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All is Yar

Southwest Chamber Music’s promising new festival


Top Row: Anne LeBaron, Gabriela Ortiz, Igor Stravinsky, Elliott Carter Bottom Row: Milton Babbitt, Daniel Catan, Peter Lieberson, Vu Nhat Tan

by CK Dexter Haven
May 25, 2012


A four-concert event called “The Inaugural LA International New Music Festival” certainly sounds like a big deal. You can forgive Southwest Chamber Music for giving their nascent new music series such an official, highfalutin’ sounding name.
With the city’s long-standing reputation as an incubator of new music and home to many prominent composers, you’d think an event with such a name would have been created by someone else at some point in the past. It wasn’t. You might also assume that it’d receive attention, support, and advanced publicity from the major local paper. It hasn’t.

You might also think you’d get a mix of living composers from around the globe. You didn’t — at least not yet. I’m sure that if Jeff von der Schmidt, Southwest’s Artistic Director, has his way, the Festival will continue to grow in scope and stature, filled with premieres by composers from every continent. The vast majority of composers consisted of Americans (North and South) and Asians, with world premieres from Korean-American composer Hyo-shin Na and Vietnamese composers Vu Nhat Tân and Tôn Thât Tiêt. For now, the Old World contingent was represented by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who I’d consider just as much Angeleno as European.

On Monday night, the third concert of the series featured a collection of compact works for a mix of instruments and voice. They represented a fairly broad range of musical styles, some more accessible than others, though none of which were particularly thorny relative to the most avant-garde new music or even the works of John Cage which Mr. von der Schmidt so proudly champions. It ended with a veritable jam session featuring Southwest and guest musicians, utilizing a mix of Western classical music instruments, traditional Vietnamese instruments, and electronic enhancements. The whole experience was fascinating and rewarding, and made me wish I could have attended the previous two concerts.

The most easily accessible works — and clearly the crowd favorites — were the two by Gabriela Ortiz. Aroma Foliado is a straight-forward string quartet, full of hum-along moments that hint at Prokofiev or Ravel or folk music, but in the end, speak a language that is uniquely Ms. Ortiz’s. That style was shown in even more raucous light with Atlas Pumas, a three movement work for violin and marimba. It is a fun showpiece meant to reflect a soccer match, written for friends of Ms. Ortiz’s — one, a violinist and fan of Atlas, the other a percussionist and fan of Pumas. For this performance, percussionist Lynn Vartan and violinist Shalini Vijayan (both Southwest musicians) gave it an athletic and entertaining performance.

The works that would most benefit from another hearing were the three featuring the fine baritone Evan Hughes. The first was Elegy for JFK, a Stravinsky work for baritone and three clarinets written while the composer lived on Wetherly Drive in Beverly Hills. Stravinsky’s brief but haunting music, combined with W.H. Auden’s lyrics, was about as far removed from a romantic, Mahlerian take on death as one can get, but no less touching. Next up was the West Coast Premiere of Three Explorations by Elliott Carter, a three movement work for baritone with woodwind and brass ensemble set to poems of T.S. Eliot. Lower-voiced instruments (including atypical woodwinds like bass flute and contrabass clarinet) dominated, with trumpets and flutes providing punctuation. The scoring created an organ-like texture which was rich but surprisingly transparent, with Mr. Hughes’s resonant voice spinning Eliot’s words earnestly. It was interesting for a while, but by the end I found myself losing interest. I want to hear it again to see if I was just in the wrong frame of mind or if I’d be as unmoved as I felt it was that night.

The third of the works featuring Mr. Hughes was Forgiveness by Peter Lieberson, performed in its West Coast Premiere. The spare scoring for only baritone and cello drew me in and even though the vocal line wasn’t as enticing as some of Lieberson’s other songs, it kept my attention throughout. Along with the enchanting Encantamiento by Daniel Catán (for flute and harp) and the punchy solo snare drum work, Homily, by Milton Babbitt (enthusiastically performed by Ms. Vartan), it formed a memorial triptych of works of composers who were connected to each other (Lieberson and Catán were both students of Babbitt) and who all sadly passed away in 2011. They were also all close to Mr. von der Schmidt, and the choices seemed a fitting tribute.


Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ playing the dan tranh

The opening and closing works of the night were the most exotic sounding, but for very different reasons. Anne LeBaron’s Solar Music achieved that with familiar instruments (plus a less familiar bass flute) asked to do unusual things: harpist Alison Bjorkedal used a tuning key and a bow rubbed against the strings to create novel sounds, and when combined with Larry Kaplan’s flute, created an angular sonic landscape. The concert ended with Cracking Bamboo, an improvisation led by the composer on piano and featuring Southwest musicians joined by Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, a virtuoso of traditional Vietnamese instruments. She moved between the various instruments while Southwest’s musicians added various layers of sound, though as intrepid as their efforts were, Ms. Võ remained the center of attention throughout. It was especially mesmerizing watching her pitch-bend her monochord “dan bau” to create melodic statements. She consistently held your attention no matter what the rest of the ensemble did, and the work concluded with her notes fading away to end the evening. It was an apt close to a strong musical night.

Random other thoughts:

  • Originally, the West Coast Premiere of Milton Babbitt’s Concertino Piccolino for solo vibraphone was on the program; however, Southwest made the late decision to substitute Homily on the program as they thought it fit better with the rest of the program.

  • Inappropriate applause redux: Tim Mangan said that New Music audiences tend to be more knowledgeable and therefore clap at the appropriate time; he also said that people will clap at the wrong time even when told to hold their applause. For this concert, he was half right: Mr. von der Schmidt made an announcement before the triptych of Babbitt, Catan, and Lieberson pieces asking the audience to hold applause until all three works were complete. Despite this announcement, people still applauded after the first piece.

  • It looked like attendance was somewhere between 150 and 200 people. Among those in the audience were members of a few of the other local musical ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Southwest Chamber Music: May 21, 2012; Zipper Hall (Colburn School)
LA International New Music Festival, Concert #3

Anne LeBaron: Solar Music
(Larry Kaplan, piccolo/flute/alto flute/bass flute; Alison Bjorkedal, harp)

Gabriela Ortiz: Aroma Foliado
(Lorenz Gamma & Shalini Vijayan, violins; Jan Karlin, viola; Peter Jacobson, cello)

Igor Stravinsky: Elegy for JFK
(Evan Hughes, baritone; Jim Foschia, Helen Goode, Phil O’Connor, clarinets)

Elliott Carter: Three Explorations (West Coast Premiere)
(Evan Hughes, baritone; Larry Kapalan, flute; Lisa Edelstein, flute/alto flute; Diane Alancraig, alto/bass flutes; Jim Foschia, clarinet; Helen Goode, clarinet/bass clarinet; Phil O’Connor, bass/contrabass clarinets; Daniel Rosenboom, Marissa Benedict, Adam Bhatia, trumpets; Bill Booth, Al Veeh, Terry Cravens, trombones; Jeff von der Schmidt, conductor)

Milton Babbitt: Homily
(Lynn Vartan, snare drum)

Daniel Catán: Encantamiento
(Larry Kaplan, flute; Alison Bjorkedal, harp)

Peter Lieberson: Forgiveness (West Coast Premiere)
(Evan Hughes, baritone; Peter Jacobson, cello)

Gabriela Ortiz: Atlas Pumas
(Shalini Vijayan, violin; Lynn Vartan, marimba)

Vũ Nhật Tân: Cracking Bamboo (World Premiere)

(Vũ Nhật Tân, piano; Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, dan bau, dan tranh, dan t’rung; Larry Kaplan, flute; Jim Foschia, clarinet; Alison Bjorkedal, harp; Lynn Vartan, percussion; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Peter Jacobson, cello; Tom Peters, electric double bass & samples)

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