BYRD: Two Motets (arr. Muhly)
MUHLY: Seeing is Believing (electric violin concerto) (West Coast Premiere)
TRADITIONAL: Tvísöngur (arr. Muhly)
BJARNASON: Over Light Earth (world premiere; LA Phil co-commission)
BJARNASON: Bow to String (US premiere)
LA Phil New Music Group; John Adams, Thomas Gould, Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir,
Last night I went to the first concert of the LA Phil new music series (aka “Green Umbrella”). These concerts are always great and always interesting; this is the only thing I subscribe to because these are concerts I am willing to plan the rest of my life around. I will always make the effort to be free on a random Tuesday night for a Green Umbrella concert. Definitely.
Last night was half Nico Muhly music and half Icelandic music. I love Iceland with a fiery, volcanic passion, and I feel similarly about Muhly’s music. He writes music that is tonalish, accessible when it needs to be, and obviously feels very comfortable writing for groups of varying sizes. The stand out piece last night was Seeing is Believing, his electric violin concerto.
The Byrd arrangements at the top of the program started the night off in an odd way-- Muhly had given the works some interesting orchestrational touches, but for the most part, they were very standard, very straight forward. But the motets retroactively made sense once we had moved on to Seeing. Muhly is a composer who makes no bones about the fact that he is strongly influenced by early choral music, and hearing the Byrd and its use of inner lines and flowing harmonies, you could hear a direct music line from Byrd to Muhly. In a similar fashion to the motets, Seeing is full of multiple lines moving simultaneously yet independently, and the work is cohesive, compact, and structured. Spoiler alert: I’m a big fan of structure. Diffuseness in music (a drawback to the Bjarnason works in the second half) should either be the guiding principle of the work-- a la Morton Feldman-- or should be a fleeting addition to the overall texture. You can’t halfass diffuse. With Muhly’s music, you sense that you are moving somewhere, you are being guided by someone who has a story in mind, be it an actual programmatic story, or, in this case, an inspiration drawn from mapping the stars. You are sent on a journey with a capable guide who gets you where you need to go, but leaves room for surprises along the way.
The high point of Bjarnason’s Over Light Earth was that the ensemble had two grand pianos and a TUBA WITH A MUTE. A++. That is welcome anytime, anywhere (I’m a euphonium player, so I have a visceral, positive reaction to low brass. Because it’s the best). The work, however, as I mentioned above lacked direction, and seemed to merely float without purpose. I suppose that was the intent, seeing as how the first movement (and title) are taken from a really lovely Rothko color fields painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but, to bring up Feldman again, that has been done before, and done better, in Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Bow to String I liked, though. The added soloist forced some semblance of structure-- things had to hold together more to give a proper background to the soloist, and in this work I felt like the diffuse clouds of sound were used more as background to the solo lines. They floated in and out as details to be noticed, but most importantly, they were not the main focus.
John Adams conducted, and totally knocked it out of the park. My lovely wife has an allergy to attaca movements, especially when they have separate titles in the program; I have had to swear, repeatedly, never to title movements that run into each other because “it’s confusing, and I hate it.” (I admit, she really has a point.) John Adams made the classy and smart choice to announce before the last piece: “Because it’s nice to know where we’re going with a new piece, I just wanted to let you know the second and third movements flow one into the next.” He then added some descriptions of the work, then dived right in.
Is there anything better than hearing contemporary music played at a very high level with a silent and attentive audience in one of the most beautiful and perfect concert halls in the world? Well, I had guacamole when I got home, so that really just was the icing on top of the cake. New Music & Guacamole: Los Angeles at its finest.