Thursday, February 16, 2012

Perla in Wonderland - Perla Batalla and Band in Concert with The Eclipse Quartet at the LACMA Bing Theatre February 4, 2012

photo by Claud Mann

There is one thing that I have learned in the few years that I have been writing music reviews. It seems that, the more you like a given performance, the harder it is to express your feelings about it and describe why you liked it so much. When we don't care for something, we can almost always cite specifics; the singing was out of tune, the lyrics were pedestrian and trite, that sort of thing. Well, last week, we attended a performance by Perla Batalla and her band, along with The Eclipse Quartet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theatre as an adjunct to the current exhibit, "In Wonderland : The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States". I now find myself in a state I rarely experience, near speechlessness!!!! I really should end my review there, because I know words will be ineffective to communicate the transcendence and wonder of that evening's performance of old favorite gems and exciting, triumphant, newly-commissioned songs. But, as you all expect, I will persevere and attempt to share my enthusiasm in the simple hope it may spur some to investigate more fully the work of this amazing artist!

My expectations leading up to this concert were sky-high for a whole variety of reasons. First and foremost, we have been Perla fans for more than a decade and have seen many of her performances and always have found them to be pure bliss! Whether its been a night of Perla singing jazz standards or a night featuring her Latin roots or a night of her performing her own work, we have always come away exhilarated and inspired. But of all her many "reinventions", our favorite has always been the work she has cowritten with guitarist/singer/composer David Batteau. They recorded two albums of original compositions awhile back entitled "Mestiza" and "Heaven and Earth" which remain to this day two of my all-time, very favorite CDs. Then, of course, there was the fact that this concert was to be the debut of new collaborations by these two talented songwriters and that these new works were actually commissioned by as prestigious an institution as LACMA! This is nearly unheard of territory for indie singer/songwriters and yet, as amazing as it is, I am thrilled to say Perla and David have been commissioned previously to collaborate. It says a lot in these tough economic times that there are institutions that recognize the significant cultural value in the work of these two talented composers.

These high expectations spurred me to purchase tickets for this show on the very day that Perla first announced it publicly, so we were lucky enough to settle into our front row center seats in the Bing Theatre. This was a lovely, comfortable and classy venue for such a concert and it was filled to capacity, I presume with mainly Perla fans. Projected on a backdrop screen on stage were a series of paintings taken from the exhibition that this concert was associated with, which created an atmosphere of serious culture, but, maybe because it was surrealist art, there was nothing stuffy about the vibe at all (see above photo). Very appropriate to the evening's theme, the first half of the performance was by The Eclipse Quartet, four young female string players who presented two extremely interesting and enjoyable avant-garde modern classical works by two female composers, Meredith Monk and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Classical music criticism is WAY outside my area of any sort of expertise, so suffice it to say that this act was a great opener for Perla and her band in that the music was SO different from what we would hear in the second half, and yet so fitting as surrealism and so conducive to the aura of serious cultural significance that this night held.

After a brief intermission it was on to the main event! Perla took the stage along with the great band she had assembled just for this special evening, Pete Korpela on percussion, Perla's junior high classmate, John Beasley on piano, and, of course, David Batteau on acoustic guitar and vocals. They started out their set with a selection of songs from Perla and David's "Mestiza" collaboration. I now see in hindsight how these songs in particular were chosen for this performance: the themes and emotions they explore would be echoed in the new songs presented later, creating a building atmosphere to showcase the new work. I found it interesting that Perla mentioned that she never thought of her work as surrealism prior to being asked to compose for this exhibit. While I'm not sure I would have previously used that word in describing her work, her lyrics have always had the sort of indefinable but strong imagery that is wholly in the surrelist tradition. And the music that she and David create has always been genre-defying, at once jazzy and folky, Latin and pop, ethereal and straight-ahead. "Don't Say That You Did This To Me" started us out with its dark imagery and insistent melody. Then came "Cine de Llantos" or "Cinema of Tears" whose very title embodies the surrealist theme and I have always loved the jazzy Latin rhythms that propel this song. "Tears of the Sun" offered more poetic abstract imagery and then came one of Perla's tour-de-force vocal numbers, "Iberia", with Perla's vocals soaring high but totally under precise control, delivering the surrealistic imagery of a place where "everything runs backwards". In my mind's eye, I was seeing a Dali timepiece in the glare of a Spanish desert, I guess I really took all this surrealism to heart!

That concluded the "old favorites" portion of the show and I was finally about to hear what I really came for, the newest collaborations in the Batalla/Batteau canon! I think, though I am not certain, that Perla was commissioned to write ONE new song, or maybe a couple to accompany this exhibit. But that isn't the way Ms. Batalla does things! As she is known to do, she totally committed herself to this project, and she and David researched the exhibit and its artists and became captivated and inspired by the art and the love story of renowned artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. On this evening we were treated to five new songs documenting the lives and work of these singular talents. Because I have only heard these songs just the one time, I'm short on musical details to share about them, but they are thoroughly delightful songs that are unlike anything I've heard these two come up with before and yet, totally within the musical traditions they have explored together, also. First was "Mexican in Paris" which was about Diego's years in a Paris full of artistic freedom and experimentation. This delightful waltz was made all the more special by the addition of special guest artist, the legendary Van Dyke Parks on his accordion, "Carmen"! This was an unbilled appearance that not only added to the musical spice, but also made so much sense thematically, given that Mr. Parks has long been acclaimed as a surrealistic lyricist, most notably in his collaboration with Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson on the legendary "Smile" album. Next came a song about Frida's art called "The Great Unreason" followed by a tender love song "Diego Mi Amor" which featured a masterful jazzy solo by pianist John Beasley. Through all these songs, I was so impressed by the other players, most notably David's amazing rhythmic guitar-playing and his understated background vocals, which were a perfect foil for Perla's huge voice and vocal charm. "Tell Me" was next, I jotted a note that it was a broken-hearted love ballad, but, I must confess, all I remember about it was that I loved it! But the finale song to evening, "My Blue House" which was accompanied brilliantly by The Eclipse Quartet, was probably the most memorable of the new songs, a totally charming, almost child-like melody that reminded me of abstract carousel music and turned to a chant-like repetition of "Frida/Vida" that brought the song and the show to rousing and triumphant finish!

Well for the guy who claimed to be near-speechless, I've again, not surprisingly, managed to ramble on and on! But this was such a special, special evening that I just had to do my best to describe the indescribable. Perla has mentioned that she and David hope to add to these songs and maybe even expand them into a musical, which I think is a natural for these songs and subject matter. While that is an exciting prospect, I just can't wait to hear these songs again and again and to be able to own them on CD! But until that happens, you can be sure that I will take EVERY opportunity to visit Perla in Wonderland!

Here is a link to Perla Batalla's website:

And one for the LACMA exhibition this show was part of:

And one for The Eclipse Quartet:

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