Having rediscovered Asian fusion cuisine in their recent restaurant review, Georja and Gerald found themselves in Disney Hall on November 9 listening to the fusion of Pacific Rim cultures in the multicultural world of music.
Conducted by Grant Gershon, the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed two new Asian-American works. The first was Lou Harrison's Eastern-influenced anthem La Koro Sutro, written for choir and American Gamelan. The second was the world premiere of Spiral XII, a work by noted Cambodian-born, San Diego-based composer Chinary Ung. Ung's piece features legendary Cambodian dancer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, director and choreographer of the Khmer Arts Ensemble, with a complement of dancers from her troupe. Spiral XII is the third installment of "LA Is the World," a multi-year commissioning project that unites immigrant master musician immigrants, composers, and the Chorale. Gershon is justifiably proud of this program.
Colorful, exotic and evocative, both pieces are marbled with ritual overtones and shades of another era. Ung’s piece incorporates dance, as well. Gershon notes, "This concert is the kind of experience that can only happen in this city. It's essentially a collaboration between our audience and the performers - a literal and metaphorical intersection of LA."
Georja: I suppose I’ve heard gamelan before, just didn’t know the name for it.
Gerald: Gamelan is a collection of tuned chimes, bells, and gongs. I it believe originates from Java. It made its way into American culture in a big way during the Vietnam era, about the time Ravi Shankar was popularizing the sitar over here. American composer Lou Harrison actually manufactured his own version, and his were the actual instruments we heard on Sunday night.
Georja: I was not as drawn to the gamelan music as I was to Ung’s Spiral XII, which was very emotional for me.
Gerald: Gamelan has a repetitive, rhythmic quality that’s both soothing and hypnotic. Gershon commented on the “resonance” of the instruments, and their sound is sweet and mellow. I noticed you were following the lyrics printed in the program.
Georja: Koro Sutro (the Heart Sutra) is an ancient Buddhist text on wisdom. The choir sung in Harrison's translation into Esperanto, the international language that was “invented” in the late 1800s in the hope of uniting the world (and later banned by the Nazis and the Stalinists). I found the English translation metaphysical, even abstract. For example, ‘All the Dharmas have the markings of the voidness; they have no causation, no cessation; neither tainted nor yet spotless; neither lacking nor completed.’
Gerald: All kinds of multiculturalism going on here.
Georja: Now let’s talk about the world premiere of Spiral XII, Space Between Heaven and Earth.
Gerald: The choreographer and lead dancer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro explained to the audience that the piece was inspired by the oppression of the Khmer Rouge, another hark back to the 1970s.
Georja: Yes, and it also was meant to represent the suffering and transcendence of all people. The dancing was done in the classic Khmer traditions of dance and song. She is one of the few artists of her generation to survive that brutal regime. Although both and she and Ung now live in California, she brought the dancers directly from Cambodia. They were beautiful in their simple but colorful costumes of orange, green, purple, and fuschia.
Gerald: Remarkably, all of the dancers were women, yet playing the parts of four ‘good’ women and four ‘evil’ men. Those women-as-men crouched and squatted crudely in gestures that that Cambodians regard as macho and threatening. (Kind of a reverse of the Shakespearean tradition of all the parts being played by men!) Shapiro added in her commentary that the oppressors are just as much victims as the oppressed. Sobering thought, that.
Georja: The music itself was haunting and emotional. It was dissonant and beautiful at the same time. The low, droning sounds reminded me of the music of the Australian didgeridoo. And when the sopranos (guest artists Elissa Johnston and Kathleen Roland) joined with the chorale, it was very angelic. According to the program notes, ‘The deployment of simultaneous extremes of register – deep, growling bass and piquant descant in the piccolo – is a signature of Ung’s style, where sonic reality also contains metaphorical significance.’
Gerald: Gee whiz, Grasshopper! I noticed that Chinary Ung joined the cast onstage for the curtain call. A very distinguished-looking fellow in a tailored Mao suit.
Georja: An aspect of all of Ung’s recent compositions, he says, is the ‘bridging of the spiritual and physical dimensions in order to achieve musical expression that is both personal and communal.’ In 1989 Ung became the first American winner of the international Grawemeyer Award for Music, often called the Nobel Prize of music composition.
Gerald: And we have to mention what a glorious experience it is attending any concert at Disney Hall.
Georja: And how wonderful to round out an emotional week when the whole world seemed to come together over the American Presidential election. Multiculturalism seems the order of the day. Grant Gershon’s timing is once again impeccable!
Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by Steve Cohn except where noted
Los Angeles Master Chorale holiday concerts are coming up: Holiday Wonders: Christmas Around the World will have Saturday matinees on December 6 and 13 at 3:00 p.m., and don’t miss the Messiah Sing-Along on either Sunday, December 7 or Monday, December 15, both at 7:30 p.m.
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Walt Disney Concert Hall
135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
or toll free inside California at
Mon–Fri, 10 am–5 pm