Shades of LA's celebrated avant-garde past lit up the new-music present at Santa Monica's 1st Presbyterian Church -- yes, at this location, a pristinely modern church.
Instead of Igor Stravinsky presiding, as he once did at historic Monday Evening Concerts, we had Thomas Adès (arguably his 21st century successor) at the host church's Jacaranda -- which is the reincarnation of our city's sanctum sanctorum of current music.
And I can't tell you what a feast it was.
If ever we needed to puncture the myth that contemporary music is laborious to listen to or so much doodling and noodling, this would do it.
Adés, the British composer who now lives part-time in LA (how nice for us), came to the stage for the standing ovation given his "Lieux retrouvés," a virtuoso work of graphic sensation and infinite nuance played by the stellar pianist Gloria Cheng and masterful cellist Eric Byers, a Calder Quartet member.
The audience went wild. What else? This was riveting music that crept into every crevice of human perception -- be it lulling waters or rugged mountains or a wildly macabre club scene. Cheng and Byers were dazzling. The event, with the composer present, felt like a history-maker (as did, a few months ago, the Calders' playing of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet with stunning soprano Yulia Van Doren, though absent the composer, of course.)
Neither were Gerald Barry's works anything but extraordinary -- dense, profoundly structured, breathless -- courtesy of musicians Joel Pargman, Louise Thomas and others.
But no matter how well-cued impresario Patrick Scott's all-British program, his celebratory nod to Peter Maxwell Davies' 80th birthday had a downside in the revival of "Vesalii Icones." Perhaps nostalgia got the better of Scott whose local performance art group 40 years ago, Eyes Wide Open, brought it to the public.
The problem here and now was that someone miscalculated badly and opted for cockamamie cornball -- to wit, the musicians played in hospital OR garb (gowns and masks) signifying Vesalius as the father of modern anatomy, while his intricate illustrations were projected on the stage wall. More's the pity because the sleek wood beam crucifix made a brilliant backdrop for the artist's drawings as Stations of the Cross, a theme Davies parodies. But with so much crowding onstage, dancer Jones Welsh's flailings seemed out of place, despite his perfect musculature, which depicted the anatomical images.
For other music in other places the question became: Does it smile? That is, can the music bring a smile of deep pleasure to your face?\
Well, it did, thanks to Schubert and Karina Canellakis (right) who led the sparklingly responsive LA Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall -- all sunny smiles all around with deliciously curving phrases and suffused warmth that could drive away any semblance of a sober, down-turned mouth.
But that's not all. Canellakis is a young American maestra of multiple, exceptional gifts -- though too young, probably, to know she's come a long way, baby, since the day of that then-novelty Antonia Brico at the LA Phil podium, her skirts swaying in the Hollywood Bowl breeze.
And now, just look at Disney Hall's distaff line-up this month: conductors Susanna Mälkki, Xian Zhang and the Phil's newly appointed assistant conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (just call her Mirga!) -- all of them most masterly in pants and this one, with her energetic stick technique, meticulously tailored.
Canellakis opened as a superb violin soloist, standing among the also upright string players, and cue-ing them in vibrant Vivaldi that almost danced off the stage with gusto. But her baton-wielding instincts go quite beyond this earlier music to embrace John Adams, whose "Shaker Loops" got the most forcefully motoric, bone-jolting performance I've ever heard.
And then there were the Russians. That current elite duo, pianist Daniil Trifonov and violinist Gidon Kremer, touring major cities worldwide, stopped off at Disney Hall, courtesy of the Philharmonic and wowed the cognoscenti in attendance.
At 67 Kremer has been dropping into LA for decades with one self-styled contingency or another -- remember his Kremerata Baltica? Last heard here in an unforgettable amalgam of the ubiquitous "Four Seasons" co-mingled with Piazzolla tango versions of same, he and his string players kicked the weary Vivaldi into sensual over-drive as the violinist led and strolled among the seated women musicians who gazed soulfully at him.
With Trifonov (above), the 24-year-old phenom whose Carnegie Hall piano recital was beamed internationally, he seemed to be showcasing the new talent. Indeed with reason.
Because hearing/seeing Trifonov via the Medici.TV streaming -- with cameras zooming in to every last strand of sweat-drenched hair framing his face, thus causing a sight distraction to the sound -- bore little resemblance to the full-dimension concert-hall experience of lucky witnesses here.
Something about that in-person physical presence allows perceptions not easily had through electronic transmission. His technique, for example: astounding, unimaginable -- so you hear what he did with a Mozart sonata, namely, squeeze from it sweet juice, in a very fine, gentle stream that Kremer actually got to duplicate in the second movement. And that was but one small part of their wondrous music-making.