Los Angeles Music Review: A MORE CONVENIENT SEASON (REDCAT)

by Daniel S. G. Wood on February 2, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

NEW WORK GOES FROM PALPABLE FEAR TO A LOT OF NOISE

Performed at REDCAT by what seemed like every student at CalArts, composer Yotam Haber’s A More Convenient Season had all the makings of an enormous work, not just a piece of concert music. The 75 minute three-Yotam Haber’s “A More Convenient Season” at REDCAT, performed by Cal Arts students – photo by Steve Gunther.movement multimedia quasi-opera oratorio intends to, in Haber’s words, “move from that dark, fear-filled time [circa the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in 1963 Birmingham] to a brighter present.” Between some innovative technical wrinkles and the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement the piece is a tribute to the plight of Birmingham’s people and to the legacy of cultural strife everywhere. Conductor Mark Menzies valiantly guided the orchestra and all-female choir and four soloists through the thicket of cues a piece like this demands. The group definitely gave its all. The failings of Season have more to do with difficulties in humility and intention than anything else.

Yotam Haber’s “A More Convenient Season” at REDCAT, performed by Cal Arts students – photo by Steve Gunther.The background of the piece shares qualities with an enduring twentieth century masterpiece, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (specifically the second movement, “O King”). A tribute to the then recently assassinated MLK, “O King” is simply a rhetorical meditation on the name; the singers spend seven minutes vocalizing the words “Martin Luther King.” It is completely unbiased and amounts to nothing more than a respectful epitaph, man to man. During A More Convenient Season, on the other hand, one is manipulated to grasp the looming drama. Haber substitutes emotion for what would have been more valuable: the honest drama of the Civil Rights Movement.

The setup for Saturday’s West Coast premiere was terrific: After hearing ambient tape in the lobby, the audience piled in to see that the orchestra and chorus had already assembled. Accompanied by an eerie tape track – a mixture of electronic tones combined with voices of those who experienced Birmingham’s civil rights heyday – the massive band seemed to leer at us, generating a very real tension. Accompanied by David Petersen’s film — created from home movies, newly filmed Yotam Haber’s “A More Convenient Season” at REDCAT, performed by Cal Arts students – photo by Steve Gunther.footage, and news clips of the time — the first movement, “Timing,” continued building with the choir chattering and whispering repeated phrases in what felt like genuine fear. When they eventually transitioned to full voice the move was an effective one, and the experience was palpably intense, conjuring terror and dread.

While the drama was indisputable in the first movement, the libretto slowly lost its clarity in the second: “Questions.” The absurd FBI interrogative questions in this section painted Birmingham’s climate of fear, but the video’s obvious innocence created a clumsy dissonance; in spite of occasional meaningfulness, the video corrupted the potential drama by underscoring the honest impact of the historical recordings. In addition, the choir’s endless repetition of “how high is high?” (one of the unanswerable questions asked of African-Americans registering to vote) robbed the phrase of its impact, especially given that the questions remained frozen on the screen for an interminable length of time. Not only did the more visceral lines become threadbare, many others were simply not memorable. But the real issue here is the music.

Yotam Haber’s “A More Convenient Season” at REDCAT, performed by Cal Arts students – photo by Steve Gunther.By the middle of the third movement, “Negative Peace/Positive Peace,” Haber’s Koyaanisqatsi-like churning became tiring, and Philip Glass’s score for that film is occasionally too much a point of reference. Excerpts from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a massive crescendo of chorus, soloists, percussion, sustained strings and winds, and repetitive patterns did not invoke any sense of the hope for peace, as was the third movement’s intention. The potential for drama is very real here, but a politically loaded subject is not a free pass to relevance or legitimate dramatic power. The first movement was exhilarating, but then it became a lot of noise. Missing was the music behind King’s powerful words.

photos by Steve Gunther

A More Convenient Season
REDCAT – Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater
played on January 25 and 26, 2014
for future RECAT events, call 213 237-2800 or visit www.REDCAT.org

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