Interviews / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra / Music News & Info: Classical

LA Chamber Orchestra’s Margaret Batjer and Andrew Norman talk about music and architecture

chartres-176x300Tonight marks the latest installment in Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s annual “Westside Connections” series of three concerts pairing music with (insert annual topic here) . . . no seriously, the topic changes every year, complete with special guests discussing how the the topic and music mesh.  This year, Margaret Batjer (LACO concertmaster and series curator) has decided to highlight connections between architecture and music.

The first concert at Santa Monica’s Moss Theatre is so popular, it’s already sold out, probably because of the combination of popular guests and an interesting musical program:

Margaret Batjer, host & curator
Frank Gehry, architect
Ara Guzelimian special guest
Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times architecture critic
Jeffrey Kahane, piano
Joanne Pearce Martin, piano
Wade Culbreath, timpani
Ted Atkatz, percussion

BACH, arr. KURTÁG:  Chorale Prelude, “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” (VIII) (“O Lamb of God most holy”)
BACH, arr. KURTÁG:  Sonatina from Actus tragicus, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“God’s time is the best time”), BWV 106
ANDREW NORMAN:  Frank’s House (world premiere)
BARTÓK:  Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937)

Subsequent concerts will be on March 19 (featuring music by Kevin Puts, Donald Crockett, and Brahms, with architect Frederick Fisher as special guest) and April 30 (Christopher Hawthorne returns in a program featuring the West Coast premiere of Gabriel Kahane’s Bradbury Studies and the Schubert Octet in F Major).

I had the chance to speak with Ms. Batjer and Mr. Norman about the Westside Connections series in general, their own views on how music and architecture relate to one another, and Frank’s House, the new work composed by Mr. Norman for this occasion:


Margaret-Batjer-photo-Michael-BurkeCK Dexter Haven: Before we get into this season specifically, let’s talk about Westside Connections in general.

Margaret Batjer: The origin of this series was finding a way to do a chamber music series without doing just another chamber music series. We have tons of them all of over Los Angeles.   And I’ve always been fascinated with the connections between music and other disciplines,  how those two subjects relate, and how people respond to them similarly or not.

I think people have responded so positively to this idea of seeing a piece of music through a different lens. You can listen to music and have an immediate response, but when you’ve had conversations about artistic discipline that has connections to music, you start to see it differently.

CKDH: How do you choose your theme from year to year?

MB: It’s been my greatest challenge and greatest joy. You have some concepts that really take fire – we had enormous success with music and the brain, and I plan on doing it again. I had so many guests that I wanted to bring, but we only had three concerts.

Some are more difficult, for instance music and food. I had fun with programming, but it’s a harder platform for a chef to speak about how music inspires or connects with cuisine

Our main emphasis is always to present great chamber music. Even if there’s only one piece that connects with the concepts, ultimately it’s my job to make a good musical evening

This year, I’m thrilled with this concept – music and architecture – because I feel that there are so many similarities. We always talk about the “architecture of music” or the “arc of a phrase,” so there are a lot of similarities in the visuals and in the organic conception of a building and a piece of music. People can draw their own conclusions, but I can see many similarities.

And every piece programmed this year has specific relationships to architecture. Some of the reason is that we commissioned two works for the series, the others because of how they look on stage or how others, like the Schubert Octet, are about form and structure.

CKDH: In your role as Concertmaster of LACO, you play at five different venues: the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Royce Hall at UCLA, Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, Zipper Hall at The Colburn School in DTLA, and the Moss Theater in Santa Monica. They are all very different venues in size and style. Can you comment a bit about the different designs and textures and visuals, etc. – the“psychoacoustics” as Frank Gehry would call it – of the various halls and how it affects your playing?

MB: Well, all those things matter, and at the center of it all is the sound. Each of the places in which we play have completely different acoustics, and you constantly have to adjust your playing because of it.


Zipper Hall

Personally, I love Zipper Hall. I find the acoustics there to be extraordinary from both a performers standpoint and a listeners standpoint. It’s not perfect for everything – LACO rehearses there, and we’re too big – but for smaller ensembles, it’s wonderful.

The Moss Theater is great for Westside Connections because the shape, a semi-circle, is welcoming and conducive to conversation, whereas Zipper is bigger and you need a microphone, and if you don’t have one you have to speak very loudly. The acoustics of the Moss, especially for a multi-purpose hall, are also wonderful for the audience. Have you heard a concert there before?

