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Review: L.A. Phil's Green Umbrella revels in new Nordic moodiness

The smooth compositions of Iceland's Daniel Bjarnason and American Nico Muhly are given an enthralling overview in the L.A. Phil's Green Umbrella program.

October 17, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • John Adams conducts the L.A. Philharmonic and violinist Thomas Gould in a Green Umbrella program.
John Adams conducts the L.A. Philharmonic and violinist Thomas Gould in… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Before Reykjavik became cool and clubby, before there were Björk and Sigur Rós and the cozy mix of musical genres found on the Icelandic record label and composer collective Bedroom Community, the only internationally known (and barely) Icelandic composer was a craggy individualist, Jón Leifs. He represented the Nordic island as seeming so fascinatingly remote from Europe and America that it might almost be on another planet.

But the Reykjavik revealed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella Concert on Tuesday night in Walt Disney Hall felt more like a bedroom community of L.A. and New York. The program, which the orchestra's creative consultant John Adams devised and conducted, featured recent and new pieces by Daniel Bjarnason and Nico Muhly.

These two hot young composers, one Icelandic and one American, are probably at home anywhere. Both are closely associated with Bedroom Community (Muhly, who has worked with Björk, is one of the collective's founders) and are of like musical mind but are distinct personalities. They are chummy. They write beguilingly smooth music, often made up of lapping, enthralling repetitions.

The major pieces on the program were inspired by looking. In Muhly's case, the starting point for his electric violin concerto "Seeing Is Believing," which received its West Coast premiere by the L.A. Phil New Music Group and violinist Thomas Gould, was his effort to make sense of the starry sky.

Bjarnason's "Over Light Earth" was commissioned by the L.A. Phil for the program. The two-movement score evokes two pictures at an exhibition, the paintings being by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock that Bjarnason happened to see earlier this year across the street from Disney Hall at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The impetus for Bjarnason's "Bow to String" came from a 2007 video, "God," by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The piece was originally a work put together in the Bedroom Community studio by layering recordings of cellist Saeuun Thorsteinsdottir, but Bjarnason has subsequently made several versions for live performance, the latest being the chamber concerto that was performed by Thorsteinsdottir and the New Music Group on Tuesday.

Unlike composer Morton Feldman, who was friends with Rothko and Pollock and who allowed himself to be illuminated by their work rather than attempting to illuminate their paintings, Bjarnason's take on the artists seemed more like a reaction to paintings that have become artifacts. For Rothko's 1954 color-field painting "No. 9 (Dark Over Light Earth)," the Icelander began with eerie, shimmering harmonics in the strings that glistened like light reflected off the canvas' edges. Rothko's heavy center was revealed through a big climax.

The second movement, "Number 1, 1949," for Pollock's painting of that name, is action music for action painting. The score bristled with energy and revealed interesting pointillist detail, although Bjarnason avoided any feeling of the jazz Pollock liked to listen to when he flung his paint.

"Bow to String," however, had the feel of a composer responding to living art.

I happened to see Kjartansson's "God" in Darmstadt, Germany, this summer, where it was included in the art exhibition "A House Full of Music," about John Cage and the world he left us. In the video, the artist impersonates a treacly, Lawrence Welkian lounge singer who sings over and over, for a half-hour, "Sorrow conquers happiness." It's utterly creepy.

Bjarnason takes this to its logical conclusion with raptly expressive repeated cello phrases, played with emotional intensity by Thorsteinsdottir.Over three movements "Bow to String" goes from darkness to more darkness and then a kind of pale light. Made into a cello concerto rather than a cello tape piece, it became gritty and strong, less "God"-like and more expressive.

The L.A. Phil did not see a Cage connection here. But Muhly's "Seeing Is Believing" made its own obvious connective points with Icelandic moodiness. The concerto begins with overlapping solo phrases that the electric violin can accomplish through feedback. A stunning effect, that is the first glimpse into the void of space. The concerto is on the long side for its material (25 minutes), and it can get a little fussy with its busy instrumental details. But the electric violin wails sweetly, rhapsodically, winningly.

The program also included two relatively straightforward Muhly arrangements of two motets by the British renaissance composer William Byrd and an arrangement of a traditional Icelandic folksong, "Tvisöngur," the later highlighted by intriguing little string figures. Adams conducted everything with rhythmic vigor and attention to detail, vigilant that the new Nordic moodiness not get overly silky or sulky.


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