Composer Hugh Levick. Photo from hughlevick.com

Hear Now Festival is all about L.A. composers


Composer Hugh Levick recently recalled a story his father told him about his grandfather, an ironworker in Erie, Pa., who would go home directly after a long day‘s work, close the door to his room and study the Talmud.

In its way, the story is consistent with Levick’s composition “The Messiah,” a world premiere to be featured April 30, the final day of the 2017 Hear Now Music Festival, at the First Lutheran Church of Venice. Unique to the city, the three-day Hear Now Festival is devoted exclusively to new works by Los Angeles composers.

Levick’s contribution is one among several socially and politically leaning works on the Hear Now program, including Ted Hearne’s “By-By Huey“ for sextet, Ian Dicke’s “Latest and Greatest” and the U.S. premiere of Sean Heim’s “Rarrk” for flute, horn, violin, cello and piano.

In Levick’s “Messiah,” cello soloist Cecilia Tsan speaks and acts while playing. It’s the kind of questioning musical exploration his scholarly, blue-collar Lithuanian grandfather might have recognized. In the piece, Tsan appears beside an upright cello case prominently featuring a Star of David, with stickers on each side reading “Immigrant.”

“I wanted a woman messiah,” Levick said, “and I wanted to create a kind of continuity between eyes and ears. Contemporary classical can be a music of dissent and resistance because it can’t be commodified. People write it because they have to. It’s not something that’s going to make anyone wealthy. In that sense, it’s music from the soul.”

Hear Now, which Levick founded in 2011, begins at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena on April 28 and then moves to the First Lutheran Church of Venice for concerts on April 29 and 30.

Levick said the festival vetted some 60-70 submissions in past seasons, but this year 150 scores were submitted, including those from familiar and less-familiar composers like Hearne, Andrew Norman, Gabriel Kahane, David Lefkowitz, Russell Steinberg, David Herztberg, Saad Haddad and Wen Liu.

“This year, we could have programmed two more concerts,” Levick said. “There was such fabulous music. The reason these two other concerts don’t exist is a question of finances.”

That said, Levick looks forward to a Hear Now Festival in Paris in December, and additional Hear Now 2017 concerts on May 5-7 at L.A. City College, Chapman University and CSU Dominguez Hills.

For David Lefkowitz, 53, who chairs the division of composition and theory at UCLA, the festival’s more overtly social-political works share a spirit of questioning, an invaluable aspect of composing itself.

“The idea of questioning is also crucial to Judaism,” said Lefkowitz, whose “Love Fragments” for mezzo, harp and soprano, on the April 29 program, typifies the range of styles and genres found at the Hear Now Festival. “As a composer, I like to present myself with formal challenges.

Lefkowitz said that festivals like Hear Now represent something important happening in the city.

“In the last three to five years, we’ve seen an incredible flowering of organizations devoted to playing new music,” Lefkowitz said. “It used to be New York looking to Europe, and then that shifted to Brooklyn. But the center of energy and vitality for new music in the U.S. is here in Los Angeles.”

At 27, David Hertzberg is one of the youngest composers at the festival. His “Méditation Boréale,” performed by the Lyris String Quartet, also on the April 29 program, unfolds in an uninterrupted 15-minute arc. “I wrote it on a trip to Sweden,” Hertzberg said. “It has an arctic flavor, conjuring a magical northern landscape.”

The composer added that the score is melodic and “sounds like Gregorian chant from another planet.”

Incidentally, in a coincidental meeting of former student and teacher, Hertzberg’s work is featured next to Russell Steinberg’s “Subterranean Dance” for mixed ensemble.

“Russell was my elementary school teacher at the Stephen S. Wise Temple,” Hertzberg said. “He was so generous. I recall he set up a school bus to take me to the Milken School so I could take his music theory class.”

Hertzberg currently is working on “The Wake World,” an opera that grew out of his thinking about the mystical and religious symbols in kabbalah. Commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, it opens in September.

On April 29, Jeffrey Kahane, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s outgoing conductor, will perform his son Gabriel’s “Works on Paper” for solo piano. That concert is billed as a tribute to Kahane, who, like Levick, has championed new music throughout his career.

Hear Now’s panel of judges this year include Levick, who is the festival’s artistic director; Grammy Award-winning pianist Gloria Cheng, the Lyris Quartet (Alyssa Park and Shalini Vijayan, violins; Timothy Loo, cello; Luke Maurer, viola) and composer Jason Heath.

“The pieces are chosen anonymously,” Levick said. “Innovation was an important consideration. What are the compositional elements a composer has decided to work with? If it’s too traditional an approach to melody or harmony, I’m not that interested.”

But he added that there are no hard-and-fast rules.

“Somebody might do something you wouldn’t think could work, but it works,” Levick said. “It’s a question of how a piece unfolds. Something unexpected happens that’s wonderful. That’s what is amazing about art.”

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