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Down Under downpour from Green Umbrella

Well-amplified Australian program draws an ample crowd.

October 19, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THREE years ago, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved its Green Umbrella new music series from a smaller theater to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, I regretted the decision. Or course, the crowds would be large at first, but the venue felt too big and formal for new music.

Amplification, often used in new music, was a big problem in the hall. Prices (a $45 top) seemed awfully high for new music. What would happen once Disney's novelty had faded and the Philharmonic's New Music Group put on, say, a challenging concert by out-of-the-way Australian composers?

Tuesday night, we got to find out. Brett Dean, whose Viola Concerto was given a successful U.S. premiere by the Philharmonic last week, was handed over the opening program of the fourth Green Umbrella season in Disney. Along with his own work, he included something recent from Liza Lim, whose earlier "Ecstatic Architecture," a Philharmonic commission for the orchestra's first Disney season, was widely despised. Dean also brought in tow an unknown geeky young Melbourne composer, pianist and improviser, Anthony Pateras.

So what did happen Tuesday? An astonishingly large crowd turned out. "By some margin," Dean (a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic for 15 years before moving back to Australia in 2000) said from the stage, "this is the largest new music audience I've ever played in front of."

Just as remarkably, everything in the long program -- including Lim's piece -- held the audience's enthusiastic attention. Pateras proved a sensation. For the first time, I can unconditionally report that amplification worked splendidly in the hall. The music was sophisticated, original and exciting. The performances were outstanding.

Australian artists are drawn to nature, as Dean's two scores demonstrated. "Voices of Angels," for violin, viola, cello, bass and piano, was written in 1996 for Dean and members of the Berlin Philharmonic to play on a program with Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, which has the same instrumentation. Carefully chiseled, exquisitely textured cosmopolitan music, the two-movement work alternates between the ethereal and anxious. The Berliners like their angels, but they don't always trust them; Dean, who played the viola solo near the end of the piece like an angel of purity, tapped into that spiritual conflict.

In his "Pastoral Symphony," written for chamber orchestra shortly after he returned to Australia, he expresses his complex feelings about the desecration of the environment. Sweet chirping birds heard on a sampler lose their natural habitat as the bulldozers move in. But what makes this score, which Dean conducted expertly, fascinating is that the industrial sounds proved as enticing as the natural ones. The work ends in thick, harsh clouds of rusty electronics that are, in their way, as attractively nuanced (if a whole lot louder) as the delicate angel sounds of the quintet.

Lim's "songs found in dream" came with poetic program notes about the music's attempts to capture Aboriginal dreamscapes. Relying heavily on winds, brass and percussion, she achieves a shimmering, breathy airiness. But her more singular accomplishment is in the creation of a harsh sonic landscape that evokes the Earth's bodily functions -- belching volcanoes, wind irritably blowing on sand. That gets one's attention.

Nature for Pateras is the physical nature of sound. In a piece for amplified strings, "Chromatophore," which Dean conducted fluidly, Pateras explores strong gestures made from sliding tones and trills, from light tapping of the strings and from the violent plucking of them.

But it was in his playing of an excerpt from "Continuums & Chasms" for amplified prepared piano that he announced the presence of a remarkable new voice. Having altered every note on the piano by inserting objects on the strings, he attacked the instrument with fingers like steel working down the scale in dramatic tremolos. He then went spastic, his elbows all rubbery, with new, arresting sounds resulting. A big, blustery bass eventually worked in, one delightful trick following another.

Pateras' performance lasted 10 minutes. Whether he can sustain interest over a long stretch is the next question. I suspect he can.

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