Ellen Reid and Pekka Kuusisto Curate “Transfixing” Program for LA Phil

I saw a tweet the other day that sparked familiar discourse about the merits and perils of amplifying classical music. People have been experimenting with concert hall acoustics for centuries, so the conversation begs for nuance. In my opinion, the real challenge is not if but when and how to incorporate amplification into a cohesive classical program.

On April 19, 2022, violinist Pekka Kuusisto and composer Ellen Reid took on this challenge in a concert they co-curated for the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series. Featuring live electronics and creative spatial arrangements, the program at Walt Disney Concert Hall was a mix of premieres and contemporary hits, or “delectable bits,” as Reid described them during the pre-concert talk.

In Reid’s Desiderium for solo violin, Kuusisto played percussive double stops, string-crossings, and rapid runs. The quiet parts were so exquisitely gentle that I could feel my ears being recalibrated on the spot. Desiderium is about longing for something lost, and Kuusisto interpreted this with enviable fluidity, his neck strikingly free from the confines of the chin rest.

Ellen Reid--Photo by James Matthew Daniel

Ellen Reid–Photo by James Matthew Daniel

The opening notes of Reid’s Fear | Release made a few people jump and turn their heads. The piece, originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet and recorded for Sono Luminus in surround sound, was performed with two percussionists on either side of the stage and two up in the terrace. Reid creates a sense of hyper-resonance with this piece, invoking triangle hits, chimes, ringing, and buzzing sounds.

During stage changes, Kuusisto and soprano Eliza Bagg improvised as a duo. Using electronic effects, Bagg explored the edges of her voice — vocal fry, sirens, chirp, wails — while Kuusisto spun scenery with his violin. The spelunking, childlike play contrasted the crisp, studious play of Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta, which Bagg performed in the second half. These improvisational interludes were so transfixing and seamlessly integrated into the flow of the program that they left me unprepared for the beginnings of the next two pieces (Hannah Kendall’s Verdala, Reid’s Lumee’s Dream).

KiMani Bridges, 2020 Luna Composition Lab Fellow, wrote The Flower when she was a high school senior. The four movement quartet started slowly (“The Ground”), grew more lively (“The Bud”), and erupted into hand and foot percussion (“The Storm”). When the musicians started clapping, snapping, stomping, and knocking on their instruments, someone in the audience burst out laughing, only to quickly suppress his laughter, then giggle again later on in the piece. The nontraditional use of classical instruments can surprise people who aren’t used to it, and it’s fun to see a young composer like Bridges venture into the territory of extended techniques with such exuberance.

Eliza Bagg--Photo courtesy of the LA Phil

Eliza Bagg–Photo courtesy of the LA Phil

Written and reimagined by Missy Mazzoli for amplified violin, vocals, and electronics, Vespers is a personal favorite of Kuusisto’s — and holy moly is it good! Gone are the days of letting the “electro” in “electroacoustic” take a backseat to the main action, and kudos to the sound engineers who mixed Kuusisto and Bagg’s moving performance. The violin swelled and rocked like a ship at sea, ebbing and flowing above a bed of slowly undulating chords. At times, the violin seemed to dip below the waves, resulting in a more enveloping soundscape, completely distinct from the one that came before. The intricacy of these electroacoustic textures was astounding. When Bagg entered, her tone was smooth ice, crystalline and pure. Have you ever caressed the curves of a melting ice sculpture? It was like that. Meanwhile, Kuusisto’s violin was so saturated in delay effects that it created overlap between that which had already been played and that which was unfolding in real time. Each new bow stroke carried the weight of the past — grief, consequences, the inertia of moving forward.   

A surprising standout of the night was William Kraft’s Encounters I: Soliloquy, which Joseph Pereira, principal timpanist of the LA Phil, performed as a tribute to the late composer, conductor, and longtime LA Phil percussionist who passed away in February. The piece was a virtuosic showcase of percussion magic featuring vibraphone, bongos, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, and tape. Pereira brought it to life with an ASMR-like combination of tapping, sweeping, bowing, scraping, hitting, and scratching, sometimes sustaining a roll with one hand while prepping clamps or adjusting drapery with the other.

Pekka Kuusisto--Photo courtesy of the LA Phil

Pekka Kuusisto–Photo courtesy of the LA Phil

Closing out the program was the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s Shrink, a violin concerto written for Kuusisto and string orchestra. I had listened to the newly-released recording of Shrink that morning and fallen in love with the intense, morphing sequences and subtle strings-against-strings interplay between soloist and orchestra. Unfortunately, the concert hall did not do it justice. The orchestra and soloist blended together, making it difficult to hear the details in Kuusisto’s playing — a shame, given how fastidiously Muhly notates his parts and how dynamic Kuusisto is as a performer. Kuusisto still shone during the cadenza, but the effort visible in his body didn’t match the underwhelming sound that made it to my seat. Did I spoil myself by listening to the recording with headphones on first? Was I spoiled by Kuusisto’s amplified and sonically enveloping performance of Vespers?

If the program were a mixtape, I’d say each track was a banger — definitely would recommend — but note the slight mixing and mastering inconsistencies. Reid and Kuusisto curated an energetic, well-paced, and remarkably cohesive for a program with nine pieces of varying technical needs. Most importantly, the composers and performers had compelling things to express.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.