Finally, Weirdness

7 January 2014 in Music

It was the weirdest concert I’ve been to since moving to Los Angeles eight months ago, and for that I was delighted. I had no idea what to expect; I’d never heard of Chris Newman, and it seemed odd that the Monday Evening Concerts (known for adventurous, contemporary programs) had paired him up with Beethoven. Good old-fashioned Beethoven.

The first piece on the program proved to be the thread: the piano part of Newman’s Weird Words in a Language which we Understand takes (according to Newman’s own program note) “a diagonal single line through Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” The familiar eighth-note motive—fate rapping on a door—here abstracts and exhausts itself. As the pianist knocks around (first suggesting this key, then hinting at another), the cello and violin slide up and down their fingerboards, howling, whining, and crying their way to the end. The irrational portamenti persist to the point of seeming rational. The performance was unyielding and heartless, as if to say, “there is nothing beautiful here.” I couldn’t help but consider, in comparison, the borrowing of the same motive in the third movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, “The Alcotts.” Beethoven in Ives sounds like grandpa on the front step smoking his pipe; Beethoven in Newman sounds like grandpa escaping the psychiatric ward.

Beethoven’s string quartet, op. 95 was played with true Sturm und Drang by four Los Angeles musicians. The gestures, so black and white, revealed the marvelous acoustics of Zipper Concert Hall: fortissimo chords resounded fully—and bowed out gracefully—in the chiseled spaces between phrases. Unlike halls that sparkle passively the moment you walk into them, Zipper shows its fine-tuned teeth only if you throw some meaty music at it. It’s a room I’d like to hear more of.

The quartet convincingly captured the Heathcliff and Cathy dynamism of the music, but I overheard murmurings at intermission that faulted the interpretation as “forced.” “A little comedia dell’arte.” “Overcooked.” “Not free.” I wondered what, exactly, were these listeners after: mess? Spontaneity? The appearance of ease rather than focused intensity? I appreciated the quartet’s carefully measured performance; it was like Beethoven in deliberately applied, high-contrast makeup. I tend to think the improvisatory style works best in Beethoven’s late works. The Hammerklavier sonata, for example, is superscript sublime when I’m deceived into thinking it’s a jazz musician’s extended break.

The true highlight of the evening was Newman’s song cycle Sad Secrets. I was reminded in alternating and equal doses of Schubert’s Die Winterreise and a Christmas party I attended as a little girl where, on discovering a piano in the corner of the room, a group of us decided to put on a concert for our parents. We worked it out in hushed whispers; I would be the third to play. When our parents finally took their seats, the first girl went to the piano, scooched her way to middle C, and began to … pound out notes. She had no idea what she was doing. As she took a bow, the adults applauded, nervously eyeing each other. The next girl showcased talents much like the first. I could tell the parents were going to shut us down!

Last night I kept waiting—nervously—for someone to shut Chris Newman down. Newman shout-sings, teasing lyrics from the depth of his belly and sending them out his throat, like Tom Waits before he got so polite. It’s a bracing effect. Over the course of more than a dozen songs, however, Newman whistled and hummed and dipped into falsetto in striking and poignant contrast to the abrasive shout-singing. The texts of Sad Secrets are simple and wry, like nursery school observations, and incredible as it sounds, breakfast, the moss, flowers, and learning begin to add up to some almost-profound philosophy. Newman’s physical demeanor suggests that of a child in an adult’s body, but as the songs progressed, he demonstrated that he was no inept child. He became a muse, a sage, a mad old man out having fun on a winter’s evening. He was every bit Schubert’s wanderer.

Sad Secrets is art song for the twenty-first century. The piano part holds the loose ends together, supporting the falsetto voice, in particular, with just the right combination of consonant harmonies. The vocal performance was haphazard and slightly ugly, but it was also honest and strangely touching. No shut down was required.

At that Christmas party long ago, I took my place on the piano bench before anyone could put an end to our concert and dashed my way through “Frosty the Snowman,” which I’d learned for my piano recital earlier that month. I redeemed my girlfriends’ performances. What I wouldn’t give to go back, though, and listen to them noisily splashing about. Had Chris Newman been there, he would have laughed, delighted.