Abdiel Gonzalez, Ayana Haviv, Eclipse Quartet, Elissa Johnston, Elliott Carter, Gabriela Ortiz, Javier Alvarez, Jon Lee Keenan, Jordi Savall, LA International New Music Festival, Laura Mercado-Wright, Leopoldo Novoa, Los Angeles, Mexico, Southwest Chamber Music, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, Tembembe Ensemble, Toshio Hosokawa, Vu Nhat Tan
My friend Ricardo Gallardo, director of the magnificent Tambuco Percussion Ensemble of Mexico City, said it best at the conclusion of our third Los Angeles International New Music Festival. “We are just getting started!” 17 composers from Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Brazil and the United States in 23 works in 5 concerts performed by 45 musicians at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall played to over 1,000 appreciative audience members. Let’s not leave out 10 U.S. premieres and 5 here on the West Coast, as well as hosting composers Gabriela Ortiz from Mexico and Leopoldo Novoa of Colombia.
We have some exciting photos so let’s take a look at the concerts and the people who made this a not to be forgotten festival.
4 harmonicas, a marimbula, steel drum, 2 marimbas, numerous guiros, chopsticks and guitar plectra for the string trio, plenty inside the piano, and numerous Caribbean instruments. A tour-de-force piece good for your aerobic exercise from Javier Álvarez of Mexico’s Yucatan Mayan world in Merida brought Tambuco and my Southwest players together for the first time during this festival, on its third concert.
We were honored on opening night to have composer Leopoldo Novoa of Colombia in attendance. His ¿Sábe Cómo é? was a fascinating piece placing Tambuco in a ghost relationship to the vaunted string quartet tradition of the Old World with guacharacas of Colombia, basically a wooden stick instrument.
A most flattering question after the conclusion of the this festival was the question posed by numerous friends and colleagues “What’s Next?” So here is a clue, and for now, a hopeful prediction. Leopoldo lives a dual life, as a brilliant composer and an expert in Early Music in the New World. He’s a director of the hugely successful Mexican Baroque group Tembembe, and a frequent collaborator and adviser to Jordi Savall. So don’t be surprised in coming seasons if new LA International New Music Festival collaborations emerge in exciting new directions.
Leopoldo, though from Bogota in Colombia, now lives in Tepotzlan, close to Cuernavaca, in Mexico. Ricardo had taken Jan and me to have lunch with Leopoldo in 2007 after we had performed a complete 5 concert series at UNAM in Mexico City of all of the ensemble works of Carlos Chávez. Genuine artistic plans always have a long gestation, and seeing Leopoldo at REDCAT brought back great memories of that meeting in Mexico and inspires future ideas all around. We’re just getting started.
Soprano Ayana Haviv has a commanding stage presence and a tremendous sense of humor. After the dress rehearsal of Baalkah by Gabriela Ortiz for our second concert, she posted on Facebook that she needed a glass of wine. Members of the dedicated Eclipse Quartet quickly countered, jokingly saying that she had it easy – after Gaby’s Altar de Muertos they might need to consider a beginning heroin addiction!
Another connection between Los Angeles and Mexico City? Gabriela’s brother, visual artist Ruben Ortiz (he’s curating a huge exhibition at the MAK Center for the Getty’s LA/LA Festival in 2017) lives in Echo Park. Gabriela had not had a chance to see her adoring nieces until the intermission following Baalkah, and let’s just say that they were beaming for Tia Gabriela!
My intention in combining three of Gabriela’s string quartets was to offer an argument ending concert about the importance of composers who are female. It was a take no prisoners programmatic strategy, which makes a challenging program inspiring and essential. As I’ve said earlier in my blog, programming is not for the faint of heart.
And what, you might ask, do I think makes a composer great? They all ask performers to jump off a cliff. The great ones, pure and simple, jump with you, lesser ones metaphorically hide off in a corner. Gaby dives in head first, that’s for sure, and players know she is leading the charge.
