Review: Green Umbrella's percussion bash, gripping 'Recital 1'

Colin Currie
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

The L.A. Phil's Joseph Pereira impresses with a new percussion concerto, while Kiera Duffy rivetingly sings Luciano Berio's 'Recital 1 (For Cathy)' in the latest Green Umbrella program.

For the mad month of May, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has embarked on a wildly ambitious, slightly mad operatic mission.

It includes a Walt Disney Concert Hall staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" next week and the world premiere of John Adams' large-scale opera-oratorio, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," at month's end.

The adventure began Tuesday night with a rare and important performance of Luciano Berio's elaborately operatic study in meaningful madness, "Recital 1 (For Cathy)," selected as part of Gustavo Dudamel's only Green Umbrella program this season. Dudamel, however, was nowhere to be seen Tuesday.

His car was in its spot in the Disney lot, but he was perhaps squirreled away in his office burning the midnight oil. Adams' massive score arrived only last week, necessitating the L.A. Phil music director to marshal his time to learn a new 21/2 -hour work. The last-minute replacement was Jeffrey Milarsky, who must have had his own late nights of mad study, with a week's worth for a program that also included the world premiere of a substantial and impressive new percussion concerto by the L.A. Phil's principal timpanist, Joseph Pereira.

It would misrepresent the evening not to note a sense of disappointment that could be felt in the hall. Green Umbrella loyalists are beginning to complain that the series seems to have taken on a lesser priority with the orchestra. Adams himself was to have conducted the previous concert in the new music series, and he, too, needing the time to finish the "Other Mary," was replaced by Milarsky. But then Berio was notorious for missing deadlines. Sadly, the great Italian composer, who died nine years ago, never got around to the L.A. Phil piece he was supposed to write for the opening of Disney Hall (or whenever), or the two operas promised for Los Angeles Opera.

Although "Recital 1 (for Cathy)" was grippingly sung by Kiera Duffy and competently performed by the L.A. Phil New Music Group under Milarsky, it might nonetheless have benefited from more attention and thought. This was the last of a series of pioneering works in extended vocal techniques — and also extended emotional techniques — that Berio wrote for the legendarily versatile soprano Cathy Berberian. Berio, who was married to Berberian from 1950 until their tempestuous breakup in '64, wrote not just for her remarkable multi-octave voice and her stylistic versatility (her repertory ranged from Monteverdi to the Beatles) but also for the complete singer.

"Recital 1" was written in 1972 when Berberian was no longer Berio's wife but still his muse. "Recital 1" is what happens when they dared to look at what that meant.

A singer enters the stage, distractedly singing a Monteverdi madrigal. A harpsichord and chamber ensemble are on hand, but her accompanist is not yet there; the singer hardly notices at first. Her mind flies from one thing to the next. She sings snippets of some 40 different vocal works she knows. She interrupts herself continually in a collage-like stream of consciousness. She is on a personal and musical roller coaster.

A wardrobe mistress comes and goes carrying away items of jewelry and the singer's shoes and, in the end, the singer herself.

Duffy may not have revealed Berberian's great expressive range, but she did have an exciting command of a difficult score. What was off was the amplification, which made the spoken text difficult to understand. What was wrong was a projection of translations of the vocal music, all sung in the original languages (the spoken text is mostly in English). Berio did not intend those words to matter — the selections were not chosen for their textual meaning. He did mean for the spoken text to be understood.

Still, an understated stage direction by James Darrah and Milarsky's careful conducting were effective, as were the actress Madeline Harris, who played the wardrobe mistress-nurse, and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin, who was the colorful accompanist.

The first half of the program was a percussion bash. Pereira's concerto, written for Colin Currie as soloist, is oddly restrained, given that most percussion concertos are instrumental extravaganzas. In the first half, the soloist is restricted to a collection of drums. In the second, he sticks with marimbas, from which Currie got beautifully rich sonorities. The orchestral writing is intriguing, especially when a lively brass theme in the beginning becomes fractured into ghostly string echoes. The carefully constructed half-hour work invites a second hearing.

The program began with the West Coast premiere of "Alloy" for steel drum ensemble by Andy Akiho, who is working on his doctorate at Princeton. It shows in 10 minutes a wonderfully engaging variety of sounds a dozen players can get from Caribbean drums (with the help of found materials, including drums made from satellite dishes). Akiho is a young composer to watch.