Jacaranda’s “ICONO-GRAPHIC” event at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica on Jan. 30 was an extraordinary celebration of Peter Maxwell Davies’ 80th birthday featuring his iconic multimedia fusion of imagery, dance and music, Vesalii Icones. Thomas Adès’ Lieux retrouvés (“Places Remembered”) for cello and piano and three Los Angeles premieres by Irish composer Gerald Barry opened the concert with some fireworks of their own.
Cellist Eric Byers and pianist Gloria Cheng were brilliant in Lieux retrouvés, written in four movements connoting different vistas. Byers began “Les Eaux” with a deceptively sublime sweetness that gradually churned itself into a frenetic crashing wave of energy. Cheng livened up the meandering melodic streams of “La Montagne” with her zestful exuberance. “Les Champs” had a simple, delicate quality, and Byers was masterful on the quiet ultra-high-pitched lyric melody, keeping it sustained, slow and pianissimo. The feeling was fragile, the sound rarefied. The technical difficulty was belied by Byers’ exquisite control as he approached the limits of his instrument, an instrument that sang beautifully. The final movement was the lively “Le Ville,” jumping off the stage with its twisted “Can-Can” under an eclectic patchwork of tunes and effects. Byers was animated, perhaps even manic. His performance was magnificent, and in response the audience leapt to their feet for repeated calls. Adès was proud. Lieux retrouvés was an extraordinary start to the program, and arguably the most emotionally charged element of the evening.
Violinist Joel Pargman and pianist Louise Thomas performed Triorchic Blues (versions for solo violin and solo piano) from the early music of Barry for this LA premiere. Pargman flawlessly executed Barry’s fractured counterpoint with an unrelenting energy that was riveting. Thomas’s version had a much larger feel to it that magnified the inherent motor quality of the music. Her performance was another highlight of the night; she was magnificent.
Violist Alma Hernandez and Cellist Trevor Handy joined Pargman and Thomas to end the first half of the program with Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1. Thomas bound the ensemble tightly as Barry’s faint shades of Ireland combusted into a hail of musical fireworks before fading into an ethereal nothing. The ensemble kept up with the frenetic intensity of the roiling dance rhythms and sharp corners at every intersection, yet they preserved an organic quality that made it understandable and still approachable.
Peter Maxwell Davies’ Vesalii Icones was stunning, simply overloading the senses with macabre dances, theatrical gestures and gruesome images, all portrayed with an iconoclastic irreverence from incongruous musical references. All of this was juxtaposed with the 14 Stations of the Cross from the Catholic tradition and anatomic sketches by Vesalius shown over the looming cross in the church. It was perhaps even a bit more shocking now than at its 1974 Los Angeles premiere because videographer Hannah Beavers updated the images with emotional references to torture from current events to make the drama immediately palpable.
Dancer and choreographer Jones Welsh and solo cellist Timothy Loo were marvelous as the protagonists. Welsh would occasionally taunt Loo and the ensemble, disrupting the flow and control of events. Welsh’s choreography and dance were astounding. Loo’s expressive tone was compelling.
The ensemble musicians were dressed as surgeons and required to use every tool in their chest of modernist techniques. Fragmentary glimpses of early music were sprinkled throughout and coupled with an equal number of dances that ranged from the austere to the silly. The audience never knew what was coming next as the often necrotic themes eventually gave way to a surprise gaiety as Welsh kicked high in a mirrored tuxedo as the band roared and Loo’s cello became his guitar.
Percussionist Sidney Hopson and pianist Aron Kallay were significant contributors to the ensemble. Hopson jingled altar bells between the stations and had a percussion battery that included a large rectangular sheet-metal gong. Conductor Ryan Dudenbostel kept the events synchronized and the ensemble cohesive as they skipped through shuffling meters and abrupt changes in tempo and style. He would occasionally leave the podium and interact with Welsh.
Violist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu, clarinetist Eric Jacobs and flutist Sara Andon formed an eclectic trio. Jacobs was versatile in many genres, and he and Wu blended together beautifully. Flutist Sara Andon had a wonderful tone that penetrated the chapel. At one point she made a marvelously sonorous low-pitched fluttering sound that filled the room with its hollowness. Andon’s performance was noteworthy; somehow my ear always found her.
Bravo to Jacaranda — and a special salute to cellist Eric Byers!
Happy birthday, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies!
~Theodore Bell, CultureSpotLA
For information about upcoming concerts, visit http://www.jacarandamusic.org.