Her monumental Altar de Muertos celebrates the Mexican Day of the Dead and needs a dramatic ambiance. For this REDCAT performance, we enlisted a celebrity cameo appearance by Tambuco’s Ricardo Gallardo, who provided the haunting drum beats from two huge water gourds floating in large containers of water and bass drum, as the quartet members Sarah Thornblade, Jessica Guideri, Alma Fernandez and Maggie Parkins, slowly entered carrying votive candles of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A triumphant concert had no trouble with back stage congratulations!
With all this attention to Central and South America, it’s time for a dramatic edit. Asia, in the form of new music from Vietnam and Japan, needs to arrive on our REDCAT stage on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. We need to dream across the Pacific Ocean. After all, these two worlds disparate collide and coalesce here in southern California.
As many of you know, we have enjoyed a tremendous long-term relationship with Hanoi’s Vu Nhat Tan, who Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times predicted was on the verge of an international reputation. If you are in Norway this September, you can check him out at the PUNKT Festival in Oslo, as he continues to move forward.
Ricardo Gallardo, Alfredo Bringas and Raul Tudon offered a brilliant performance of Tan’s Young Rice, written by old Vietnamese principles, where the composer offers 50% of the idea and the performers the other 50%. Move over jazz, this has been standard procedure for centuries in Vietnam.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that both Tambuco and Southwest have deep connections to East and Southeast Asia. In casting a wide net for an appropriate first piece to move our audience towards East Asia, Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven came easily into view. For one very good reason. The magnificent mezzo soprano, Laura Mercado-Wright, who in her first performance already owns the role. A perfect voice for Hososkawa’s haunting, eerie and cathartic chamber opera.
I’m planning an entire blog on the percussion instruments needed for this festival, and no, snapping your fingers doesn’t do much good making sure all the gear arrives safe and sound to REDCAT. Because to invoke the sounds of Masamichi Kinoshita, Toshiya Watanabe, Takumi Ikeda, Tomoko Momiyama and the great Toru Takemitsu needed an impressive array of instruments for our fourth concert. So I’ll have separate blog soon about this engaging evening and its instruments.
For me, the press has never noticed the launching pad we’ve provided over the years to many singers. Before this current group came to us, the legendary Phyllis Bryn-Julson sang with us for a decade. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but the only way to know how to be a conductor is to work with singers (aka in an opera house back in the good old days). Conductors who screech out their ideas to make a point (the late Georg Solti comes to mind) strike me as strange. A good voice, which requires a mastery of breath control, is essential to direct musicians in performance as a conductor. And, yes, if you are in a chromatic harmonic vocabulary, you need to hear the pitches.
And so, since no one else has noticed, let me point out that the singers for this entire festival were extraordinary. That means Ayana Haviv soaring with a Mayan text in Ortiz, Laura Mercado-Wright going full force for nearly 40 minutes with Hosokawa’s setting of Edgar Allan Poe, and the three vocalists who define dedication for the late songs of Elliott Carter, soprano Elissa Johnston, tenor Jon Lee Keenan and bass baritone Abdiel Gonzalez.
My recent blog post about the wisdom of Elliott Carter is the third most read blog of mine, and I am happy about that fact. We were honored to put this entire evening forward to conclude our 2015 LA International New Festival. Jon Lee Keenan might have summed up everybody’s reaction to working on this music, composed between the ages of 100 and 103.
“I could just imagine as I was learning Sunbeam,” said Jon, “that Carter had a big smile on his face the entire time he was composing this music.”
For the sake of one hour, we needed to hold our first Carter rehearsal at the Music Center across the street from Walt Disney Concert Hall, as we were sharing REDCAT with the OutFest Film Festival. Our singers were in complete command of the music from the first to last note sung. No easy accomplishment, that’s for sure!
