Music Review: JAY CAMPBELL + INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA (LA Phil New Music Group at Disney Hall)

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by Lyle Zimskind on March 14, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

Concerts in the L.A. Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella new music series are always an adventure. Typically curated by the (often young) contemporary musicians and composers whose work is featured in the performances, these programs offer an eclectic array of unpredictable encounters with the avant-garde art music of our moment. Some of them are highly engaging; others can be kind of a slog (though they don’t tend to be overly long). On some occasions you get a bit of both.

Last week’s Green Umbrella concert, the second of the season, was co-curated by Jay Campbell, a cellist in his early 30s specializing in contemporary performance, and inti figgis-vizueta, a New York-based composer still in her 20s. While the five compositions selected for performance, including LA Phil-commissioned world premieres by figgis-vizueta and veteran jazz composer/musician Wadada Leo Smith, were not linked by any common sensibility or theme, the program was emphatically designed to explore, perhaps to deconstruct, the experience of hearing music in a shared space.

The cynosure of the evening, performed last in the program, were figgis-vizueta’s two sonorous, atmospherically complex, short pieces: Amaru, a world premiere (featuring Campbell on cello), and a new string orchestra arrangement of her 2020 Talamh (Land). Each of these works was inspired by a discrete constituent of the composer’s family heritage. While Talamh — a more straightforwardly appealing minimalist tone poem with a dissonant edge — evokes the Irish landscape that figgis-vizueta associates with her father, Amaru — alternately poignant and chaotic, jarring and sweet — takes its name from the two-headed serpent in Andean mythology. Both pieces, though Amaru especially, repeatedly lulled their audience into an apparent familiarity of the nature of the composition before shifting the terms of engagement and demanding a renewed perspective.

Wadada Leo Smith’s densely textured Gondwana: Earth, a Blue Sanctuary was more opaque, incorporating three cadres of musicians playing with and against each other under the baton of the evening’s conductor, Vimbayi Kaziboni. A program note by Smith asserted that the piece evokes the geological shifting of planet Earth’s tectonic plates over multiple historic epochs, though this would not be apparent to an uninformed auditor. More difficult to ingest than the music on Smith’s seminal album Ten Freedom Summers, Gondwana was an unusually challenging first listen in its world premiere performance, with (what struck us as) unified crescendos of dread resolving into a vaguely hopeful conclusion in Campbell’s cello solo. It’s a piece that will doubtless reveal itself to us further in repeated encounters through headphones in the coming years.

The concert opened with two (relatively) older pieces, each one conveying its musical message visually as well as sonically. Liza Lim’s 2016 An Ocean Beyond Earth featured Campbell on cello both in live performance and on audio playback, the latter queued by the soloist’s visual gestures. In Walkman Antiquarian (2013) composer Thomas Meadowcroft similarly enmeshes acoustic instruments with an electronic sampler, attracting our attention with the unusual potpourri of handheld and -operated items used to generate live percussion effects.

Without a compelling unifying element, the program of these pieces did not generate a cumulative value greater than the sum of its parts. Still, there were moments of interest and even visceral impact befitting the experimental nature of the Green Umbrella enterprise. Which always leaves us looking forward to the next performance in the series.

L.A. Phil’s Green UmbrellaJay Campbell + inti figgis-vizuetaLA Phil New Music GroupVimbayi Kaziboni, conductorJay Campbell, celloJay Campbell, inti figgis-vizueta, co-curators
reviewed on March 8. 2022KRAFT  Encounters I: SoliloquyLiza LIM  An ocean beyond earth for solo cello
(set in an installation, prepared with violin and thread)Thomas MEADOWCROFT  Walkman Antiquarian
(for grand piano, sampler, and two percussion)Wadada Leo SMITH  Gondwana: Earth for solo cello, three ensembles, and conductor
(world premiere, LA Phil commission)inti FIGGIS-VIZUETA  Talamh (Land)
(world premiere of string orchestra version)inti FIGGIS-VIZUETA  amaru for cello and string orchestra
(world premiere, LA Phil commission)

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