CKDH: Yes, and actually, I prefer seeing concerts there than at The Broad (the previous venue for Westside Connections) where I found the high-end – violins, flutes, etc. – would just get muddled and lost.   That said, I did like the architecture.

MB: Well, to your original point, you have to take into account as a performer how a hall makes you feel. With the Alex – it’s this old world, old-fashioned theatre that they just renovated all the backstage. Now that the facilities themselves – the dressing rooms, the walkway, the staircases to the stage – have been redone, it’s much nicer. That also influences how you feel performing in a hall.

Zipper has wonderful facilities, Royce Hall has wonderful facilities. It influences how a performer feels when you’re onstage there. Lighting too. Lots of things the audience probably doesn’t think about help to put you in the frame of mind.

CKDH: In L.A., even the oldest halls aren’t that old. Compare that to Boston or England, where sometimes the music is as old as the hall. Do you ever feel differently playing in those types of venues?

MB: I think so. Carnegie Hall always inspires me. I feel so special when I’m playing there. However, I don’t think I’ve ever been more inspired than I was when I played in La Scala in Milan. Even though it’s an opera house, it’s a dry hall and it’s huge, the history and knowing the great composers who’ve worked there and all the great people who’ve been on that stage – singers, instrumentalists, conductors – is so inspiring. Maybe the acoustics aren’t as perfect or flattering as you’d like, but it gives you something that no other place has given me: the goose bump factor! (laughs)

CKDH: Two people involved in this first Westside Connections concert and LACO have very strong connections of their own to architecture: Andrew Norman, LACO Composer-in-Residence, has written many works influenced by architecture; Christopher Hawthorne is not just Architecture Critic for the Los Angeles Times, he’s married to Rachel Fine, LACO’s Executive Director. How much influence did either Andrew or Christopher have directly or indirectly in your decision to build this season around music and architecture?

MB: Well, you know I’ve been planning architecture for a long time, even before Rachel came to LACO! [she laughs] Of course, Christopher brings many great connections to this world. Usually I have to immerse myself in the topic and do a lot of research to find out who the best people are to talk about the connection between the topic and music. This year, I had Christopher, which made it very easy!

With Andrew, he’s not only my colleague at LACO but he’s also a colleague of mine at USC. I love his music. His musical language is unique, and as a string player, I really relate to his music because he explores palettes of sounds that other composers don’t really do.

When contacting him, I didn’t really think he’d do two piano and percussion. But when he found out I’d programmed the Bartok, he got excited because he hadn’t done a piece with that orchestration. Then when he found out about the chance to interact with Frank Gehry and go to his house and Frank’s willingness to embrace the concept, he’s thrilled.


Andrew-Norman_photo-Timothy-Andres_760x1013CKDH: I know you’ve written pieces about architecture and big Calder sculptures and other such things. What is it about architecture and physical structures that interest you so much?

Andrew Norman: When I was a little kid, I actually wanted to be an architect. In fact, before I wanted to be a musician, that’s what I was always going to do. I’d be drawing structures and imagining buildings. In many ways, I’m a visual person and I’m always coming up with visual metaphors for things. So it’s kind of ironic that now I’m a composer and all I do is think about sound.

Going back to my undergrad at USC, there was a moment that I was having a lot of trouble as a composer. I just didn’t know what to do or how to think about this stuff. I realized that if I thought about architecture as a metaphor for music, it became a way to get back into music. It helped me think about all these things with connections in music – form, direction, surface, patterns – putting those abstract things in terms of architecture made those very abstract things concrete for me. It is a system of metaphors for me of how to explain sound using the same concepts for how people build buildings – I’m not sure if it makes sense to other people, but it makes sense for me.

Then it became this fruitful avenue of exploration: I’d look at a building and imagine what it would sound like if I translated its structural language into musical language. I haven’t done it in a while, but now with Frank’s House, I’m finally returning to it.

lightscreen-180x601I had previously written pieces inspired by a modern, clean Mies von der Rohe building [Farnsworth:  Four Portraits of a House], as well as one inspired by Chartres Cathedral [Sacred Geometry]. I also wrote a piece about my feelings about Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass windows and the patterns [Light Screens]. I did something similar when I was in Rome [The Companion Guide to Rome].

So sometimes I get very “mathy,” and other times I write much more intuitively.

CKDH: In general, how much do you get “mathy” vs. writing intuitively?

AN: Compared to other composers, I actually don’t think I’m that “mathy.” I can certainly go that way and I can get very abstract and interested in proportions when it suits what I want to say or explore in a piece. But generally, it’s not at the forefront of my musical language.

