Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

LACO newbie

now i know what an aquaphone is!

May 15, 2011

Last night, I saw and heard a musical instrument I’ve never seen or heard before – an aquaphone (they’re also sometimes called waterphones). Do you know what an aguaphone is? I have a hunch that most of the people in attendance at LACO’s season-ending concert at the Alex Theatre on Saturday night were, like me, aquaphone virgins. But not anymore. Derek Bermel’s Mar de Setembro, which LACO premiered during their Mozart’s Prague concert, made good use of the aquaphone, and they introduced it to the audience in a wonderfully theatrical way. I’m a big-time theater lover, so I loved it, and it even had me wishing for more. Let me tell you all about it.

Before Mar de Setembro began, the lights dimmed until the stage and audience were in complete darkness. Then, a single light came on, illuminating a percussionist, aquaphone in hand. The aquaphone is a funny-lookin’ thing – a circle of pipes, of various heights, attached to a round disc that has a center handle. It kinda looks like the Commissioner’s Trophy, if any of you are MLB fans (I’m actually not, and shocked that I’m using a sports analogy – don’t get used to it, I’ll probably never use one again). The pipes are played with a bow, and the sound that’s produced is positively ethereal and eerie – a cross between the atmospheric noise that they use when people are wandering dark hallways in horror movies and whale calls. Were any of you fans of the TV show Lost? You know how every important mysterious scene on that show ended with a strange, swooping, creepy sound? That’s what the aquaphone sounds like. I wonder if that was a aquaphone that they used on that show – does anybody know? If you weren’t at the concert (or you were, and you want another, closer look), you can check out an aguaphone here.

Anyway, back to the concert. The Bermel piece begins with the stage in darkness, except for the percussionist and his aquaphone, and after some aquaphone music, vocalist Luciana Souza joins in… except she’s not onstage! Huh? She’s somewhere in the ether (or backstage, singing into a microphone, one or the other), and the effect is echo-like and captivating. After the first piece ends, the lights come up, and Souza walks onstage and joins the rest of the musicians for 4 more pieces. My theatrical mind was racing, thinking about more visually interesting ways she could have made her entrance, as the Orchestra had already committed to a certain level of theatricality with this piece… maybe she could have rose out of the floor via trap door? Or descended from the ceiling on a trapeze?

The press materials called Mar de Setembro a “vocal tone poem” – a term that I’m not familiar with – and I’ll be honest and say that I was a tad skeptical, because it sounds like it could be a phrase that’s used with a piece of music isn’t very, well, musical. But I thoroughly enjoyed Mar de Setembro. There were five pieces (songs? poems?), each inspired by a different piece of poetry, and yes, some were more melodic and song-like than others, but they were all unique and original, and Souza’s voice is simply beguiling.

LACO paired Mar de Setembro with two other classic, tried-and-true pieces of music: Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for Violin and Piano, and Mozart’s 38th Symphony. Both were beautifully executed by the talented LACO musicians and I enjoyed listening to both of them at the Alex, but, in comparison to the wholly novel Bermel piece, I’m finding that, to me, they were rather forgettable. Literally. I’m writing this exactly 24 hours after the concert began, and I can’t remember them. I don’t mean that as a criticism, not by any means – I’m certain it’s a result of my ‘newbie’-status, and not a reflection on LACO or the composers at all. Actually, perhaps it’s a compliment to Bermel, Souza, and LACO! After all, they crafted a new concert experience so memorable and terrifically different that these orchestral classics, which have been played and enjoyed the world over for hundreds of years, and superbly played last night, simply paled in comparison! It really is exciting to witness the premiere of a new piece of music. If you weren’t there, you missed out! Don’t fret, though – you have one more chance this season to catch a world premiere at a LACO event – next week is LACO’s Silent Film, and part of the program is a screening of the Walt Disney animated short Trolley Troubles, with LACO premiering Alexander Rannie’s brand-new score. Read more about the Silent Film, including how to buy tickets, here.

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