Commentary: How the spirit of protest is echoing across L.A.'s concert halls
Do you believe in zeitgeists? I do.
The German for time (Zeit) and ghost (Geist) combine to imply the spirit of our time. Even in our meme-a-minute age of social media (which is a zeitgeist in itself), larger and crucial sustaining forces remain at play.
For the record:
12:00 p.m. March 10, 2020An earlier version of this column said an Imani Uzuri singalong was based on the Joan Baez song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” The singalong was based on the African American spiritual “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around,” a version of which Baez popularized.
I’ve been noticing the overpowering sensibility of the protest song at very different events around town. Artists, after all, are our early-warning systems in just about everything that affects society.
Last weekend the zeitgeists finally made their timely presence unmissable.
Friday night at the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City, the riveting opera singer and performance artist Timur and his band the Dime Museum presented an early workshop of “Nueva Canción: Songs of Protest and Resistance.” The avant-cabaret project is a cycle of 1960s songs of political defiance from Latin America that will eventually have a theatrical setting. It ended with the “Todo Cambia” (“Everything Changes”) performed as a sing-along to help us take the song’s bittersweet mind-set home with us.
The superficial will change, the lyrics tell us, as will the profound, or the way a lover feels. What changed yesterday will change again tomorrow.
The next night at Royce Hall, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA premiered a production of “Parable of the Sower.” The mother-and-daughter folksingers Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon wrote songs for a theater piece based on Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 visionary novel about a dystopian Los Angeles in the mid 2020s, a future that we all have the grave responsibility of preventing.
All you touch, you change, Butler begins her book. The only lasting truth is change. God is change. So began the Reagons’ lavish, powerful work.
“There’s a new world coming,” Lauren, the 15-year-old protagonist who sees what others don’t and feels what other do, sings early on in the show. “Everything is turning over.”
Early the next afternoon, the singer Imani Uzuri held a “Freedom Song” teach-in at Walt Disney Concert Hall as pre-concert event to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s third program in its Power to the People! festival. Uzuri ended with a singalong of a freedom song based on the African American spiritual “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around,” popularized by Joan Baez as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
“Gonna build a brand-new world,” she sang. We all joined in.
An hour and a half later across the street at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, a program in the Dilijan chamber music series offered what seemed like (but wasn’t) a radical change of pace. In a rare performance of Schoenberg’s 1908 song cycle, “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Seth Knopp elucidated a fraught world, externally and emotionally, that was also for the composer a major turning over.
Leaving tonality, Schoenberg builds a new world of music. In the text by Stefan George, a lover surveys changeability under “shade of dense leaf-cover.” Gentle voices “murmur their sorrow,” in a setting replete with mythical creatures, plaintive candles in the bushes and white forms of dividing waters. Chased by jerking, invisible hands, we reach, at the end, night-gloomy arbors and bright temples.
Jerking, invisible hands guided my journey to Los Angeles State Historic Park a couple of miles away for a return to “Sweet Land.” The opera that Yuval Sharon has masterminded for his company, the Industry, made such a huge impression at its premiere the previous week that it has haunted me ever since. I can’t think of anything more zeitgeisty than this immersive environmental work with enraptured scores by Du Yun and Raven Chacon, a phenomenal staging and sensation-inducing performance that allows us to look at our past, the land on which we stand, who we are and what we must mean to one another anew.
Our fervent political situation has brought a new relevance to the 1960s songs of protest. Our zeitgeist is our conflicting concerns about racial and social justice, about economic inequality and the looming danger of environmental catastrophe. Identity, in times of doubt, matters more than ever. So does community. And all of that brings the threat of divisiveness.
Thus, we have on hope’s side, the L.A. Phil’s Power to the People! festival, of which Martin Luther King is a meaningful presence. The opening program Thursday included Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream.” Sunday, Gustavo Dudamel conducted Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings.” That suite ends with “Martin Luther King,” and Dudamel gave it an inner swing of such life-affirming warmth that it felt like it was part of the electricity of the air.
The prescient “Parable of the Sower” is dream besotted. Most of that may be our worst nightmare, our communities destroyed, civilization turned barbaric, the brutally insurmountable divide between rich and poor deadly, the environment in tatters, walls erected everywhere to keep us apart. Lauren is a seer, and she has a recurring dream of flying — her freedom.
The cast is large and charismatic. The Reagons’ songs follow Butler’s novel, expressing the feelings of characters and of the times. Protest underlies all. Toshi Reagon sits in the center like a singing Buddha. “We’re building the art we need,” she said at one point. (“We’re building a culture out of an erased society, the art we need,” the bass-baritone Derrell Acon said Sunday as he introduced the conversation series he is curating around “Sweet Land.”)
At two hours and without an intermission, “Sower” is long. It ends seeking affirmation in a clap-along, feel-good final number, “God Is Change.” But rather than coming back down to Earth, I wished to remain in the deeply moving florescent choral evocation of angels just before. The power of Butler’s “Sower” is to show the American dream as envisioned but just out of reach without the power of the people.
Still, there is a genuine power to the Reagons’ “Sower.” Marie Tatti’s Lauren goes to the core of the enigma of empathy and has the ability to make you a believer. The show deserves a life.
Meanwhile, “Sweet Land” will soon cease to exist. Its lumber will become new homes. Its ideas will resonate. People are traveling from all over to catch it. After a second time through one of its parts, I can say for certain it is ready to pervade the operatic zeitgeist, a maker of ghosts determined to haunt us if we ever try to forget.
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