If I can use the proportions of some building to come out with a sound, great – as long as I like the sound that comes out and it’s interesting. But I won’t use it as an excuse to put any old thing on a page. In other words, it’s always a means to an end.

And when I go in that direction, it’s out of a sense of curiosity and exploration. “Oh, what if I took this parameter and mapped it onto another one?” But I don’t think you can usually hear math. Usually we experience a work on an emotional level, and it has to resonate at that level.

CKDH: So you’re willing to take your toolkit, this bag of tricks that you’ve got, but you’re not a slave to one tool or the other. As long as the outcome comes out the way you want. Is that fair?

AN: That’s totally fair. I should add that especially with architecture, it allowed me to develop my own voice and to give myself the sounds that I wouldn’t have gotten to on my own. It took me to a sound world that I hadn’t been to before, which is very exciting. I’m constantly on the look out for sounds that I’ve never heard or used, and this is one way I find them.

CKDH: If you’re writing about a Mies building or the Chartres Cathedral, you’ve got pretty broad tastes in architecture.

AN: I hope! (laughs) For me, it’s about keeping my eyes open. I should also say that I’m drawn to modernist architecture, particularly the stuff from mid-20th-century. It helps me re-engage with musical modernism which, in a way, has always been and is still kind of a scary topic.

New York by GehryCKDH: When did you first meet Frank Gehry?

AN: I’d met him a couple times at Los Angeles Philharmonic events, but I’ve known of his house since I was a teenager, and I’ve always admired his work. I was actually an usher at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion while they were building Walt Disney Concert Hall. So the idea of writing a piece inspired about Frank Gehry, who was kind of my adolescent hero, was totally amazing and an absolutely perfect fit.

I’m actually insanely busy with a lot of commission deadlines, but even though this commission came in kind of late and I had to squish it in, I absolutely had to make room for it because a project like this doesn’t come up every day that is tailor-made to my interests and creative process.

CKDH: Of all active architects these days, he is THE architect when it comes to music. Between Disney Hall, Bard, the Millenium Park Band Shell in Chicago, the New World Center in Florida, he’s it. But you chose to go all the way back to the beginning and write a piece inspired by his house, the building that put him on the map. Why?

AN: First of all, Frank’s house it’s so different than the buildings he creates now. I think of it as the punkier Frank, with the industrial materials and the jagged reconstruction, more in-your-face than the exuberant Bilbaos or Disney Halls. And I wanted to do something based on one of his LA buildings.

As wonderful is Disney Hall is, it’s so big, and I knew I’d be writing chamber music so his house seemed more appropriate.

Then when I met him and got a chance tot talk about his house in his house, it became very clear that a lot of the things this house is about was the same as the stuff that interests me about music.


One of the most important things is that it’s not entirely new structure: he took this 1920’s Dutch Colonial, tore it apart, and put this funky exoskeleton around it.

I’m very interested in the relationship between old and new music, and as it usually happens, my compositions are bumping up against old music on symphony programs. I’m interested in what that means.  So I liked the concept of found music and building a piece around that. I took the four-hand piano music repertoire as a starting point because nothing suggested the familiarity and comfort of 19th Century bourgeois parlor music-making than four-hand piano music of Brahms!

So I took this Brahms four-hand waltz — Frank likes Brahms, so I picked this piece. From there, it became interesting:  now that I’ve got this, what am I going to do with it, and how does it relate to Frank’s House and what he did with it?

With his house, you’re hit with this corrugated metal, which can be a little intimidating and harsh, but you can still see hints of the original bungalow. So that’s what I wanted to do, have this percussive, loud exterior but present hints and snatches of the original work behind that.

My other big idea was to explore sounds on the materials that Frank used. So I went to the Home Depot and picked up some corrugated metal, chain link fence, dowels, and other items to see if I can make music out of it.

We’ll see!


Photo credits:

  • plan view of Chartres Cathedral:  courtesy of
  • Margaret Batjer:  photo by Michael Burke
  • Zipper Hall:  courtesy of
  • Andrew Norman:  courtesy of LACO
  • Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass window:  courtesy of
  • Frank Gehry:  photo by dbox
  • Frank Gehry’s home:  photo by Tim Street-Porter

One thought on “LA Chamber Orchestra’s Margaret Batjer and Andrew Norman talk about music and architecture

  1. Pingback: LA Chamber Orchestra announces 2017/18 season | All is Yar

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