Musical Theatre of the Outrageous Enchants

United StatesUnited States Gruber, Zorn, Neuwirth: Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, John Adams (conductor), Disney Hall, Los Angeles, 13.01.15 (JRo)

H. K. Gruber: Frankenstein!!
John Zorn: For Your Eyes Only
Olga Neuwirth: Hommage à Klaus Nomi (nine songs for countertenor and chamber orchestra)
Chansonnier: Pieter Embrechts
Countertenor: Nathan Medley
Production by Chromatic:
Visual Designer: Ellen Lenbergs
Projection Designer: Adam Larsen
Stage Director: Roxie Perkins
Lighting Designer: Pablo Santiago

Like Prospero calling forth the winds, John Adams set the accomplished artists of the LA Phil New Music Group to blowing, gusting, darting, and flying at Disney Hall. Billed as a theatrical evening, two of the pieces, Frankenstein!! and the U.S. premiere of Hommage à Klaus Nomi, were sung and staged with Dadaist vigor. The other, For Your Eyes Only, was an instrumental joyride.

Frankenstein!! by H. K. Gruber, the noted Viennese composer, was inspired by H. C. Artmann’s children’s rhymes. At once diabolical and whimsical, the words, as sung by the pitch-perfect Pieter Embrechts, combine the likes of vampires, werewolves, John Wayne, rats, Batman, and mince pies. Though heavy on percussion – popping paper bags opened the piece – there are bursts of delicious lyricism that envelop and carry one along on a magic carpet ride of a composition. Gruber uses twelve-tone elements from the Schonberg school along with tonal structures to create a sound world of emphatic beauty. Adding to the spell was a grab bag of toy instruments; the most visually arresting were the plastic hoses spun by a very game group of instrumentalists.

Gruber’s music and narrative have the vaudevillian atmosphere of Brechtian theatre, and Pieter Embrechts, a Dutch singer/songwriter/actor performed with striking virtuosity as he took on not only multiple characters but also the demands of the score. With his infectious delight in the subversive, we became Embrechts co-conspirators in a madcap journey through Artmann’s mind and the dynamic music of Gruber.

The only disappointment was the placement of a portable, collapsible film screen on a tripod behind Embrecht, which displayed illustrations of the text by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. The images on this primitive apparatus were viewable only to the audience seated up close in the center orchestra.  Budgetary issues apparently necessitated an inexpensive set, and this was the weakest link in an otherwise wonderfully satisfying piece.

Tiptoeing rabbits, bumps in the night, snippets of boogie woogie, flares of the operatic, hints of tango, ghostly shades of Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ives, the stuttering of Porky Pig, and the tooting of trains are but a few of the sounds conjured by John Zorn’s fifteen-minute piece, For Your Eyes Only.

In this short composition, the LA Phil New Music Group displayed virtuosic precision, giving clarity to what one can only imagine is a minefield of obstacles in this non-linear piece where tempos are constantly shifting and nothing is repeated. Adams himself said it was impossibly difficult to memorize. But the rewards are ample. Zorn marries a Pop sensibility with a kind of Cubist abstraction to reveal what I can only call the inner workings of the human brain. It’s a Joycean ramble through the mind of modern man (not a depressive but one with a sense of humor). There are pitfalls. If you fall in love with one fragment of sound, it’s likely to disappear in a moment. But consolation comes quickly: something equally fascinating arrives to create a delectable smorgasbord of music.

Rounding out the evening, or should I say testing endurance, was Olga Neuwirth’s Hommage à Klaus Nomi. Nomi was a unique pop singer/countertenor performing in downtown New York in the nineteen seventies. His onstage and video persona was part David Bowie and part German Expressionist with his triangulated tuxedo jacket, white face, black lips, and three-pointed helmet of dark hair. In a distinctive voice, Nomi sang everything from cabaret songs to pop tunes like “You Don’t Own Me” to Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” Here Neuwirth conscripts nine of his signature numbers and strings them together in her own arrangement. The result is an odd duck of a piece, haunting on one hand but curiously flat on the other. Nomi’s sly wit and subtlety is lacking as Neuwirth’s scoring turns both sprightly pop music and poignant Baroque arias into overwrought dancehall music.

Valiantly sung by countertenor Nathan Medley, this startling work demanded much from him. Without the benefit of makeup and proper costuming (an odd production decision has him wearing drab gray pajamas), he seemed like a distressed hospital patient for most of the evening. The theatrics were staged amid dozens of multi-sized white balloons, which served as vague screens for Nomi’s image or backgrounds for decorative patterns of color. Medley was asked to serve up various histrionics – very unlike Nomi’s more stylized performances – and to improvise some 1980’s dance moves. Not easy for anyone who is a classical performer without a strong level of comfort on the dance floor.

As for the singing, Medley was amplified to the hilt and supported by sampled backing vocals. If elegant modulation is what one hopes for in a countertenor, this proved difficult to achieve under the circumstances.

Adams and the New Music Group worked hard to illuminate Neuwirth’s composition, but one wonders if Nomi’s oeuvre is better served by watching YouTube videos of his output. I do thank Neuwirth, however, for singling out this fascinating German artist who shined so briefly before dying of AIDS in 1983.

Jane Rosenberg

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