After 20 years I've finally gotten around to writing about my favorite Southern California painter. "John McLaughlin of Dana Point" is posted under "Writing." Above is a bad reproduction of his #17-1966.
The L.A. Phil’s Concrete Frequency festival claimed to be “a multi-disciplinary series of events designed to examine and celebrate the elements that define a city, and how they are affected by, and reflect in, music.”
But even if the premise doesn’t bear scrutiny, and all-contemporary programs can be numbing, they played music that never gets played. And played it marvelously.
The L.A. Phil never sounded more spectacular than when they played Amériques on the 4th. Recordings give no idea of the piece. From the opening thud of the two harpists slapping their instruments, there was a constant stream of sounds you never heard before—bizarre, beautiful, piquant, jolting. We spent most of the performance scanning the players to discover who was responsible for the current novel noise. It was so inventive, so spicy, and so various that the question of what it meant barely came up. And I wonder. There were episodes that seemed clearly to mimic the simultaneity of a crowded, chaotic city, but perhaps it’s simply a delicious wallow in all the novel sounds Varèse could come up with.
Before Amériques the orchestra played Copland’s music for The City live, while the film was screened. The film was a kind of unbearably touching artifact of a long-past socially progressive moment. The Copland sound is so familiar that it’s hard to actually hear, actually pay attention to what’s happening. The impression is of a stout table standing on four big, sturdy legs. The sacrifice it took.
A week later was an old-fashioned serious program. There were two celebrity trumpeters: Gabriele Cassone doing Berio’s Sequenza X, and Alison Balsom doing Bernd-Alois Zimmermann’s short trumpet concerto from 1954 "Nobody knows de trouble I see”.
I remember hearing the Sequenza X at a Boulez concert years ago and it seemed then the epitome of everything pretentious, pointless and painful in music. This time I liked it better. Cassone is a real virtuoso, so there was always at minimum an appreciation of the technical feat—so many novel sounds, so many different moods, so various, so rapid, so graceful. It was thrilling to hear the single trumpet fill the space of the hall. And Roberts’ introductory remarks connecting it with jazz was exactly the right frame. (All his introductions were short, memorable and clever—he really has a gift for helpful analogies.) But after all that, the music still didn’t have any charm for me.
The Zimmermann concerto was entirely another matter. It was the main reason I wanted to see this concert. Any performance of anything by Bernd-Alois Zimmermann is a first-class novelty. I remember reading something about him in the ‘70s and hoping that someday I would get the chance to hear some of his music. The concerto was not at all what I expected: no dense layers of collage and heavy cacophony. Actually it was very audience-friendly, on the jazzy and pop side rather than aggressive. The cute young British girl trumpeter made lovely croons with a mute and a (Baroque?) trumpet. It was altogether a lighter mood than his Die Soldaten, but with the same refinement that makes each thread, each layer, each juxtaposition an delight. It’s amazing that this piece isn’t played to death.
Ives's Central Park in the Dark was performed with the strings on stage and the brass, piano, percussion, etc. by us up in the balcony. The result was when the ragtime band let rip, the strings were completely drowned out. The one good thing about this was that it made the moment when the band stops especially dramatic. The whole piece was a story, a mood, an inescapably vivid scene.
I had never heard any George Benjamin. They played his Palimpsests I and II, and we both were delighted. I had heard he was dry and academic, but not at all. It fit perfectly with the collage-avant-garde-plus-jazz mode of the other pieces. There were moments of chilling refinement, just pure loveliness to savor.
The evening’s anomaly was Feldman’s Turfan Fragments. It didn’t fit in the jazz collage mood, and it was far from audience friendly. It was frankly brutal. Soloists or ensembles played single notes or brief phrases over and over again. There was a large ensemble of basses that made lovely plucks and thumps. The flutes were shrill. Unlike the Feldman I like this pointedly did not resolve into a mellow, meditative state. And in the company of the Benjamin, Ives and Zimmermann, there seemed precious little pure sonic pleasure—no incidental pleasures to latch on to. Instead of exquisite, it seemed barren.
The following Tuesday I decided at the last minute to go to hear the L.A. Phil do Des canyons aux étoiles. My impression of Messiaen’s music has always been that it’s a compound of kitsch and cacophony tricked out with sentimental Catholicism, but I’m warming to it. And besides the concert was a chance to see Salonen another time before he goes, and Marino Formenti, who I’ve never seen before. I was glad I went.
First of all, the music is powerful, a drama, an opera. In their playing of it, the jazz and pop elements seemed authentic bits of exuberance rather than bad taste. The moods traversed over the tweleve sections of the piece felt like a transition from a jangled urban environment gradually into an environment of natural wildness and finally natural grandeur. There were moments of visionary beauty and intensity. The sixth section, “Appel interstellaire,” for solo French horn was, in William Lane’s performance, rich, rapturous, wild, beautiful, serene, majestic, dramatic, moving, ecstatic and it brought the house down.
Formenti's playing was fluent and outrageous, operating at the intersection of camp and genuine drama. It would be hard to imagine a more apt approach. He dug into it the first section for piano solo, “Le cossyphe d’Heuglin,” with ferocity and grace, entertaining the audience with his outrageous pouts, expressions of astonishment and bliss. Those of us sitting behind the orchestra were treated to his loving stares he threw at the gongs and the trumpets whenever they made a big noise. His rendition of the second solo, “Le maquer polyglotte,” was one of the most thrilling performances I’ve ever heard. Who knows if a single note was correctly placed—it an achievement of aesthetic atheleticism. For once the audience leaping to their feet didn’t seem excessive.