelling. The initial texture was Impressionist, largely due to the harps, although the melodic material was traditional Mexican.  Harpists Alison Bjorkedal and Allison Allport seamlessly flowed together with intricately intertwined figures that coursed under and around the melody that mostly was expressed by Vartan’s gently hammered steel drum.  The sound of the steel had a surprising kinship with the harps, I think emanating from the sharp attacks of the instruments.  Ortiz’s unique blend of European and Latin American elements was a delectable mix.

Berlin-based, Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin’s composition, Akrostichon Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay), was fascinating.  Soprano Elissa Johnston was fantastic as she sang this unusual text with its exuberant moodiness that draws its inspiration from seven emotionally evocative fairy-tale scenes in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

Chin’s colorful orchestration included flute (doubling on alto and piccolo), oboe, clarinet and bass clarinet, mandolin, harp, piano, violin, viola, double bass and a large percussion section.  Tunings of some of the instruments in the ensemble were intentionally microtonal, and Johnston would alternate her singing pitch between these tunings depending upon which she perceived at any given moment.  The technique was quite effective, as she used her voice to select one tuning over the other, reminding me of ambiguous visual figures like the “Necker cube,” the familiar two-dimensional cube representation that can be seen in alternate orientations, but never simultaneously.

Johnston was delightful with her playful presentation of Chin’s text with its creative variations of distorted speech, sibilance and unorthodox sequences of phonemes and words.  Quickly after the opening, her powerful, crystal-clear high register was a magnificent presence that filled the hall and teased us with its promise.  The second movement was rhythmically punchy as she waxed nasal in timbre with piercing vocal glissandos.  In other segments, she was amazing in her vocal skill, projecting whispers, whistles and extended crescendos.  At one point, she sang a rapid text of individual letters and spellings that could have been a musical spelling bee.  The ending was dramatic with her soaring voice.  Johnston was totally captivating, and she made this work one of my favorites of the evening.  Bravo for a delightful performance!

San Francisco native Kurt Rohde described his Concertino for Solo Violin & Ensemble (LA premiere) as a sort of Baroque concerto grosso.  He is a veteran of Southwest Chamber programs, and his music presents as somewhat traditional, although still engaging and keenly organized.  Vijayan’s violin solo was of virtuosic proportions, and the rich tone of her instrument complemented Rohde’s accessible melodic lines, especially in the breathtakingly elegant double-stopped counterpoint of the Sotto movement.  The third movement roared as the ensemble pumped the motorific percussive presto to a stirring finale.  Rohde is a rising star in West Coast new music and has found a uniquely personal voice among his contemporaries.

Up-and-coming Vietnamese composer Vu Nhat Tân has developed an international reputation.  In the pre-concert discussion, he spoke of his memories of Vietnamese contemporary music before the American War.  His composition, Ký Úc (memories), was dramatic with its use of novel instrumental effects.  Percussion was arrayed on both sides of the stage, and pianist Genevieve Lee played the instrument from the inside as well as the outside.  There were glissandos, handclapping and tapping sounds. Tân used unique instrumental combinations, like triangle and timpani, or violin and bass clarinet.  Larry Kaplan was mesmerizing with the musicality of the fluted sounds he produced with his bended pitches, breathy flutters and alternate fingerings.  The ensemble created a parade of enthusiasm that ended with a flourish from the piano that implied a fleeting traditional melody that dissipated into an extended resonance to end the night.

Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School was a great venue.  With its adjustable acoustics, the sound was superb — not dry, not wet, just right; the back wall was damped and the ceiling drapes were not extended.  This venue is probably among the best in Los Angeles for small ensembles.

Bravo to Southwest Chamber on a fantastic opening of their LA International Music Festival, for focusing the ears of the world on Los Angeles as a vibrant center for new music.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA

The LA International New Music Festival continues in three more performances: Saturday, May 12 (Harrison, Tân, Na, Babbitt and Schoenberg); Monday, May 21 (LeBaron, Ortiz, Stravinsky, Carter, Babbitt, Catan, Lieberson and Tân); and Saturday, May 26 (Ortiz, duBois, Tiet and Tân). Funding for the Festival comes from the James Irvine Foundation, Schoenberg Family Charitable Fund, Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles, Cultural Exchange International, Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, and El Fondo Nationale para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA). Visit