music, technology & life in pasadena, california

New Music, John Adams & Boulez

Last night, I performed as a guest artist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in their Green Umbrella series playing a piece written by Gyorgy Kurtag, titled Grabstein fur Stephan. The piece, which contrasts serene moods with violent discord, places most of the musicians onstage and scatters several more groups of players around the hall playing brass, woodwinds, whistles and plastic duda horns. The guitar is the serene center of this little universe, playing slowly strummed open string arpeggios that change ever so slightly over time. Alexander Mickelthwate, the new assistant conductor of the orchestra, presided over this unusual composition. The near sell-out crowd went wild at the end of the piece. It’s great to see enthusiastic audiences turning out for new and challenging music that’s far off the beaten path. It’s especially exciting to hear music like this played in Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the transparent acoustics bring every individual instrument to life in its own psycho-acoustic space.

Next week, Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct John Adams’ nativity oratorio, El Nino at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The LA Philharmonic last performed this piece in early 2003 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, their former home, and played several more performances immediately thereafter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, while on tour. In both cities, the orchestra played in the pit while Peter Sellars staged the action above them. It’s an incredibly moving piece that utilizes three counter-tenor voices (an otherworldly sound), soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus, children’s choir and two steel-string guitars. The guitar parts are challenging, intricate and they mesh perfectly. I had so much fun playing this piece 2 ½ years ago with guitarist Jim Hershman. I was excited every night just watching Esa-Pekka as he explored the piece and led the orchestra through each inspired magical evening. This time, guitarist Brian Head will join me while Jim enjoys a holiday break from his busy schedule in New York. Brian is a wonderful guitarist/composer and we had a lot of fun working together last year when we played the west coast premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s, Ainadamar. It just doesn’t get any better than this…what a great way to wrap up the year.

And if that wasn’t enough to keep me practicing for hours, the LA Phil New Music Group will be performing Pierre Boulez’s, Le Marteau Sans Maitre on January 17 at Disney Hall. Originally premiered in 1955, this is the piece that put Boulez on the map. Written for three percussion, guitar, alto flute, viola and alto voice, it weaves an incredibly complex path through a soundscape that breaks Boulez’s “rules” of total serialization and allows it to flex and become a poetic and communicative work of art. Alexander Mickelthwate will conduct and we will have seven rehearsals (in 1955, Boulez’s musicians had an unheard of 60 rehearsals!) to prepare the piece. I’ve been practicing many hours and listening to the Boulez recording (I found it on iTunes, can you believe it?), but the true test is always that first rehearsal, when you can actually see how the conductor is going to play this section or that particular grouping of measures, and you dive right in. As Esa-Pekka once said to the orchestra as they were rehearsing an extremely difficult piece, “The look of concentration on your faces is the most beautiful sight to me.”

December 7, 2005 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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