Making a sound investment

Andrew Norman, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's newest composer-in-residence, was speaking to a small audience seated on folding chairs one February evening at Pierre's Fine Pianos in Los Angeles.

"Close your eyes and count 22 seconds silently, then raise your hands as you finish," Norman said.

The audience complied.

"I love silence and how we perceive it when there's nothing to mark it," Norman said, when only a few audience members raised their hands squarely on the 22-second mark.

Silences, it turns out, are integral to Norman's new LACO-commissioned work, "Music in Circles III," a piece about "gradual transformations," that will premiere on Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and next Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall as part of LACO's eclectic exploration of concerto writing. The program will also feature Handel's Concerto Grosso in A major, Op. 6, No. 11, the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, and Variaciones concertantes, a 1953 composition by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera.

At that informal after-hours presentation in February, Norman, 33, whose works have won national and international accolades, was previewing his latest composition for members of the public who had funded the new work's creation to the tune of $300 each through LACO's Sound Investment program. In a series of similar salon presentations, these investors had been following the creation of Norman's piece from its idea stage.

During the preview of the work, four LACO musicians — two violins, one viola and a cello — played excerpts of the new piece. Norman asked the audience to hear how one note was handed off to another, creating a "popcorn effect." At one point he urged the musicians to create "a sort of Donald Duck noise" with bows and strings.

"It reminds me of Merce Cunningham," observed Sound Investment member Susan Lovell of Topanga, referring to the late avant-garde dancer-choreographer's work. Norman responded that there was an element of choreography in his piece, because it had been influenced by how the musicians moved.

The evening's engaging back-and-forth demonstrated the personal connection that is a cornerstone of the Sound Investment program.

LACO Music Director and conductor Jeffrey Kahane "has made an important commitment to working with the very best living composers," said Rachel Fine, the orchestra's executive director, "and that tradition is really vital to the future of classical music." Sound Investment, she said, allows a composer to engage the audience, the musicians, the music director and the staff, "so that it becomes a much more meaningful process."

Kerry Schuman of Torrance, who attended the February salon and had been leery of contemporary classical music, would agree. "Hearing directly from the composer gives you a vastly different outlook on the music that results from it," she said. "It gives me a way of approaching music that I didn't think I liked."

Now in its 12th year, the Sound Investment program generally attracts between 55 to 70 participants, both LACO subscribers and non-subscribers. The cost for each commission ranges from $10,000 to $25,000, said Michelle Weger, LACO's director of institutional giving, "and we have always raised more than enough from Sound Investment to pay the composer's fee. Anything over that amount goes into the performance cost."

Sound Investment, Kahane said, is a way of "sort of democratizing the commissioning process. It makes the audience feel in a sense that the music is theirs when they're part of the compositional process from the first sketches of a piece through its completion. And the fact that the impetus comes in part from the audience itself has a remarkable effect on everyone involved, including the performers and the composer."

Having more minds engaged in the process is "a good thing," Norman said in a phone interview a few weeks after the February salon. When he began working on the piece, he said, "some very astute members of the Sound Investment club had interesting comments which I thought quite a bit about in the process of writing it."

The program also gives the orchestra an opportunity to interact with the composer from the earliest stages of a new work. With a Sound Investment commission, Kahane said, "a composer can bring a compositional idea and ask a member of the orchestra, 'how does this feel to play this,' and 'do you have a suggestion for how I might write this differently?' Sometimes, and this has happened with Andrew, the composer is inspired by individual musicians and by the character of the ensemble."

Both definitely influenced his new work, Norman said.

"The LACO players are very, very open to doing the crazier sounds I ask them to do and because the piece is about the transformation of individuals into a collective whole, there's that aspect of trying to put a more personal stamp on a piece that I'm writing for these people — not just for an orchestra," he said.

What: Concertos: Handel & Mozart, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: 8 p.m. Saturday; Royce Hall, UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Westwood, 7 p.m. next Sunday.

More info: (213) 622-7001, Ext. 1,

Brooklyn-based Norman is LACO's eighth composer-in-residence, a three-year stint that began in 2012. His works have been performed nationally and internationally by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Grand Rapids Symphony and the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, among others. His pieces "Gran Turismo," conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and "Try," conducted by John Adams, were performed at Disney Hall in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Among the young composer's honors are the 2005 ASCAP Foundation Nissim Prize, the 2006 Rome Prize and the 2009 Berlin Prize. His 30-minute string trio, "The Companion Guide to Rome," was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Kahane is struck by the young composer's "extraordinary willingness to take risks and explore the limits of what an orchestra can do," he said. "Andrew has this fantastic daring and a wonderful ear for sound and the ability to imagine sounds produced in unconventional ways using instruments individually and in combination. I find his sense of musical structure fascinating and beautiful — and always surprising."

"For me, every piece is one stepping stone on a journey to somewhere," Norman said. "I don't quite know where it is going, but I'm going there."

Among the composer's upcoming projects: a new Los Angeles Philharmonic commission and concertos for the New York Philharmonic and for percussionist Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony.


LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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