BET­TER MOVES BY LEBARON

Anne Lebaron’s re­cent ‘Cres­cent City’ sold out, and L.A. Phil is play­ing one of her works at the Bowl.

Los Angeles Times - - Art & Books - Reed.john­[email protected]

Years be­fore she be­came one of Amer­ica’s most in­trigu­ing post­mod­ern com­posers, Anne LeBaron was a pre­co­cious chess player. At age 12, she won the Univer­sity of Alabama’s club tour­na­ment, whup­ping guys who made the error of not tak­ing her se­ri­ously.

“As a young girl, when you beat an older man — oh, look out! They are not happy,” LeBaron said re­cently over cof­fee at the At­wa­ter Cross­ing arts com­plex, where “Cres­cent City,” her phan­tas­magoric, voodoo-haunted new “hy­per­opera,” was per­formed this past spring to packed houses and gush­ing re­views.

LeBaron learned chess from her New Or­leans grand­mother, a for­mi­da­ble player who once nearly earned a draw with Bobby Fis­cher and gave LeBaron valu­able ad­vice.

“She said, ‘If you look long enough, you’ll al­ways find a bet­ter move,’ ” re­called LeBaron, a fac­ulty mem­ber at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of the Arts in Va­len­cia. “So I’ve trans­lated that into com­pos­ing. I can write very fast, but then I’ll go back and back and back to look for that bet­ter move.”

Agrow­ing seg­ment of the clas­si­cal mu­sic world is await­ing the next move in LeBaron’s ca­reer, which has been ad­vanc­ing like a grand­mas­ter clos­ing in on check­mate.

At 59, the Ba­ton Rouge, La., na­tive has at­tained a new level of recog­ni­tion for her lyri­cal, in­trepidly eclec­tic mu­sic. An idio­syn­cratic vi­sion­ary in the mode of Ge­orge Crumb and John Zorn, her out­put stretches from cham­ber pieces to or­ches­tral works and op­eras, in­clud­ing “The E&O Line” (1990) and “Cres­cent City,” which was staged by the new L.A. opera com­pany the In­dus­try and its dy­namic artis­tic direc­tor, Yu­val Sharon.

Many of her col­leagues be­lieve that the in­ten­si­fied at­ten­tion to LeBaron is both mer­ited and way over­due. Dou­glas Kear­ney, a poet and for­mer pupil of LeBaron’s who wrote the li­bret­tos for “Cres­cent City” and the com­poser’s 2008 “cy­bor­g­opera” “Suck­tion” — in which an ab­ject house­wife undergoes a cy­ber-erotic trans­for­ma­tion through the sub­ver­sive use of a vac­uum cleaner — said he “can’t say whether the mu­sic world is fi­nally catch­ing up” with his col­lab­o­ra­tor.

“But what I feel like is hap­pen­ing is that all of th­ese dif­fer­ent projects, all of th­ese dif­fer­ent seeds that she’s been nur­tur­ing, are start­ing to bloom,” he said.

That color field will be in pro­fu­sion this year. On Tues­day, LeBaron’s work for large orches­tra “Amer­i­can Icons” will share a Hol­ly­wood Bowl pro­gram that in­cludes Beethoven’s Sym­phony No. 9, con­ducted by Leonard Slatkin. It will be the first time the Phil has per­formed one of LeBaron’s works, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the orches­tra said.

On Aug. 11, the first move­ment of her cham­ber en­sem­ble piece “Tel­luris Theo­ria Sacra” (Sa­cred The­ory of the Earth) will be per­formed at UCLA by the 24-mem­ber ex­per­i­men­tal en­sem­ble wild Up.

On Oct. 10, the world pre­miere of her pi­ano solo work “Cre­ation of the Birds,” in­spired by a Reme­dios Varo paint­ing, will take place at the Fes­ti­val In­ter­na­cional Cer­vantino in Gua­na­ju­ato, Mex­ico. In Novem­ber, “Flood­songs,” LeBaron’s new work for 12-part mixed cho­rus and live elec­tron­ics, will be per­formed at REDCAT.

“I think that Anne is hav­ing a real mo­ment in the sun right now, de­servedly so,” said Chad Smith, the L.A. Phil’s vice pres­i­dent of artis­tic plan­ning. “A lot of that I think has to do with ‘Cres­cent City.’ She was the right per­son with the right pro­ject with the right im­pre­sario in Yu­val Sharon, and it all came to­gether. But ob­vi­ously Anne has been do­ing her thing for decades.”

