Review: New music and nature meet under a Green Umbrella

There were no green umbrellas on Wednesday night as the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented a Green Umbrella concert at the Ford for the first time. Though the green umbrella happens to be the surreal symbol of the LA Phil New Music Group’s prophetic concert series, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, a picturesque artifact meant to protect us from what was once known as rain would have stuck with the Ford ridiculous looked his beautiful green and rugged hill scenery behind the stage.

Chosen a century ago as a natural setting for spiritual splendor, the site of the Ford remains an excellent place for contemplating art and the environment. That’s not necessarily the purpose of the venue. Operated by the LA Phil since 2020 at the request of LA County, the main purpose of the Ford is to present a wide range of music genres at more or less reasonable prices. The LA Phil otherwise seems to be putting classical music out of the way, as it has three other enviable venues for doing so — the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Beckmen YOLA Center.

But new music goes well with the Ford. Wednesday was perhaps a new music program without the usual Green Umbrella frills, so to speak. No composers came to talk about their music. No program notes. If you wanted to know what was playing, you had to pull out your phone and find it in an app. If you wanted to know about the music, you could try google and hope for the best.

No helpful bells and whistles, but the stage featured plenty of onstage percussion noise generators. Ticket prices were kept at a reasonable $20 for all seats, attracting a mostly young crowd and some families with young children. The pieces were short, between four and 15 minutes, and varied. Percussion pieces, curated and directed by LA Phil solo drummer Joseph Pereira, dominated. Music was heard just as music, take it or leave it.

Perhaps it was just as well that there were no program notes for the short opening piece, Gérard Grisey’s “Stèle”, in which two drummers on opposite sides of the stage bang big bass drums, slowly building an impressive tonal and rhythmic profile. Grisey’s intention was to conjure up the mysterious excavation of an ancient ceremonial stone slab (or stele).

Around the same time Stèle was being written, the LA Phil commissioned one of Grisey’s last plays, L’Icône Paradoxale. A Times review mercilessly ridiculed the French composer’s explanation of his ‘spectral’ technique, an imaginative use of the harmonic overtone series to evoke a sense of sonic wonder in the listener. This is exactly what “Stèle” did at Ford. Not only have times changed significantly, but in the great ford outdoors one could easily imagine a stele from a Theosophical Society pilgrimage played a century ago perched on the hillside is buried.

A man taps his fingers on a bass drum.

LA Phil solo drummer Joseph Pereira taps his fingers on a drum while performing Gérard Grisey’s “Stèle” as part of the orchestra’s Green Umbrella concert Wednesday night at the Ford.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

What followed was one different genre of music after the other, each of which interacted with the not always benevolent environment. Vivian Fung’s “Pizzicato,” a string orchestra arrangement of a movement from her First String Quartet, begins with plucked strings and ends with the players tapping the wood of their instruments as if they were drums. At the Ford, a small plane suddenly flew overhead and entered the chime with that knock.

Had this been a string quartet concert, the effect would have created an ugly intrusion. But since percussion and electronics were supposed to be an integral part of the evening and everything was amplified prominently, I heard the airplane as an improvement.

The most striking piece was Juan Felipe Waller’s “Teguala” for reinforced tiles and electronic reproduction. In a scintillating display of rubs, rattles and rolls, four drummers banged mallets on dozens of Mexican tiles while a fifth fiddled with a laptop. The Mexican-Dutch composer, who seems to have one foot in the kind of spectral electronics Grisey pioneered and the other in Mexican musical traditions, builds musical structures of complex, interlocking rhythms while the electronics sound like trucks or trains go by and mosquitoes buzz next to your ear, crickets chirp in the forest, airplanes whirr overhead. I can’t say for sure if some of these sounds were environmental rather than performance related.

Gabriella Smith’s “Riprap” for marimba and strings that followed the break was written in 2013, the year the Berkeley composer received her bachelor’s degree in composition from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and turned 22. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed It had its LA premiere three years ago, by which time Smith had already become an LA sensation and has since been eagerly commissioned by the LA Phil and performed at the Ojai Festival.

“Riprap” has the freshness, verve and originality of a young Mendelssohn. The strings make delightful sounds. The marimba dances around her. Underlying all of Smith’s music, however, is a deep exploration of environmental issues that presents music as representing what the world around us may and may not be. The sun had set for “Riprap” and the stage lights made the hillside appear dark and mysterious. But the exterior remained friendly, with no interference for this happily played music.

The final piece was Kaija Saariaho’s Trois Rivières (Three Rivers). Four percussionists rhythmically recite a French translation of 8th-century Chinese poet Li Po’s “La nuit de lune sur le fleuve” (Moonlit Night on the River) while playing an extensive collection of instruments. A fifth drummer operates surround sound electronics.

The night was moonlit. At that point, I was furthest from the stage to an empty seat, as wearing masks in the Ford isn’t back in vogue yet. The theater isn’t big, but I was too far back to make out the instruments, and the electronics added to the feeling of being in a cavernous space.

Barely intelligible words, a wealth of percussive sounds and the reverberant electronic ambience all contributed to creating an eerie feeling of being in the distance of nature. I can’t say how that can be. But when a plane flew overhead, it felt too far away to matter. Review: New music and nature meet under a Green Umbrella

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