Masumi Per Rostad and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra gave the West Coast premiere of a viola concerto that composer Jessie Montgomery wrote for him called "L.E.S. Characters," a piece that illustrates both Masumi and Jessie's shared impressions of their childhood in New York's Lower East Side (aka L.E.S.), back in the '80s and '90s. (Read more about their story in our interview with Masumi.)On April 22 and 23 violist
The characters are colorful, as is the music. Names of the movements read like a list made by an observant set of children, identifying the eccentricities of their neighborhood: The Can Man, The Poet, Mosaic Man, Garbage Art.
The concerto opens with "The Can Man," and at the April 23 performance at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif., the music was full of energy - as well as unusual sounds from the percussion section. I was struck by how many different kinds of percussion instruments can sound "can-ish." The picture certainly came across, of the inspiration for this movement: a man (whose real name is Gene Pool) noisily riding the streets on a unicycle, wearing a suit made of clanking aluminium cans.
The viola is arguably one of the more awkward and unwieldy instruments in the orchestra - but clearly no big deal for Rostad. He is a complete natural with this instrument, playing a flurry of triplets and making the viola seem like the most agile of instruments. (He plays a 1619 Amati.)
The viola has a lower register than the violin and thus does not easily penetrate the sound of the orchestra. At times Montgomery scored the viola part in the higher parts of its register, bringing it almost into violin territory. At other times, the viola, while it was always heard, seemed more like a part of the orchestral texture than the featured instrument.
Thus was the case in "The Poet," a movement that featured more slow and lyrical viola-playing.
The third-movement "Mosaic Man" used bariolage - moving the bow back and forth across all four strings - to create a sparkly texture. "Mosaic Man" is a musical depiction of Jim Power, an artist who created mosaics in neglected spaces across the Lower East Side. A strumming harp and xylophone contributed to an orchestral texture that evoked those mosaic tiles catching the light, with harmonies that to me sounded "wondrous" - like the music that would accompany a movie scene in which children discovered buried treasure.
"The Garbage Man" involved actual garbage cans in the percussion section - it would seem they were rolling objects around inside of them. Masumi told me in our interview that "for this movement, Jessie envisioned an instrument that is basically a whole bunch of garbage thrown into a spinner." The concerto leaves some creative license to the percussionist, as to how to do so. During the movement, the viola played long tones, as if wandering amidst the clangy garbage-can sounds.
Certainly, "L.E.S. Characters" was different from any other viola concerto I've heard, and a joyous and vibrant addition to the viola repertoire.
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