L. A.’ s tal­ent on cen­ter stage


SongFest 2015 show­cases ris­ing singers, com­posers.

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 inf lux 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 in- volved. 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 stif ling 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 f ilm 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 f irst of two dra­matic songs by Vera Ivanova, a Rus­sian com­poser. Her sec­ond song was in a style not 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 An- drade’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 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 f ive 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 f ives songs, LeBaron’s pitches ref lect 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 f inal 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.

Pho­tog r aphs by Christina House For The Times


back­ground left, and Po Hsun Chen per­form mu­sic writ­ten by com­poser Mark Carlson.

COM­POSER ANNE LEBARON, left, thanks the artists who per­formed her songs dur­ing the SongFest 2015 con­cert se­ries at Col­burn School’s Zipper Hall.

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