Peers and crit­ics cite LeBaron’s sig­na­ture as her abil­ity to fuse a wealth of mu­si­cal gen­res — clas­si­cal, jazz, pop, neo-me­dieval, Cajun/ Cre­ole, free jazz and im­pro­vi­sa­tion, elec­tron­ica, folk, blue­grass — into provoca­tive, well-struc­tured yet au­di­ence-friendly works filled with emo­tional in­ten­sity, sly philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings and Bartók-ian bursts of un­ex­pected hu­mor. Her “Con­certo for Ac­tive Frogs,” for ex­am­ple, com­bines live hu­man and taped am­phib­ian voices to “hi­lar­i­ous” ef­fect, as a Wash­ing­ton Post critic put it.

“Un­like a lot of other post­mod­ern com­posers, where the seams al­ways show when it’s stitch­ing to­gether the rock or the jazz or the pop into what they think is a con­cert or a clas­si­cal piece or sound, her work is seam­less,” said Ni­cole Gagne, a Bay Area mu­sic scholar. “She sees what it is that is shared about all th­ese dif­fer­ent sounds more than what is dif­fer­ent about them.”

That re­cep­tive­ness to a wide va­ri­ety of in­spi­ra­tions dates from the com­poser’s child­hood in Louisiana, Mem­phis, Tenn., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. One of her cousins was leg­endary New Or­leans jazz trum­peter Al Hirt. Her church­go­ing mother helped ex­pose her to soar­ing gospel har­monies.

Her fa­ther, a Sears Roe­buck ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive, was an am­a­teur blue­grass and folk mu­si­cian who taught him­self to play guitar, man­dolin, do­bro, banjo, and also sang.

“He wrote won­der­ful lit­tle dit­ties and songs, very clever and with a great sense of hu­mor,” said LeBaron, a gra­cious, forth­right woman who still speaks with a faint pan-Southern in­flec­tion.

LeBaron’s pen­chant for work­ing with other mu­si­cians and de­sign­ers across mul­ti­ple art forms may have found its fullest ex­pres­sion in the multi-me­dia “Cres­cent City.” LeBaron has said that the con­cept of hy­per­opera, which she has taught in CalArts classes, de­notes “an opera re­sult­ing from in­ten­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion across all the dis­ci­plines es­sen­tial for pro­duc­ing opera in the 21st cen­tury.”

Put an­other way, it’s Richard Wag­ner’s idea of Ge­samtkunst­werk, an all-em­brac­ing art form, ex­cept that each par­tic­i­pat­ing artist main­tains a de­gree of in­di­vid­ual au­ton­omy rather than submitting to a Teu­tonic master­mind’s au­thor­i­tar­ian dic­tates. “Anne’s view of the world is one of mul­ti­plic­ity and of the beauty of that mul­ti­plic­ity,” Sharon said.

While the jazz, blues, cre­ole and gospel tex­tures of “Cres­cent City” reach to LeBaron’s roots, its beau­ti­ful, star­tling dis­so­nances and elec­tronic polyrhythms hint at LeBaron’s later im­mer­sion in post­mod­ernism. As a Ful­bright scholar to Ger­many, she stud­ied with György Ligeti, the ne plus ul­tra of late 20th cen­tury mit­teleu­ro­pean avant-garde com­posers, en route to earn­ing a de­gree in com­po­si­tion at Columbia Univer­sity.

“I hear Ligeti ev­ery once in a while peek through th­ese bizarre coun­try id­ioms or who knows what,” Sharon said ad­mir­ingly. “She can syn­the­size them in a way that is not about her own clev­er­ness but is this kind of play­ful and joy­ous look at th­ese com­bi­na­tions. She’s con­stantly chang­ing di­rec­tions in the mu­sic in a way that re­ally keeps you en­gaged.”

LeBaron hopes that other opera com­pa­nies will give “Cres­cent City” a go. The first time that an opera is done, she be­lieves, is sel­dom the fin­ished ver­sion, and she’d love to see it per­formed on a prosce­nium stage one day.

Time, then, for a new look at the chess­board?

“Yes,” LeBaron replied. “For sure.”

Gary Fried­man Los An­ge­les Times

ANNE LeBARON is the post­mod­ern com­poser be­hind “Cres­cent City” and teaches at CalArts.

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