PART I: Memory / Nostalgia / Somesuch Thing
You might have anticipated a raucous blast, one suited to the representatives of a rival nation as they establish a beachhead on local soil. What you got, if you were in attendance at the first concert of a weekend triptych by the Los Angeles chamber orchestra wild Up at National Sawdust on Nov. 18, was a whisper; if you weren’t paying close attention, you might not have realized the concert had started.
What you heard on arrival was a subtle wash of sustained tones – ambient music as Brian Eno coined the term, amenable to listening but as happy to float in the background unnoticed. A handful of instrumentalists, likewise unnoticed, hit their marks throughout the space, and without fanfare joined the murmur. At some point it hit you: the concert has started.
Ellen Reid’s Knoxville Memoryscape opened a program described in unusually evocative promotional copy as “lined with filaments of the past.” Reid, a Los Angeles composer and sound artist whose own National Sawdust residency aligned profitably with the ensemble’s, was setting the stage softly, evoking memories of past ties to Knoxville, TN, using tones borrowed from Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 as base material. Cognition engaged, wafting tones suddenly were referential – as if Reid somehow had distilled the wistfulness and melancholy that permeate Barber’s songful reminiscence into a crystalline suspension, its associations contained within a glistening droplet.
Alchemy, and not the last instance. After a brief welcome from the industrious impresario Beth Morrison – whose presentation of wild Up in Williamsburg, she explained, essentially amounted to introducing a new beau to family back home – the ensemble mustered onstage with Christopher Rountree, its energetic and persuasive founder, artistic director, and conductor. More Barber followed, the early Four Excursions for solo piano decked out in snappy, sympathetic orchestrations by Richard Valitutto, a composer and wild Up’s pianist. The ensemble showed prowess, panache, and Hollywood polish in bluesy Gershwinesque slow drags and blithe Coplandesque dance sequences.
If by this point you’d presumed Reid a nostalgist, her next two originals set you straight. Ground to Steel Dust – Uneaten, brittle and abstract, matched cello (Derek Stein) with percussion (Matt Cook) in pealing concords and scuttling jousts. Drifting Untitled, quirky and appealing, combined Brian Walsh’s gaseous, pugilistic bass clarinet with Valitutto’s junk-gamelan prepared piano and wordless patterns from vocalists Justine Aronson and Solange Merdinian.
Two rearranged songs adhered to programmatic threads of history and memory: “An Die Musik,” orchestrated by violinist Andrew Tholl with pizzicato strings, slap-tongued winds, and toy piano, bridged the span from Schubert’s Vienna to Brian Wilson’s Pacific shore with flagrant charm, while “Take Time,” Reid’s treatment of a song by collage-pop duo the Books, replicated the original’s clockwork mechanisms cleverly and faithfully.
Looking back over it all, you could see how the curious mix had set the stage for the evening’s main business: Knoxville: Summer of 2015, a splendid, imaginative sequel to Barber’s famous James Agee setting, with fresh words provided by the consistently poetic (and understandably ubiquitous) librettist Royce Vavrek. The text concerns Reid’s great-grandfather, born in 1915 – an echo, again, of Barber’s Agee setting:
The antiquity of the wooden framework, erected by great- and great-great- uncles in 1910, has been wrapped in a new coat of fire-engine-red paint applied by a band of teenaged grandkids in the spring a century later. It stands like a homemade monolith with an uncanny ability to turn newborns into men, foals into geldings sixteen hands high. Such a magic act could only describe the life of my great-grandfather. He, a man of gentle wisdom and fading memories. He, whose only regret is that he never learned to play “nothin’ but a jew’s harp and spoons.” He who has never left Tennessee, not even by mistake.
Reid handles Vavrek’s lucid, pungent prose with unfailing musicality, her lean orchestra waxing heroic, hortatory, and reflective by turns behind the vocalist Jodie Landau (remember that name), whose sweetly androgynous voice conjured both childlike wonder and a grown woman’s nuanced insights. The result was a triumph: a strong piece I’d eagerly hear again, and a stirring conclusion to a composer portrait that left this listener struggling – paradoxically, maybe, and pleasantly for sure – to grasp and summarize succinctly Reid’s kaleidoscopic style.
An encore followed: Pete Seeger’s wry medley of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and “Goliath, Goliath,” in a puckish arrangement adorned with toy piano. Perfect.