The few, the odd, the avant-garde

Times Staff Writer

In 1984, nine concert and opera singers with moxie got together in Stuttgart, Germany, to invest the newest kinds of vocal music with theatrical flair, to expand their own singing with radically new expressive techniques and to explore ground where a burp or cough could be music. Since then, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart has been a regular on the European new music scene, dramatizing avant-garde classics and inspiring composers to write weird new works for its special skills.

Somehow, though, the group -- its name translates as New Vocal Soloists -- never got to America, even though that is where at least some of the modern techniques it exploits got started.

Neue Vocalsolisten finally made its U.S. debut Monday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in the first of its three programs this week as part of the Monday Evening Concerts.


Typical of the singers, they presented two new offbeat scores, along with groundbreaking vocal pieces by John Cage and Luciano Berio. As an ear freshener, it is also their wont to add a touch of ancient music. The highlight was Berio’s “A-Ronne,” in which the composer says he “rediscovered the word.”

“A-Ronne” was a Dutch radio commission by Frans van Rossum, a former music dean at CalArts, and was broadcast in the Netherlands in 1974 as a “documentary” for five actors; the next year, Berio turned it into a concert piece, a sort of postmodern madrigal for the eight Swingle Singers. The choppy text, by the experimental Italian poet Edoardo Sanguineti, is built around the idea of beginning, middle and end, with short phrases -- in three languages -- from such disparate sources as the New Testament, Goethe and Roland Barthes, a French writer.

Words and phrases are repeated again and again, always with a different dramatic emphasis. “In my beginning is my end” might, for instance, be sung as panting erotic come-on, uttered in furious rage, or turned into a Renaissance melodic ditty of angelic beauty. There seems no end to the different vocal contexts, and thus different implications, that Berio finds for individual words in this half-hour piece. A-Ronne is an old Italian way of saying “from A to Z.”

The original radio program was an extraordinary mental stretching exercise. Berio once staged it by having Swingle II appear on a pitch-black stage, with the singers’ lips -- painted with phosphorescent lipstick -- glowing in the dark. It was stunning.

Doubling up on some parts, six singers of Neue Vocalsolisten chose to enact “A-Ronne” outright. They did it brilliantly, inventively, creating fleeting mini-dramas between singers. Individual words and even syllables stood in for whole theatrical arguments. As with all else about the group, its comic timing proved virtuosic.

But much was lost in process. “The word” was no longer rediscovered in the listener’s imagination, as arresting musical effects were turned into fleeting, goofy skits, however exceptional.


The ensemble’s soprano, Angelika Luz, did exactly the same thing with her solo performance of Cage’s “Aria,” which she performed with breathtaking agility. Cage asks the singer -- it was written in 1958 for Cathy Berberian, then Berio’s wife -- to jump around from one kind of emotional expression to another, with sudden shocking or amusing shifts and no transitions. But every emotion here got a gesture, with Luz as a clown.

Neue Vocalsolisten was more sober with the two recent works -- “Petrrohl” by Greek composer George Aperghisand “Per Umbras” by Emanuele Zabelli, an emerging Italian composer in her early 20s who is still a student.

The pieces were for the evening’s core six singers -- soprano, mezzo-soprano, countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass. The scores weren’t interesting musically but were entertaining for the sheer range of sounds these extraordinary singers produce with seeming ease.

For the ancient music, a male quartet offered two short motets by Josquin Desprez -- “Absalon, Fili Mi” and “Ecce tu Pulchra es” -- sung without nuance, but nevertheless exciting for their bold harmony.

Neue Vocalsolisten features new and old Italian music tonight; on Thursday, it turns to a legendary work, Stockhausen’s “Stimmung.” And whatever reservations one might have about these singers’ theatrical hamming, they are quite something.


Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Today-Thursday, 8 p.m.

Price: $12 to $17

Contact: (323) 857-6010