A dark, short pencil mark followed by a train of transparent graphite. A rich bite and lingering flavor. This instrumental airiness, leaving space between attacks fresh and open, began in Angélica Negrón’s work This Person and resurfaced throughout Tuesday night’s first Green Umbrella concert of the year, sponsored by the LA Philharmonic.
The focus of the night, programmed by composer/singer/flutist Nathalie Joachim and composer/singer Pamela Z, fell into the bright and winking portion of the color wheel. Most pieces were clever, but in a bath of sincerity — such as Joachim in Negrón’s This Person leading us giggling through every inflection of such quotidian words like “now, this, very, soon, now, then, maybe,” and Z recounting the inadvertent inhalation of a butterfly in her 1998 work The Schmetterling. “Suite pou Dantan” from Joachim’s album Fanm d’Ayiti left me, as it has before, yearning to stay longer in the sun of her family’s hometown that she portrays so lovingly.
The standout of the program, Nina Shekhar’s Dear Abby rounded out the evening with clear-eyed strength. With the largest ensemble of the evening, and Z and Joachim on main vocals, the piece probes explicitly into the harm of sexist gender expectations found in the long-running advice column “Dear Abby,” the text a personal take on the column by Shekhar herself. Dear Abby’s sung lines, strong and level-headed, are suspended in instrumentals that are sometimes a pastel string wash, and turbulent at others. The constancy of the setting of the text, lines such as “Do you paint your toenails red / with blue and gold sparkles / Do they glow like shimmering stars / polished to catch his eye?” made the words feel willfully ignorant amid the emotionally shifting atmosphere. As we circled back on lines of the text, I began to understand the text repetition in the context of the increasingly turbulent instrumentals as a sort of representation of “a death by a thousand cuts”— the accumulated harm of words.
And nowhere was it more apparent that words are often not “just words” than in Z’s new work for Joachim, Silent H. The work very cleverly processes a recorded interview with Joachim from her time in Eighth Blackbird, snipping individual words and phrases and seeding the individual pitches into the ensemble. Much in the way that Z usually does, the piece is carried by her loving focus on particular sound, her subject this time being Joachim’s endearing, bouncy voice, and her endearing, chatty manner. Words abstracted into pure pitch, into instrumental phrases, surface again joyfully as words from Joachim’s live performance. Z even managed to tap into the taste of Joachim’s flute writing tendencies — especially in an extended piccolo section that felt just so happy to be nimble.
Joachim’s new work for Pamela Z and octet, In Between, paled somewhat in comparison, lacking the same artistic cohesion, perhaps in part due to the mic level on Z being frustratingly low. More essentially, though, there was a shakiness in the bonding of Z’s often arhythmic and chaotic electronics and Joachim’s bright and confident homophony. I wanted to feel the necessity of Z’s electronics and her operatic vocality in the mix with the confident instrumental, and I never quite got it.
By the end of the concert, especially after the catharsis I felt hearing Shekhar’s Dear Abby, I realized that I had been missing contrast to these bright and airy scenes, however unique and various they were. The only other point of contrast was The Pattern by composer/flutist Allison Loggin-Hull, Joachim’s partner in their duo Flutronix. It is a work focused on the dire frustration of Black Americans trying to make lives, unsupported, after the abolition of slavery. Perhaps because of the smiling feeling up to that point in the program, when The Pattern ended, I was surprised. I felt I had just gotten a handle on how the piece was working, the unusual walking bass line, the instability somehow creating stasis, when it evaporated. But maybe dragging it out would have been counterproductive.
I left the hall thinking about why I wanted more heaviness from the concert, wondering if I am conditioned to feel that live concerts need to deliver a certain quota of gut punches to be worth it, or “balanced.” A little masochistic, no?