Review: L.A. composers, singers take center stage at SongFest 2015

Tyler Reece, left, and Po Hsun Chen perform music by composer Mark Carlson during the SongFest 2015 concert series, "A Celebration of LA Composers," at Zipper Hall at Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles on June 21, 2015.
(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Los Angeles is a capital of song, if for no other reason than it is the center of the recording industry. We are becoming ever more a capital of art too, helped by an influx of young artists. But this town has never been much of a capital of the art song.

SongFest 2015 aims to change all that, if only for a month. The June festival and training program at the Colburn School hosted a celebration of Southland song on Sunday at Zipper Concert Hall. There was no apparent agenda other than to gather music from composers who live here.

The festival has become increasingly impressive. The SongFest faculty now includes not just vocal experts but essential singers, such as Lucy Shelton and Dawn Upshaw, who have transformed modern vocal music and performance. More and more composers are involved. Emerging singers give dozens of concerts and recitals and take public master classes during the month.


The resources allowed Sunday’s program to employ 19 young singers and 10 young pianists. All were accomplished. Nine composers, born between 1952 and 1981, were represented by a short song or two, with one exception. Anne LeBaron was commissioned to write a full song cycle for the occasion, and it proved the major news of the day.

No bios of performers or composers were provided, nothing about the songs with the exception of LeBaron, who supplied a small program note about her “Radiant Depth Unfolded.” Then again, what composer doesn’t have a website these days? What young performer isn’t on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? The ones I looked up reveal all you might want to know about their veganism, yoga routines, cocktail preferences and boyfriends.

Onstage, however, they presented the other extreme of being overly formal. The dress code was stifling evening wear. Few performers looked at home onstage, and many went in for outsized operatic emotion rather than the intimacy of song. With the songs of the younger, hipper composers, that disconnect between affect and appearance was greatest.

Even so, the program proved a fascinating parade of works. “L.A. composer” means little more than residence. Like most of us, the composers come from a variety of places. They serve a variety of needs. Many teach at colleges in Los Angeles or Orange County. A couple have a toe or two in film or television. Most write in traditional styles and chose classic 20th century poems as texts. But two of the younger composers have demonstrated a more experimental bent, and a touch of welcome attitude.

The singers seemed game for anything. The program started off with a crash of the piano representing the crash of waves, the first of two theatrically dramatic songs by Vera Ivanova, a Russian composer. Her second song was in a style not that far removed from Rachmaninoff and well suited for Anna Akhmatova’s stark emotions.

Mark Carlson’s two songs were agreeably melodic. He captured the steamy fragrance of Pablo Neruda’s “Recordarás” (“Remember”) wonderfully, as did the mysteriously smoldering mezzo-soprano Augusta Caso, a name to remember. On the other hand, Stephen Hartke gave a disturbing brittle edge to the melancholy of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Tristeza Céu” (“Sadness in Heaven”).


Sentimentality can be a temptation in song, especially when underscoring conventional poetry was the object among some of the other composers. Isaac Schankler and Daniel Corral provided the antidote.

It was a pleasure to encounter a sassy soprano, Jessica Thompson, not make nice in Schankler’s “With Such Teeth,” based on a poem by Jillian Burcar that begins with the line: “I could definitely stab a man.” Corral’s wordless, a cappella “Meditation” enters into Ligeti territory with four singers treated to electronic feedback and mimicking what might be mistaken for an airplane in perpetual lift off. The performers looked terrified yet sounded amazing.

But these were all, in the end, a procession of small musical bites and brief introductions to singers and pianists. LeBaron’s “Radiant Depth Unfolded” for soprano and baritone was a main course.

It was a big weekend for LeBaron. Scenes from her provocative “LSD: The Opera” were staged Friday and Saturday at REDCAT in Los Angeles. For her new song cycle, she picked five poems by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet who mingled sensuality with spirituality, his writing sharing, perhaps with LSD, the capacity to alter one’s perception of the world by drawing attention to small details.

The vocal writing evokes the unexpected. Throughout the fives songs, LeBaron’s pitches reflect Rumi’s new creatures that “whirl in from nonexistence.” In one song, a thirsty man picks walnuts from a tree not for sustenance but for the music they make when thrown into a pool. LeBaron has the singers place stones on piano strings and reflect in their voices the haunting string resonances.

Fresh voices are necessary for “Radiant Depth,” but so is sensitive restraint. Melanie Henley Heyn, Jesse Malgieri and pianist Gloria Kim concentrated on capturing exquisite intricacies of sonorities, giving the impression of whispering truisms directly in each listener’s ears.


“Poems are rough notations for the music we are,” Rumi ends the beautiful final song of the cycle. LeBaron let the sentiment resonate, as though it might ring on and on as motto for singers in a celestial SongFest.


SongFest 2015

When: Final performances Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (see website for programs)

Where: Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Tickets: Free