LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight: from Sublime to Ridiculous and Back Again

The International Composers Ensemble performing at Disney Hall at Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Noon to Midnight festival. Photos by Craig T. Mathew/ Mathew Imaging @mathewimaging

Noon to Midnight, the marathon new music festival hosted last Saturday by Los Angeles Philharmonic, was a twelve hour exploration of both musical and physical architecture. Ensembles of varying size and instrumentation took over the entirety of the Disney Hall campus, utilizing not only the building’s interior stages, but also the outdoor amphitheaters tucked behind the building and even the Grand Avenue staircase as performance spaces. The brainchild of composer and LA Phil creative chair John Adams, N2M‘s offerings ranged from the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass to the conceptual gamesmanship of La Monte Young and John Cage (co-presented as part of the Phil’s year-long Fluxus Festival) to compositions from younger composers like Freya Whaley-Cohen and Ellen Reid who are not yet easily pigeon-holed.

With multiple performances being held simultaneously, it was impossible to experience everything. As courses in a buffet, there were a few items that stood out as particularly appealing on the program and you made sure to taste those, while at other times you sampled what was in front of you. Both approaches yielded favorites; the day’s focal point, a separately ticketed concert featuring four world premieres performed by the LA Phil New Music group and conducted by Adams, lived up to its promise. Philip Glass’s Glassworks, one of the few pieces on the bill widely known by virtue of its 1981 recording and performed live by the Monday Evening Concerts group offered the kind of revelations that can only come with a degree of familiarity. My expectations were exceeded by the sets from the USC Percussion Group (who knew that not only can ceramic tile be used as a musical instrument, it even has a form of musical notation?) and the brass band of mainly Philharmonic members playing fanfares conducted for the Phil’s 1969 50th and this year’s centennial anniversaries. The most affecting piece that I heard was Toivo Tulev’s haunting I Heard the Voices of Children, a Philharmonic commission performed by the choral group The Crossing. Combining a text from William Blake with a recitation of the names of children found in a mass grave in Tuam, Ireland.

The various pieces performed under the rubric of Fluxus tended to push the boundaries of what constitutes music. Young’s Piano Piece for David Tutor No. 2 using real Steinway pianos and at least some real pianists–Joanne Pearce Martin would prove her mettle on celesta on Donnacha Dennehy’s Crossing during the portion with Adams–but the work itself was essentially an elaborate pantomime of a traditional piano piece. Fluxus, an experimental movement of the early 1960’s, informed other works that were ostensibly separate from the Festival; The International Contemporary Ensemble’s National Composers Intensive set included Nicholas Morrish’s yokobit, a contemporary and group specific take on one of Fluxus acolyte Yoko Ono’s artistic gambits from 1962.

In all, N2M offered a smorgasbord of musical ideas. Virtually any of the individual performances could have anchored a less ambitious but still worthwhile program; stacked side by side across a 12 hour concert they created a fascinating and at times overwhelming whole. Some pieces were ingeniously clever, others emotionally packed, yet others were essentially intellectual exercises. Unified by the spirit of experimentation that animated each of the compositions, Noon to Midnight expressed the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s continuing commitment to not only presenting new music, but doing so in a way that makes it accessible and inviting to the widest possible audience.

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