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Critic's Notebook: Music that's all over the map

The differences in musical works had less to do with geography than one would expect at the Green Umbrella concert in L.A. Phil's Brooklyn Festival and Hear Now's Festival of Contemporary Los Angeles Music in Venice.

April 18, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • John Adams' "Road Movies" was performed at Hear Now. "Tension Studies" by his son, Samuel Adams, a Brooklyn composer, was programmed by the L.A. Phil New Music Group.
John Adams' "Road Movies" was performed at Hear Now. "Tension… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

A tree grows most surely in Brooklyn. But what's in a ZIP Code?

The Los Angeles Philharmonic began its Brooklyn Festival on Tuesday night with a Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The hip New York City borough is not just a destination for visual artists, artisan picklers and other assorted foodies, but also host to a significant new music scene.

Meanwhile, Hear Now held its third annual Festival of Contemporary Los Angeles Music in Venice — where foodies (along with artisan picklers) and artists also hold sway (if not for much longer, what with artists being priced out of the market).

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The events differed, but characterizing the coasts is no simple matter. There is much back and forth. There is much cross-country curiosity. There was overlap on the downtown and Venice stages and in the audiences. John Adams' "Road Movies" was performed at Hear Now. "Tension Studies" by his son, Samuel Adams, a Brooklyn composer, was programmed by the L.A. Phil New Music Group.

In fact, all three composers on the Green Umbrella program grew up on the West Coast, whereas the majority of the dozen "L.A. composers" on the Hear Now programs at First Lutheran Church of Venice on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon came from elsewhere — Spain, Germany, the U.K., Austria, Romania, Connecticut. They don't all live here either. John Adams was a stretch; his home is in Berkeley, although he serves as the creative chair of the L.A. Phil, and "Road Movies," a violin sonata, was written for Angelenos.

The real difference, perhaps, is that the young composers who flock to Brooklyn do so for the community. Those who come to, or stay in, L.A. do so for employment (several Hear Now composers have careers in Hollywood) or the independence.

Then again, a number of new Brooklynites perhaps seek their own independent identities, some putting distance between themselves and famous fathers. Along with Sam Adams, Tyondal Braxton had a piece on the Green Umbrella program. He is the son of Anthony Braxton, the jazz great. Had the L.A. Phil so chosen, it could have also included such promising Brooklyn composers as Gyan Riley (son of composer Terry Riley) or Gabriel Kahane (son of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra music director Jeffery Kahane).

It's all, basically, mixed up. If there was a contrast of sensibility between the Green Umbrella and Hear Now, it was that the Brooklyn Three in Disney showed slightly more of a pop music sensibility, and the Venice crowd was more formalist, but even that is a generalization full of holes. For instance, Billy Childs' "Awakening," an emotional large-scale string quartet written last year and given its West Coast premiere in Venice, is the score of a noted jazz pianist who knows his way around the pop and classical worlds, and melds them expertly.

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Still, the pop veneer at Disney stood out strongly. Adams' "Tension Studies" for guitar, percussion and the electronics, didn't so much express tension as the likable lack of it as it followed the intriguing path of ambient natural acoustical processes. The electronic textures were sumptuous.

Matt Marks' "Strip Mall" received its premiere Tuesday thanks to the L.A. Phil's Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissioning Fund. It's about as un-Salonen-like as you might imagine. Reading the program notes and hearing the composer speak at the pre-concert talk were more than enough to pre-dispose me to dislike it — a Broadway-style, cartoony 25-minute music theater piece about a closeted gay teenager, his older sister and her Bible-selling boyfriend. It's very silly and campy. The libretto by Royce Vavrick is gleefully artless.

Yet Marks pulls it off. His music is bright, catchy and continually turns Broadway clichés on their heads in surprising ways. The singers — Lauren Worsham, Timur Bekbosunov and Michael Marcotte — lived what they sang. The instrumental writing burst with color. There is, I think, no fighting this music, as much as one might hope to.

Braxton's "Central Market" was the biggest piece of the Green Umbrella program. The version here for the L.A. Phil New Music Group and enthusiastically conducted by Alan Pierson (who also led the "Strip Mall" and is the Brooklyn Philharmonic music director) was an expansion of the more basic — and tinnier sounding — recording of the work, that now includes Braxton on electric guitar, a chamber ensemble, lots of percussion, electronics and a vocal quartet that doubles on kazoos.

The composer/guitarist is a kindred spirit with Adams and Marks. He uses loops that are catchy and lets them do their business, building engrossing textures. The looping techniques eventually got predictable and there was not quite enough substance for 40 minutes of music.

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