by Nick McCall on November 17, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


On Tuesday, Nov. 14, the LA Phil New Music Group performed Chaparral and Interstates, a Green Umbrella program of four new pieces by California composers, including two world premieres, at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the California Festival.

The first piece, from 2021, was Dylan Mattingly‘s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum (these are the tears of things), a quartet for two harps and two re-tuned pianos. It begins with a brief bit of heavenly plucking, and then briskly moves into repetitive joyous tinkling. This first part has the four players largely playing identical parts, gradually splitting apart as the piece progresses. The lively first movement then makes way for a calm, softer, quiet middle section. It was beautifully meditative, but the microtonal approach persisted, making the section sound bent out of shape. I enjoyed it overall, but after a while, I longed for them to play in tune. The third movement was a return to the themes heard in the first, now allowed to grow in boisterousness and intensity, leading to a satisfying climax. Harpists Emily Levin, Julie Smith Phillips, and pianists Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray displayed obvious pleasure with the piece and it was an impressive show of stamina.

Up next was a world premiere by M.A. Tiesenga, Sketches of Chaparral, an unusual 16-minute piece composed literally from sketches of chaparral in California. Eschewing things like meter and measures, think of this piece as a series of unstructured scenes. The scenes are written out, but the 18 players are largely left to themselves as to how and when to play. Conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni occasionally gently shaped the sound, but most of his work on display here consisted of cueing the players to move on to the next scene.

Sketches of Chaparral began with percussionists Matthew Howard and Joseph Pereira, wearing gardening gloves, crunching chaparral into a bowl. Horns and flutes then blew air, piano and harp banged on their frames. I was giving it side-eye, but the music soon turned into a believable evocation of California’s landscape. The effects felt natural, not gimmicky. The piece is like a tour through the landscape. Some scenes are wild and chaotic, others can be calm. Every scene played like series of cadenzas, solos bouncing between players while the ensemble as a whole did effects work. It was all very disorganized, but felt orderly. It seemed like the entire piece consisted of effects music, and I was reminded of Disney’s The Old Mill (1937), a short that consists almost entirely of effects animation but is still intense and moving. This piece was very satisfying.

The second half of the program began with Reena Esmail’s Zeher (“poison” in Hindi), from 2018. Its a tense string quartet that features sustained quiet droning punctuated by sharp outbursts. Unpleasant with a nails-on-chalkboard sound, but at least it’s only nine minutes.

Last was the world premiere of Samuel AdamsEden Interstates, a larger-scale 25-minute work with a promising instrumentation that includes organ, synthesizer, and electric guitars. It began with pianos and organ going up and down the same four-or-so notes over and over. After Mattingly’s dazzling opener, this loop was simplistic and uncompelling. The organ jumped in early on with its great big rumble, but without a build-up, it felt like a cheap thrill. Once everyone was playing, it got loud, which was a nice change from the last piece. The second movement began with a prominent lonely solo from Thomas Hooten on trumpet, the only bit of clarity, since the music got messy as it got loud. The third movement began with James McVinnie on the organ honking a single note like a backup alarm. For over four years, I’ve been dealing with construction noise on my street. That alarm is seriously annoying. Then a trumpet picked it up. The pianos were doing something pretty, but that backup alarm kept going! Once the entire ensemble was playing, I could make out no through-line. I couldn’t even make out the electric guitars. It was all a jumble. Then, suddenly and without warning, there were some long and extremely sour notes. You can say “microtonal” all you like, but I cringed. Really sour. Next up was quiet organ repetition, punctuated by the brass blaring impending doom as in so many formulaic movie trailers, and then the music stopped.

The audience politely applauded, but the instant Adams and Kaziboni left the stage, the applause stopped as if someone flicked off the power switch.

photos © Nick Rutter

Chaparral and Interstates
LA Phil New Music Group
in collaboration with the Ojai Music Festival as part of the California Festival
reviewed at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, November 14, 2023

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