Once we crossed back across the street to REDCAT, details kept falling into place. My good friend, composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, rightly told me that the first priority of performing new music is to answer the question in everyone’s mind at the first rehearsal. That question? “Can we play this piece?” An excellent question, to be sure, and how I start every new music adventure. Because if the first rehearsal leaves that question open, potentially fatal doubts begin to arise from various vantage points for every player (like “I can’t play that” to “Why are we playing this?” to “If he doesn’t know how to rehearse why are we playing this?” to “Can’t we play something easier?”). You bet this is a non-verbal strategy on my part but Knussen’s advice has never let me down.
And Oliver had another bit of sage advice. Take frequent breaks when rehearsing Carter, maybe 40 minutes tops and then a short breather, acknowledge the challenges. If you don’t, you’ll loose steam and default to just hope that miraculously things come together. And hope is not a strategy.
And we were fortunate to get some wonderful performance photos, and I’m happy to share them with you. More dedication is not possible, and I’m sure Elliott would have been very happy with our best efforts on stage. At least having dinner after the concert with his long time assistant, Virgil Blackwell, who was in attendance and would be our biggest critic, was easy as he was very enthusiastic. The fact Virgil was pleased and impressed made the presence of critics Mark Swed and Alex Ross in the audience secondary to me. They can and will say and think what they want. In personal contrast, I have to live with what Virgil would think as a friend who has Carter’s piano in his living room. A much higher court of opinion in many ways!
The era of social media is, thankfully, erasing the false boundaries between artist and public. We all seem to be more aware that we’re all in this together.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog about my three decade study of the Alexander Technique, which helps ground my performing discipline. This early 20th century British development combines Eastern and Western ideas, guiding its students to return the perceptions of our body movement to a natural point of rest. Alexander’s ideas are also connected to careful semantic consideration in the choice of one’s verbal descriptions. One doesn’t desire good posture, in Alexander’s world one wants to achieve a balanced state, would be one good example.
So how I apply this to new music means that when I approach 20th century music, I do not believe in atonal or dissonant music, but chromatic harmony (and its all chromatic harmony, even for the more conservative voices like Britten and Shostakovich). One needs to conduct voice leading in music that moves away from perceived traditional key structures, and you need to hear all the notes of these chords to have an interpretation and understand how the voice leading is orchestrated. In retrospect, how everyone was taught 12 tone music was a disaster (just following row order has very little to do with the end result) but I was fortunate to meet Leonard Stein at USC and Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. In their ears what was complicated to many became common sense. Or put another way, if you hear the chords, you have your interpretation.
Another balancing point helping me conceive this festival with Ricardo Gallardo of Tambuco was our shared belief that there is a complacency about where our music comes from in concerts around the world. And you need positive energy to release music concentrated in 5 concerts from Central and South America, East and Southeast Asia, and the wisdom of a composer leaving us a heritage from the ages between 100 and 103, an achievement we have never experienced before in any cultural figure. It means many tasks, including organizing a huge array of percussion, securing visas for Tambuco (a drama in and of itself), voicing the harmonies of every chord before the first rehearsals, and, in general, always doing one’s best.
But the final catalyst for these programs, my programmatic “a-ha” moment, was very personal, and here is where social media of the 21st century creates a more vivid relationship for me with my concert audience and my blog readers. When I received the score of Carter’s last will and testament, The American Sublime for 14 winds, 2 percussion, piano and bass baritone, I had proof, in a way I could not deny, that Elliott was deeply connected to my life. The first movement was finished on September 17, my late mother’s birthday. And the last song of his life was completed on September 7, 2010, the exact day my father died. Facts, not coincidences, which made all the hard work worthwhile.
Though I needed time to realize it, Carter’s choice of instrumentation for The American Sublime, a hugely resonant ensemble of all types of wind instruments, was the ideal way to take one last breath. And endings are always beginnings. As Ricardo Gallardo said, “We’re just getting started!”
Do continue to check back, as I’ll have a few more posts about these rewarding performances, the supportive audience each concert received here in Los Angeles, and the dedicated musicians and staff who made the music reality.
And a big thank you to all my readers in 120 countries around the world, giving me crazy good stats during the 2015 Los Angeles International New Music Festival.
Being tired never felt so good!
Best, best, best,