The Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella program Tuesday night was titled "Theater of the Outrageous." The music was mostly with a transgressive late '70s and '80s sensibility. The quirky Los Angeles multimedia collective Chromatic littered the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage with beach balls. John Adams was in command of the orchestra's New Music Group.
That there was no cause for outrage may have been slight cause for disappointment but also maybe a promising sign of scary times. Provocation certainly remains dangerous, as the recent horrors in Paris have shockingly proved, but permissiveness is also, at least in parts of society, promisingly on the rise. What disconcerted a couple of decades ago quickly becomes classical fare.
The two big theatrical pieces, both by Austrian composers, were HK Gruber's "Frankenstein!!" and Olga Neuwirth's "Hommage à Klaus Nomi." In a mirthful score for chansonnier and an ensemble replete with toy instruments, Gruber takes delight in small, nasty grotesqueries. Neuwirth remembers the flamboyant, androgynous German pop singer and operatic countertenor, Klaus Nomi, who became a sensation in New York's 1970s new wave clubs and who died of AIDS at 39 in 1983 just as his exceptional career was taking off.
Gruber calls "Frankenstein!!" a "Pan-demonium." The texts are children's rhymes by H.C. Artmann in which little mosterlets dance around the house, baby vampires suck baby's blood and a green-haired man munches on Marie. John Wayne, Goldfinger and Miss Dracula strut their stuff. Lois Lane enthusiastically jumps in bed with Superman; Batman and Robin lounge under the sheets before breakfast.
There is a childlike hilarity to these catchy, subversive songs written in 1978 for a Vienna still harboring ex-Nazis who put on courteous faces. Gruber and Artmann mock them with gleeful subtlety, not crude cartoons.
Neuwirth, who was born in 1968 and is a generation younger than Gruber, is the composer of three darkly innovative operas, one based on the David Lynch film "Lost Highway." In her 2013 homage to Nomi, she arranges nine numbers — pop and classic songs, along with two Purcell arias — for countertenor and ensemble.
Nomi brought a remarkable strangeness to everything from Elvis Presley hits to Marlene Dietrich impersonations to opera. He dressed extravagantly, a cross between David Bowie (with whom he performed on one occasion) and Dada performance art.
He was a mysteriously robotic figure on stage who didn't seem quite of this world. His singing was precise, clipped, mesmeric, and you couldn't take your eyes off him. He was like an exotic creature from another planet dropped into the grungy pop clubs, turning them into momentarily and inexplicably exquisite environments.
Chromatic's approach to both pieces was not exactly beach blanket bingo, but it wasn't edgy either. Gruber himself famously sings "Frankenstein!!" like a German cabaret singer who is off his rocker and anything could happen.
But Tuesday, the Belgian singer Pieter Embrechts, was more pop and blatantly theatrical. He left no room for wonder. Embrechts sat next to a small movie screen on which were projected crudely cute but not offensive comic illustrations by Belgian artist Sebastiaan Van Doninck.
Neuwirth's "Nomi" is a work of transformation. She replaces the singer's straightforward pop backups with harmonically unsettled and sonically sophisticated orchestrations. The compelling countertenor Nathan Medley didn't attempt a Nomi imitation. Rather than robotic choreography and outlandish get-ups, he wore pajamas.
The intent seemed to be to channel not the startling public face of Nomi but the lonely, insecure man behind the image. What was lost was Nomi's rock energy, his unique ability to sell a song and his sheer weirdness. But Medley proved a powerful performer, and no one is going to be another Nomi.
Nomi's face did appear projected on beach balls, and he could be seen, if barely, on a small '70s TV set next to Medley. Otherwise the beach balls served as screens for a range of abstract designs that were not Nomi-like or otherwise of dramatic purpose, but they lit up Disney with intriguing delight.
The third piece on the program was John Zorn's "For Your Eyes Only," a 15-minute chamber work from 1989 that changes styles every few seconds. This is no longer startling music as it was when new, as Zorn is now a one-man musical factory and major figure. But the score is still striking.
Adams led rhythmically exacting performances of all three works. He was driving in the Gruber, more relaxed and swinging in the Neuwirth. The Zorn was tense and tight, no instance taken for granted. The L.A. Phil players revealed themselves a versatile, virtuoso new music group that could handle anything, which, in the conventional orchestra world might be considered outrageous.