ARTS & CULTURE

International music fest compares Latin, Asian sounds with Tambuco and Toshio Hosokawa

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

Classical musicians have been travellers pretty much from the get-go. In their gadding about Europe, medieval troubadours spread a wide variety of cultural styles, from Arabic to Celtic and everything in between.

With music streaming today, we have access to a 24/7 musical Babel. But do we really know how any of this multi-cultural mish-mash works, or what it means?

That we are not musically one, that we are still drawn to view the world through our own cultural identity was evident Thursday night at REDCAT in a program of Latin American and Asian music, part of Southwest Chamber Music's LA International New Music Festival.

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But it is not that simple. The magnetic draw between countries remains timeless.

The first half of the evening revolved around the Mexican percussion ensemble, Tambuco, with pieces from Cuba, Vietnam and Mexico, each having something of a national character, but only something. The second half was the West Coast premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's monodrama "The Raven," with an ensemble of local players conducted by Southwest's music director, Jeff von der Schmidt and featuring a versatile, impressive young mezzo-soprano, Laura Mercado-Wright.

Here is where multi-culti quickly gets interesting.

Tambuco, for instance, is a quintessential Latin percussion group, and probably the best. But although they didn't participate in the Hosokawa opera, the percussionists have become notably adept at revealing unsuspected resemblances between their culture and that of distant Japan.

Tuesday at REDCAT, the next concert in the two-week festival, Tambuco will play four works written for the group by Japanese composers.

"The Raven" offers particular fascination in the difficulties of cultural identity. Hosokawa read Poe's poem in a way we never learned in high school. The raven and the spooky atmosphere immediately reminded the Japanese composer of Noh drama, where ghosts and animals assert a mysterious significance on our surroundings.

He uses a chamber ensemble of Western instruments to make Eastern sounds, evoking the rumbles and rushes of wind and spirits in a haunted environment. Chords crash like waves on the beach. Instrumental colors are dripped and splashed like Jackson Pollack with his paint.

Hosokawa retains Poe's English text, but he uses it as much for the sounds of the words as their meaning. The opening is spoken in hushed awe. Later lines are whispered, moaned, sung with quiet eloquence or animated melismas. But torment remains tempered by weird forces.

That this is no longer our American Poe was made painfully clear a year ago when the opera had its U.S. debut, staged by Gotham Opera as part of the New York Philharmonic's Biennial. It was performed just a few blocks away from where Poe wrote "The Raven" in 1845 on the Upper West Side of New York. But it was an inelegant overwrought performance, with a dancer doppelganger of the singer, more Martha Graham than Noh.

Southwest did better with its concert performance. Mercado-Wright, who made a recording of gospel music five years ago but is now becoming known for her performances of new music, brought a dark luster and good enunciation. But she needn't have projected quite so much fearful agitation in her spoken introduction, and, stationed among the musicians, she couldn't be heard in the louder sections.

Von der Schmidt told the audience that he felt staging the opera would require a $10,000 kimono for Mercado-Wright, and the value of the Southwest performance was its instinct for the essential otherness of this enigmatic cross-cultural hybrid that was missing from the New York performance.

With Tambuco at play, there was little concern about authenticity in the first half. In Roberto Vizcaino's "Rumba Clave," congas were played with claves, Cuban rhythms continually fractured by the differences between clattering wood and beaten skin.

Vu Nhat Tan's "Young Rice" required three percussionists to work musical details out on their own, around basic structures supplied by the Vietnamese composer. That meant that enticing Latin rhythms occasionally peeked out of the spectacular thunder of many drums.

Mexican composer Javier Álvarez' "Metal de Corazones" (Metal of Hearts) was written for Tambuco but also includes a string trio, clarinet, trumpet, piano and additional percussion.

Alvarez and Hosokawa are close contemporaries (born, respectively, in 1956 and 1955), and their music has similar attitudes about sound. Both toy with barely audible noises, such as rubbing or scraping instruments with foreign objects, that may or may not blossom into full-fledged lush tonal sonorities.

There were even moments when a raven's "nevermore" squawk infested "Metal de Corazones," a score as lushly strange and compelling as Hosokawa's opera.

Mark.swed@latimes.com

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2015 L.A. International New Music Festival

Where: REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (Japanese percussion music) and Wednesday (late Elliott Carter)

Cost: $20-$25

Info: (213) 237-2800, http://www.redcat.org

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