Music Review: PEKKA KUUSISTO + ELLEN REID (LA Phil Green Umbrella Series at Disney Hall)

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by Lyle Zimskind on April 24, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Sometimes concerts in the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella new music series are programmed around a singular thematic element. Sometimes they offer a range of works representing a particular school or mode of composition. Some showcase distinctive performance styles. If last Tuesday night’s long Green Umbrella program, curated by Finnish violinist/conductor Pekka Kuusisto and American composer Ellen Reid, by contrast, featured no unifying through line, the presentation of nine musical miniatures and short pieces did display a consistent sensibility that often satisfied and occasionally surprised.

Though not a top-billed name on the program, one very satisfying highlight of the evening was the performance of soprano Eliza Bagg. A featured soloist in three of the presented compositions, Bragg also teamed up with Kuusisto on violin in a few wordless riffs performed à deux during the gaps between pieces. (In another Green Umbrella event last week, legendary composer/conductor John Adams commented to the audience that a hallmark of contemporary music concerts is that set-up breaks are often longer than the pieces performed. Bagg and Kuusisto had that covered on this night.)

Reid’s three compositions were performed at the beginning of the evening. The world premiere of her Desiderium, a solo violin miniature performed by Kuusisto, kicked the evening off, followed by a highly atmospheric performance of the percussion quartet Fear|Release, with two of the four musicians positioned way up among the Terrace East and West seats. Finally, mid-way through the program’s first half, Bagg sang a new arrangement of the “Lumee’s Dream” aria from Reid’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera p r I s m to searing effect.

When Kuusisto wasn’t playing the violin, he was conducting the Phil’s new music ensemble in a variety of pieces. One of these was an entirely compelling ten-minute four-movement string and flute quartet, The Flower, composed in 2019-20 by then-high schooler KiMani Bridges. Meredith Monk’s brief chamber and vocal piece Double Fiesta is a lot of fun to listen to and was great to see performed live, sung by Bragg, for (our) first time.

Right after intermission, the LA Phil’s principal tympanist Joseph Pereira introduced and performed a memorial piece, Encounters I: Soliloquy (1975) for solo percussion and tape playback machine, composed by William Kraft, who was himself the Phil’s principal tympanist through the 1960s and 1970s. Kraft’s close association with the orchestra in various capacities (musician, composer, and conductor — and who now gets called a “curator”) extended over half a century before his death in February at age 98. This tribute was initially planned for inclusion in another concert last month, but had to be postponed, so it was not really an integral part of the scheduled program. Still, hearkening back to an era when a designation like “avant garde” still possessed descriptive substance, this Soliloquy fit in well among the newer experimental works it shared the evening with. Indeed without Kraft’s influence and contributions to the orchestra’s development, an evening like this might well not have been conceived.

reviewed August 19, 2022

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