4 emerging composers' works shine in L.A. Phil Green Umbrella

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
Review: Emerging composers' works are stimulating in L.A. Phil's Green Umbrella series

The artists who will populate Grand Avenue in coming years will undoubtedly look different from the four emerging composers whom John Adams picked for his Tuesday night Green Umbrella component to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Next on Grand festival.

Each composer has, or is completing, an advanced degree from Yale or Princeton. Classical music is, of course, moving in more diverse directions than what is represented by these young white males from the Ivy League elite.

Connections also matter, and each of these composers, who were born between 1980 and 1991, has also studied with at least one of the senior composers who have major pieces included in the festival. But brainy bright young talent is, wherever you find it, brainy bright young talent.

What these composers share is a near-nerdy infatuation with rhythmic complexity, a harmonic and melodic directness, a fascination with poetry, a sentimental side and a love for trick endings.

Three pieces were instrumental compositions commissioned for the occasion, and Adams conducted fervently sturdy performances with the L.A. Phil New Music Group. It was a stimulating night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. All four composers will, undoubtedly, be back on Grand.

Christopher Cerrone's "The Pieces That Fall to Earth," a song cycle to texts by Bay Area poet Kay Ryan, was the evening's hit. It featured soprano Hila Plitmann, who memorized the songs and acted them out with a compellingly dramatic punch, intensified by amplification. But the biggest punch came from Cerrone.

The composer of "Invisible Cities," the opera that created a sensation in 2013 when staged at Union Station, Cerrone began his song cycle in an otherworldly manner not unlike his opera's undulating instrumental style. He spoke in the preconcert talk of being drawn here to the Americana of Copland and Virgil Thomson. He picked a West Coast poet whose terse sentiments would have suited either composer.

Yet Cerrone's instinct here was toward emphasis. He could get stuck on a line and repeat it again and again, the pitch rising, the rhythm gaining in insistence, a crescendo crashing on a climax. I heard echoes not of Copland and Thomson but of Benjamin Britten and Purcell, where ordinary sentiments can be inflated until they begin to startle.

Ryan slyly leaves a line like "everything contains some silence" unadorned. Cerrone undoes this with his own anti-slyness, where whispers, spoken and played into microphones, feel like shouts.

Dylan Mattingly's chamber ensemble piece "Seasickness and Being (in love)" has earnestness rather than slyness in its being. The youngest composer of the group, he is from Berkeley and studied with Adams as a teenager.

By beginning with lurching rhythms and using pianos tuned a quartertone apart, he forced listeners to find their aural sea legs, since you could never quite locate the harmonic floor. Love came through in what sounded like fractured, stuttering echoes of the ecstatic love music in Messiaen's "Turangalila" Symphony. I presume that Mattingly's sense of being was a kind of stasis found in the fragmented, consonant chords at the end.

His stylistic voice is already strong and distinct. He has a knack for producing striking sounds, which he might do well to let be. His title says too much. "Seasickness and Being" is limited when tied to the sly sentiment of young love.

Sean Friar, an Angeleno who has returned home to teach at USC and UCLA (is that possible?), demonstrated similar concerns with pulse and tuning in "Finding Time." "Entropy takes its toll," he wrote in the program notes. Like Mattingly, but without the conventional angst of young love, he lets the notes and rhythms be.

This sounds more like a study in relativity clocks moving at different times at different speeds. He finds time and compromise at that end, the clocks in quiet held harmonies, not synchronized but stopped.

Jacob Cooper's "Alla Stagion dei Fior," the evening's outlier, is a video installation work that was shown on a big screen above the Disney stage. Cooper takes a moment from a conventional staging of the breakup of "La Boheme's" Mimì and Rodolfo.

Death looms for Mimì, and with the soundtrack turned into a low electronic drone, you sense her soul about to leave the body (interestingly an image also in one of Ryan's poems that Cerrone set). But not even the extreme slowing of time will cure love's seasickness.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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